I Climbed Los Angeles

One small step for our stair-obsessed man, one giant leap for fitness freaks everywhere.

A journey of 5,000 steps, it turns out, begins with a single staircase. I'd noticed that flight years before, jutting 218 steps up from Sunset Boulevard, two blocks from my house near downtown Los Angeles. It first drew my attention more as a cultural artifact than the beginning of an exploration–never mind an obsession. In 1932, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy won an Academy Award for a film called The Music Box, whose primary scene took place on the steps (you remember it; they're trying to haul a piano, and it keeps sliding down). But last year, as I was lacing my boots, racing against the setting sun for a walk in the Angeles National Forest, 20 miles north–I was training for an autumn climb of Mt. Whitney–the historic incline suddenly suggested a more immediate use: I knew of at least four or five other long staircases in my hilly community. There were probably more I wasn't aware of. "All these steps," I thought, "could add up to a mountain."

Geography is on your side if you want to become a Los Angeles stair climber. My neighborhood, Silverlake, and the adjacent one, Echo Park–we're just a little bit west of downtown and Dodger Stadium–are conglomerations of terraced houses and winding streets along a series of rolling hillsides. None are higher than 800 feet, but most are steep: The five most sharply inclined streets in the city separate the two communities, built on famously shaky terrain thrust upward by an ancient fault line that passes directly underneath the schools, houses, and shops. These are some of the city's oldest neighborhoods, as well; the stairways are artifacts of a century-old transportation system that relied almost exclusively on foot, horse, or trolley traffic. At one point, there were dozens and dozens of these ascending sidewalks. "Real estate developers built the stairs," says Jesus Sanchez, who leads tours of the area for a local historical society, "because they needed a way for people to get to the houses being sold above."

Many of the staircases gave way to a newer, more modern city, and those that are left are considered quaint antiquities. My realization that these steps could actually help my training–I could walk at night or during lunch hour, and I wouldn't be polluting by driving to the woods–was tempered by an awareness that nobody really knew where most of the stairs were. A few were listed in walking guides, but there was no master tally of staircases in my part (or any part) of Los Angeles. I opened up my Thomas Guide, a 500-page, grid-by-grid deconstruction of America's most sprawling city. My neighborhood fit neatly onto one page; Echo Park tucked into the next. I grabbed a highlighter and made a small mark on the Music Box Steps. And I began to wonder: How many more staircases could be hidden in these 25 square miles of asphalt and hillside?

At that point, I had no idea that I'd spend the next year, 3 or 4 days a week, searching for stairs. I had no idea that finding one flight of steps would always make me hungry to find another, or that this little project would very soon mutate into an oddly epic quest. But I did have the notion that led to the rest: I was going to find every staircase. I was going to climb each one.

There are big staircases–and big staircase aficionados–all over the world. In San Francisco, where the terrain is even more vertiginous than Los Angeles, walkers have made a formal sport of traipsing the city's various ascending pathways (there are hundreds, spread over 42 distinct hills). Some cities have famous single staircases, long enough for serious climbing: Toronto's CN Tower boasts the world's longest indoor stairs, stretching 112 stories over 1,776 steps (average climb time is 30 minutes, but the record is 7 minutes, 52 seconds, set in 1989 by Brendan Keenoy). One of the most grueling outdoor staircase sets in the country rises from the foot of Niagara Falls to the top of that gorge; New York Governor George Pataki recently announced a program to refurbish the steps, in part because of their recreational value. In flatter cities, staircases are often the end point for runners and walkers–Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky Stairs," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are now part of the city's standard walking itinerary; slightly less popular are the 75 steps off M Street in Washington, DC, that were featured in The Exorcist. Georgetown University's varsity athletes consider the five-story ascent an essential test of fitness. One of the world's most famous staircases, twisting inside New York's Statue of Liberty, has been closed for security concerns, though officials recently announced that at least part of the structure's internal ascent would be reopened this year.

The stairs of Los Angeles, by comparison, are relative unknowns. Even people living within a few hundred feet of staircases five times higher than the Georgetown steps often don't know they exist. My strategy for finding these often concealed stairs, then, was fairly simple: start with the Music Box Steps, and spread out, exploring the neighborhood and adding more staircases. At first, all I really wanted was something I could do in an hour or so that would make me feel like I'd actually climbed a bit.

