(Content warning: accidental death)
Ryan was one of those friends who I saw only a few times a year, but who had an outsized impact on my life. He would fly every July from his native Hawaii to Kansas City, Missouri, where we would spend a week geeking out about old Apple II computers at the annual convention KansasFest. Twice, Ryan made a circuitous route to first visit me in Massachusetts, where we’d attend the Vintage Computer Festival or explore Boston by way of Duck Tours, before embarking together to KansasFest.
Ryan was the editor-in-chief of Juiced.GS, and he recruited me as his associate editor. We worked closely together to publish this quarterly print magazine, though our editorial philosophies often clashed. Nonetheless, our collaboration led to me pursuing a master’s degree in publishing, getting hired at Computerworld magazine, and eventually succeeding Ryan as Juiced.GS editor — a position I hold to this day.
Whether we were trading editorial notes or floppy disks, I enjoyed Ryan’s company, his wicked sense of humor — and especially his compassion: when asked what his life priorities were, he ranked his own happiness below other people’s.
Ryan’s dad passed away in 2003 from a heart attacked caused by undiagnosed diabetes, prompting Ryan to get tested and discover that he too was diabetic. He saw this as his father’s last gift to him: the knowledge to avoid a similar fate. Over the next decade, Ryan transformed himself from an overweight nerd to an athletically fit nerd who cycled, hiked, and played basketball.
As part of that regimen, on Easter Sunday 2011, Ryan and some friends were hiking Oahu’s Olomana Trail, a challenging out-and-back climb that consists of three peaks. At some point after the second peak, Ryan’s leg began bothering him, so he stayed behind his friends continued to the third peak.
When the rest of their party made their way back to Ryan, he was gone. We’ll never know how it happened, but Ryan had suffered a fatal fall off the edge of the trail. He was 44 years old.
I never got to visit Ryan in Hawaii — but on my sabbatical, sandwiched between a week on Maui and a flight to Sydney, was a single day on Oahu. The only thing I wanted to do that day was hike the Olomana Trail.
When I arrived at the trailhead, I was met by an ominous sign chronicling the deaths that had occurred on the trail. All six had occurred after the first peak; four, including Ryan’s, were after the second peak.
As I checked my gear and my grit to ensure I was ready for this challenge, two other hikers approached. Patrick and Gabrielle were visiting from Chicago and had wanted to hike this trail — though they too were alarmed by the signage. I nervously blurted out that the first recorded death was my friend Ryan’s, and I was doing the hike in memory of him, and given the inherent risks, could I please hike with them? They gladly welcomed me into their party.
A recent rain had left the trail muddy and slippery; I was already in mind of what happened to Ryan when this additional hazard had me considering turning around. But we pressed on, and as we gained altitude, the slipperiness dissipated, only to be replaced by new challenges.
Several spots on the route were steep enough that ropes had been secured to help hikers pull themselves up. Knots in the rope took the place of natural handholds and footholds, of which there were few. I’d never been on a trail that demanded this much upper-body strength; had I not been rappelling just the day before, I might’ve lacked the confidence to navigate these obstacles. But that experience, as well as Patrick and Gabrielle’s company, gave me courage.
As we neared the peak, we encountered another group of hikers — three young women from across the globe, from Canada to Indiana to Chile, who had met just that week in a local hostel and banded together to tackle the Olomana Trail. We’d caught up to them at a natural bottleneck: a nearly vertical ascent of about twenty feet, equipped with four ropes. Two of the women pulled themselves up, followed by Patrick, leaving me, Gabrielle, and Elizabeth from Toronto at the base. “I’ll go if you go,” I offered Gabrielle, though she didn’t seem convinced. But knowing I now had hikers both in front of and behind me, I took hold of the ropes and, with Gabrielle pointing out footholds I’d overlooked, I made my way up.
