Lava Sledding Erupts Again
A modern speed demon breathes new life into an ancient Hawaiian sport
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FOR A 2,000-YEAR-OLD pastime, he’e holua, or Hawaiian sledding, looks a lot like the latest X Games stunt. “We’ve gotten up to 50 miles per hour,” says Tom “Pohaku” Stone, 52, a cultural-studies lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an expert sledder. “At that speed, it’s pretty horrendous if you eat it.”
Stone should know. In 2001, he tore an 18-inch gash in his left thigh when he ran over a buried fence post on a hill above Hana, Maui. A native Hawaiian raised on the Big Island, Stone grew up surfing North Shore waves and listening to his grandfather recount legends of Hawaiians riding mountainsides on wooden sleds. As he freely admits, he spent his teens and twenties on the wrong kind of wild ride: using and dealing cocaine, and serving time in jail for burglary and attempted murder, before cleaning up for good in 1978. In 1994, Stone started researching the techniques and origins of he’e holua for a class at a community college, and later went on to write a master’s thesis on the tradition. He’s since taught some 250 people to ride, as well as to craft the 50-pound, 12-foot-long sleds—whose main feature is a pair of 12-foot-long runners made of Hawaiian hardwoods like ohia.
Like his ancestors, Stone rips face first down grassy slopes or tracks built with rock foundations and covered with soil, grass, and leaves. He’s restored one 700-foot relic run and uncovered more than 50, including a monster on the western shore of Hawaii that was once 60 feet wide and 5,200 feet long.
“Getting in touch with your history by dropping off a mountain—that’s a rush,” says Clifford “Pake” Ah Mow, 38, a Waikiki-based lifeguard and one of dozens of former Stone pupils who regularly sled the pastures above Hilo. “You hang on, and once you start you can’t stop.”
To attract more people to the sport, Stone is negotiating with the Hawaiian Longboard Federation and energy-drink maker Red Bull to secure sponsorship for a traditional contest that pits a sledder against a surfer. As a large wave approaches the shore, the two take off in a race for the beach. “It will be just as it once was,” says Stone. “Surfing a big wave and riding a big mountain, together as one act of extremes.”