In other words, I hadn't yet gone nuts–though there were a few signs of impending fixation. I began by inventing some rules and methodology. Staircases could be searched for only on foot. No driving. My initial method for finding stairs involved looking at the Thomas Guide for "interrupted" roads. My own street, Occidental Boulevard, was one; it extended several blocks on the map, and then stopped, continuing a few blocks later. I found that if the "missing" sections corresponded with a hillside, there was a good chance a staircase would be there (though such clever sleuthing actually stalled my discovery of quite a few staircases since some of the streets on the maps turned out to be stairs–listed that way because municipal regulations from the pre-automotive days required it). A complex mapping process came next. I photocopied the map pages I'd be exploring and assembled them into a booklet, marked with different highlighters: yellow for a possible staircase, green for stairs that I'd confirmed, and red for steps that I suspected, but which turned out to be dead ends.

My first hike was an unqualified success. I left my house on a weekday afternoon and headed up the Music Box Steps. I curved around a potholed street to my first possible staircase–and found one, leading down to Sunset Boulevard. I turned west, and almost immediately came upon an even longer flight–nearly 200 steps–that not only climbed the hill I'd just descended, but crossed the street and extended even higher. I walked up and down each block, marking stairs I discovered and ones that never materialized. At the end of day one, I'd covered about 7 miles, finding a half-dozen stairways.

After eight or nine hikes, I'd come up with a short, challenging route: a dozen staircases, a total of 2,106 steps (climbing and descending). But it wasn't just the heart-thumping circuit that I was proud of: It was also the sense of discovery–and the idea that there were more mysteries out there and that I would unravel them. So naturally, I refined my rules: Walks would ideally be loops, with no doubling back on streets, and–this suddenly seemed essential–no repeating a staircase. In order to experience each staircase up and down, I'd simply alternate the direction of the loop.

I couldn't stop thinking about stairs. I was so preoccupied that I began to rework my normal exercise routine, which had consisted mostly of mountain biking and hiking in the hills north of the city. Sometimes, at night, I'd have dinner at a coffee shop, where I'd pore over maps with five or six highlighting pens. (I even developed a taste for a particular brand of highlighter–the kind with the retractable tip, which was ideal for quick markups while on the move.) At some point, I started downloading and annotating satellite photographs, too–the more detail, the better.

My definition, after the fact, of "obsession" is something that takes over your life without you knowing it. But there was a fringe benefit to my unwitting transformation; though my mostly male mountain-biking buddies didn't quite get my stair climbing, my women friends nearly universally understood and offered to join me. Apparently, there is nothing better for crafting a shapely butt than walking thousands of steps. "I just never knew anyone crazy enough to find them all," said my friend Deborah Stern, who began to join me several times a week (she even knew of a few flights I hadn't discovered).

My female climbing companions were more oriented toward practicalities:Would we be gone an hour? Did they need running shoes or hiking boots? Could they bring a dog? By contrast, I was getting downright analytical–I was thinking about data. My charts, though they listed stair locations, were missing quantifiable information. That was about to change.

Deborah and I were standing at the top of the stairs I'd named "Landa II" (they were the second interruption of a street by the same name). Below, I could see the sparkling Silver Lake Reservoir; in the distance, the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles thrust out into a blue, cloudless sky. I had an altimeter watch, but it wasn't able to track cumulative elevation changes. I'd tried to use online maps to estimate distance, but they're not really oriented toward people traveling on foot. (I couldn't even keep count of the stairs I was climbing–I'd always have to start over. I ended up convincing a bookkeeper friend to come along with me to take an official census.)

Staring at the skyline, I realized I needed a better tool.

"What if I got a GPS unit?" I asked Deborah. "Then we could map every staircase. We'd have statistics!"

Deborah nodded blankly. But I was excited; I had figured out how to make the quest bigger and better.

The odd thing is that, as a bike rider, I've never been interested in measuring anything. I rarely carry a computer or a heart rate monitor. I don't log my rides. But for the stairs, I got elaborate pretty fast: I wanted to mark waypoints at the beginning and end of every staircase. I'd record upper and lower elevations. At home, I'd download the hikes onto topographic maps and satellite images. I came up with a spreadsheet that listed every single staircase I traveled, complete with geographic coordinates.

Sure, I had stepped over the edge. Maybe it was because the walks were so local–I wanted to turn them into adventures. But I don't think that's entirely it. Since I was living inside the growing obsession, I couldn't exactly explain the specifics. But I know a bit about single-minded pursuits; my dad is one of the world's top birdwatchers, having seen more than 7,000 species, something only a dozen or so other folks have done. But his compulsion, like mine, isn't just defined by focus on a specific activity. The heart of the chase is revealed when you see how many facets the activity can be broken into. Dad lists birds by year, country, and genus; he lists birds in his backyard, on his street, by specific days and times of year.

My first GPS-aided stair climb was a big success. The hike yielded 2,175 feet of elevation gain in 5.6 miles. It climbed and descended 1,678 stairs, along a total of 14 staircases. It took exactly 72 minutes. Except for the short stretch between my house and the Music Box Steps, I never repeated a single staircase or street.

