Sri Lanka

Climbing Adam's Peak
Bill Ridgers

It is very early in the morning and the table is heavily laden. Bleary-eyed waiters replenish our feast of rice, curry, dahl and chili coconut. We could have had bacon and eggs, but by this stage of our trip we love the local fare. And here in hill country there is plenty of Ceylon tea on tap too. There is certainly a nip in the air, welcome after a week or so of tropical heat.

The pre-dawn start is essential, as are the carbohydrates, because today my wife and I are climbing Adam's Peak, a holy site in Sri Lanka. We are going to walk 8km, most of it upwards—hoping to reach the 2,200m summit by sunrise. I have been told that seeing the sun rise from the temple that clings to the summit, as you stare down across the island's mountainous centre, is one of those remember-on-your-deathbed moments. And more than worth the early start.

On top of the misty mountain is a small plateau, and in the rock a giant footprint. Sri Lanka's majority Buddhists hold that it is Buddha's imprint. Hindus, on the other hand, say it was Shiva who left the mark. Christians and Muslims claim it was Adam. The upshot is that Adam's Peak—Samanalakanda in Sinhalese—is a holy site for all Sri Lankans, and it seems all must make the pilgrimage to the top at least once.

"Setting off is both surreal
and daunting.
Surreal because we're taking the most popular trail to the top
which is lined with shops selling everything from pink plastic elephants to cotton wristbands blessed by Buddhist monks.

Daunting as the lit path appears to spiral unendingly skywards, before disappearing into the clouds."

Tell Tale Tip If you are very fit indeed, you could Adam's Peak on one of the forest trails, setting off the previous evening to reach the summit for sunrise.

Now might be the time to mention my vertigo. I have always tried my best to ignore it, never letting it stop me experiencing new things. But I hate the way it encroaches on beautiful moments: dining on the top floor of the World Trade Centre, only able to stare at my plate; driving through the Pyrenees, eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.

But that is something to worry about later. First we must climb. The path is stepped, sometimes gently, at others vertical and slippery. Three hours later, who knows how many thousands of steps into the climb, I am seriously flagging. But still the lit path rises inexorably up into the darkness.

Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka

With the backs of my thighs aflame, I keep expecting the market stalls to end, but more appear from the darkness as we climb. I have the sobering experience being overtaken by a man hurtling up to one of the higher tea stalls, carrying a full gas cylinder. I wonder just how many times a day he shuttles his cargo up and down the mountain.

Looking up, the summit seems no closer. My mistake, though, is looking down. The pinprick of light, which constitutes the town where we started our journey, sets my heart racing in familiar, vertiginous panic.

She isn't exactly an angel, but from the mists above me an apparition of sorts appears. Making her way back from the summit, an elderly one-legged lady edges her way down the steps. Chastening myself I press on, eyes straight ahead.

With perhaps the first hint of a lightening sky, I feel we're close to the top. Every tea stall for the last kilometer has claimed to be the final stop before the summit. Now, though, with the temple in clear view ahead, I reckon there is time for a quick cuppa before the sun rises.

The tea—milky chai prepared in a huge, flat dish, which the seller swirls as though panning for gold—certainly does me good. I feel rested and calm; the panic that had accompanied the vertigo has disappeared. I approach something nearing a Zen-like state.

When we reach the top, there is a whiff of incense and a ringing of bells as a ceremony begins within the summit temple. As non-Buddhists, we find ourselves a suitable vantage point on the steps outside for the main event.

But all is in vain. Light sweeps onto Adam's peak, yet all it reveals is an overcast Sri Lankan morning. There will be no sunrise spectacular this morning. We are deflated, but our sense of loss is only momentary.

For what the morning reveals is a vista of staggering beauty. Greyscale mountains jag into the distance, clouds clinging to their slopes. Our own verdant peak falls below us, revealing stupas and lakes previously hidden by the darkness. Emerging from the temple, a procession of monks wind past, chanting, giving thanks for the miracle of a new day. And the early start feels more than worthwhile.

Bill and Lyndsey Ridgers had a 2-week tour of Sri Lanka, taking in Colombo, Galle, Adam's Peak and hill country.

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adams peak stall
view from adam's peak