I thought I’d crest the ridge to find myself atop Olomana’s first peak — but there was still a ways to go. The trail became even narrower, with dropoffs on either side. At one point, I was literally hugging a cliff face, inching along, when my phone rang. Ryan was a prolific Twitter user, and some of us had morbidly joked that he’d been distractedly tweeting when he fell. Despite that, I took the call — only to find myself being solicited for a non-profit. I hung up and resumed my precarious climb, eventually reuniting with Patrick. We were admiring the view when we turned around and were surprised to find Gabrielle had joined us. “I didn’t think you were coming!” said Patrick. “I didn’t think so, either,” laughed Gabrielle. Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator.
Eventually, we decided we’d gone far enough — not quite to the first peak, but close. The views were spectacular; and, most important, none of the six fatalities had occurred within this stretch. We turned around while it was still safe.
As we descended, we attracted two more hikers to our company: Richard and Andrea, visiting from Vancouver. We all talked about what had made us want to hike the Olomana Trail. When Richard asked how I’d found out about it in the first place, I blithely said that my friend Ryan used to hike it. “How far would he go?” Richard asked. I left it at “Almost to the third peak.”
Many hours and ropes later, as we neared the trailhead, Elizabeth was reminded of the sign that had greeted us all that morning. At this point, it seemed safe for me to confess that my friend Ryan was the first fatality on the list, and I was doing the hike in his memory. I then apologized to Patrick and Gabrielle for my lack of discretion earlier that morning, having scared them before they’d even set foot on the trail. “No way,” Gabrielle said. “That sign would’ve scared us anyway — but knowing that you knew someone who’d died here and were still doing the hike? I figured, if you can do it, so can we.”
My fellow hikers’ company had made me braver on a day I needed to be. I hadn’t considered that I’d been giving back: just as they were helping me up the mountain, I was pulling them up, too.
For some of us, the adventure didn’t end when we stepped off the trail: awaiting Patrick and Gabrielle was the unpleasant discovery that, while they were risking life and limb climbing to the first peak of Olomana, their rental car had been towed. I stayed with them while they figured out where it had gone, then gave them a lift in my own rental car, staying with them until I was sure they weren’t stranded and were able to fully recover their lost property. They both were concerned I was giving up too much of my one day in Oahu to help them — but what I was doing was a continuation of honoring Ryan. As a social worker, he’d always put other people ahead of himself, and making sure these hikers found their way home is exactly what he would’ve done.
Giving my new friends a ride was also easy compared to what we’d already tackled together. I may be an experienced hiker, but my trails have never been too difficult; from New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock to even the Grand Canyon, the only risk to my wellbeing was a lack of water or stamina. By contrast, the Olomana Trail was the most physically and mentally demanding hike I’ve ever attempted. It gave Ryan’s accident a context I’d previously lacked, and while it doesn’t make what happened okay, I now have a better understanding of how it happened.
Throughout the day, I’d been nonchalant about Ryan’s accident; that’s how I sometimes am when processing a tragedy and am scared of my own feelings. But all that bluster doesn’t change what’s inside or its need to come out, and later that day, when the tears eventually came, they were swift and fierce, to the point I had to pull the car over to the side of the road.
Healing isn’t linear. Sometimes we’re okay, and then, a dozen years and five thousand miles later, we’re not. Though we may carry wounds and memories from those who have gone before, we also carry the strength given to us by others, whether they are friends long gone or friends newly found. When we acknowledge and honor those gifts, it brings us closer to each other and moves us forward along the trail to where we next need to be.
Donations in Ryan’s memory may be made to the Ryan Suenaga Scholarship Fund at Kapiolani Community College, which helps students pursuing degrees in social work.
3 Replies to “Honoring Ryan on the Olomana Trail”
I’m not crying… Beautiful story Ken. You are a great writer. I enjoy reading about your adventures.
Crikey! That was not the sort of trail I had imagined.
You have filled in a few of the questions I have had ever since his death. I’m rather relieved that you didn’t go as far as he did. I wouldn’t want to lose another friend there.