It was time to move on to the next neighborhood. Echo Park is one of the loveliest communities in Los Angeles. Craftsman-style houses–most built from kits in the early 20th century–dot streets narrower than modern codes allow, and there's a charming idiosyncrasy that, in this most suburban American metropolis, seems positively anti-development. The neighborhood undulates along three hillsides, finally ending in a steep palisade overlooking the Los Angeles River and I-5, the state's major north-south freeway.

Both Echo Park and Silverlake are oddball communities, filled with artists and musicians, movie industry folk and writers, along with large Hispanic and gay populations. The neighborhoods literally stratify economically–the higher you go uphill, the higher the cost of entry. Silverlake is more gentrified than Echo Park; the latter community retains the avant-garde touches that earned it the nickname "Red Valley" in the 1930s.

Finding stairs in Echo Park required a refinement of skills I'd developed in Silverlake. I knew less about the neighborhood, and there were more places to walk, with steeper hills. The staircases were more eclectic as well. Some wound through what was almost urban woodland; a series of steps in an area called Fellowship Parkway practically cut through backyards, passing tiny, crackerbox houses. (One resident told me that living on stairs, instead of a street, was like "living in the country in more ways than one." He meant that regular city services, like garbage collection, were more difficult–you had to cart your own trash up and down the flights; parking, carrying groceries up, and especially moving furniture all presented logistical challenges to what he called the "stairway lifestyle.") I learned that Fellowship Parkway was originally settled as a summer retreat for bohemians and free thinkers–in the cooler hills, 700 feet above and 2 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

This was getting to be more like hiking than I had imagined. But instead of looking for birds and animals and flowers, I learned about houses and streets and neighborhood legends. One house, I discovered, had been moved here from downtown in the 1940s–cut into pieces and rolled on telephone poles. Some stairs were extinct; they'd been made of wood and rotted away, not to be replaced. There were spots where I could view the snowy San Gabriel Mountains in the wintertime and the Hollywood sign on clear days.

I found another cinematically notable staircase, one that had been featured in a Three Stooges rip-off of the Laurel and Hardy piano scene. I even helped a friend find an apartment, noting "for rent" signs as I passed. I began to engage in a sort of natural history study on some of the houses I saw. Which had their original oak siding? Which had been stuccoed? Why did one family have a trio of pet rabbits hopping in their yard? Didn't they know that coyotes prowled the area? (I did because I'd seen them on night hikes nearby.)

As my database grew, nothing tweaked me more than encountering closed stairs–public thoroughfares that were chained off. I found three shackled flights and spent considerable time finding out why. Two had been earthquake-damaged; another had been shut years before because it had been used as a drug hangout. That I couldn't somehow include these stairs haunted me–but every time I pressed city officials to let me walk them, I was met with indifference.

After a few months, I'd fine-tuned my stair-finding technique: At the top of every staircase or hill, I'd do a methodical, 360-degree scan of the horizon, often seeing tiny hints of flights poking out amid trees or alongside houses. My Echo Park list grew beyond 30 stairways, but I was missing something: an elegant way to connect the two neighborhoods. A major avenue–Alvarado Street, part of the old Route 66–cut between Silverlake and Echo Park. It was eight lanes of rush-hour madness. I'd found one overpass, but it meant walking a mile without a staircase.

On a Saturday morning, I was walking up Baxter Street, a road I'd begun to see as the backbone of the two neighborhoods. It stretched, with frequent interruptions for staircases, from Silverlake all the way through Echo Park, finally ending in the highest, longest stair climb in either neighborhood, a twisting 260 steps, and ending with an astonishing overlook toward East Los Angeles, with train yards and freeways and checkerboard communities and millions and millions of cars. When I reached the top of that staircase, I turned around and off in the distance, I saw it. There, nosing out from dense foliage, was a series of stairs. I traced it with my eyes, down the hill–it descended right toward Silverlake and almost reached Alvarado Street.
On my notepad, I wrote: "THE MOTHER STAIRS."

They were even better than that.

The Loma Vista stairs were nirvana. It was the only staircase that encompassed an entire hill–going up, then over. Gaining 150 feet in each direction, the stairs stretched near a half-mile and were lined with a wonderland of tiny cottages, corrugated fences painted with graffiti, and thick foliage–agave, lemon trees, and cacti. (My love for the Loma Vista stairs is so great that I put in a bid on a small, maroon bungalow near the eastern end; but the price got too high too fast.) Even better, a pair of equally impressive staircases paralleled Loma Vista–so I could walk up one, cross Loma Vista, and then cross back on the third, keeping my "no repeats" rule intact.

I'd connected Silverlake and Echo Park. I was now certain I knew every staircase in the two neighborhoods–nearly 50. I had them logged on spreadsheets. I had them charted on topo maps. I had satellite photographs with GPS coordinates superimposed. All that was left was to link the two hikes into one.

I met Deborah at 6 o'clock the following Monday morning. I had a pair of clipboards. The one I handed Deborah was divided into grids; there were sections marked for the stair's name; cross streets; number of steps; GPS waypoints; and upper and lower elevations. My clipboard was all maps–by now, I'd bought a software version of the Thomas Guide that allowed me to print much more detailed charts of this urban wilderness. I'd outlined a tentative route; we'd start with the first half of Silverlake–the Music Box Steps had to be first, of course–and then swing into Echo Park, walking over my recently discovered trio of "mother stairs," traversing that neighborhood, and then completing the hike back into Silverlake.

Along the way, we saw faded signs pleading for the return of lost pets. We found a wooded trail leading up to a water tank. We passed yards filled with junk, mysteriously boarded up buildings, and tiny stairways scented with jasmine and eucalyptus. By now, I was a pretty familiar sight to some of the folks living on the stairs, and they waved as we passed. (Many neighborhood residents asked what I was doing with the clipboard and GPS; when I told them, they universally asked me to e-mail my results. The local historical society also contacted me. I've submitted an official stairway map to them.)

In the end, we hiked 19.1 miles. That included 4,978 steps, with 3,800 feet of elevation gain. I'd almost forgotten Mt. Whitney, but my planned route–up the steep eastern face of the 14,495-foot peak–was just as impressive, at least statistically: It covered fewer miles and gained 2,000 more feet. Yes, Whitney had the risk of avalanche or hypoxia. But it didn't have barking dogs or Alvarado Street.

Still, when I returned from the Sierra, I was more excited to hike the stairs again than I was about the mountaineering trip (it went fine, thanks). Deborah and I had made a few wrong turns–making the route slightly impure. I wanted to do it again, this time without any mistakes. That would make my satellite map look neat and perfect.

But it wasn't just the need to hone the trivialities I'd collected. There was something more. Whitney, of course, was beautiful and rugged with plenty of solitude and difficulty. Stair climbing offered something different. The knowledge I was seeking was something shared with a community. I was hiking on rustic, urban, public thoroughfares. I was never alone. I was accompanied by folks who drove every street I crossed, lived in every house I passed. If the intimacy of Mt. Whitney was celestial, my relationship with the stairs was more personal, warmer. More like family.

The next Saturday, I began my wrap-up walk.

But something funny happened.

As I headed down a flight of stairs toward Alvarado Street–approaching the Loma Vista mother stairs–I glanced north. Alvarado extends just a little bit, then rises into a freeway on-ramp, becoming the Glendale Freeway, which eventually turns into the Angeles Crest Highway, the main route into the region's backcountry areas.

But I wasn't thinking about the woods. I was thinking about what I saw, at the top of Alvarado. It was hidden partially by the concrete ramp–but it was there: another flight of stairs. Climbing in a direction I'd never explored. I thought about my task for the day–making that clean route for my GPS mapping. I thought about it for 5 seconds. Then I started toward the new stairs.

Stair Climbing Technology For Obsessive-Compulsives

I used two GPS systems to record my routes. The cell-phone-size Garmin Geko 201 (www.garmin.com; $150) was usually strapped to my arm with an optional Walkman-style band. I used it to record waypoints, elevation, and total distance. Then, to extrapolate on that information, I uploaded my routes to an online fitness program called Endless Pursuit (www.endlesspursuit.com). The service sells an enhanced GPS package, featuring the Geko, along with the armband, bike mounts, and a computer interface cable, for $300. The package includes lifetime access to the service's fantastic mapping and metrics–you can upload your treks, get more than 50 information variables (I found the stats and graphs for total altitude gain/loss most useful)–as well as workout tracking and scheduling.

Though Endless Pursuit offers satellite and topographic mapping, the function proved a little unwieldy. So I turned to software called TopoFusion (www.topofusion.com; $40). This product provides better access to satellite and topo maps, and many–though not all–of the metrics offered by Endless Pursuit.

Finally, I used a second kind of GPS to get the turn-by-turn charts I generated. Pharos Pocket GPS unit is an extraordinarily versatile system; it works with handheld computers and laptops, and has multiple connectivity options, including USB, compact flash, and wireless Bluetooth. Mated with the company's Ostia navigation software, I was able to generate a real-time map, complete with street names, with very little fuss. The system isn't terribly well suited to wilderness use, since handheld computers like my HP iPaq Pocket PC aren't rugged enough and don't offer sufficient battery life. But it may be the best product for uncovering the specifics of urban treks (www.pharosgps.com; prices start at $190).