The harsh buzz of the alarm pierced my fitful rest and I stared bleary-eyed in the direction of the light switch. 1am had arrived – as it so often does – both unannounced and unwelcome. I seriously considered rolling over and writing the whole quest off as a bad idea, but we had travelled too far to pike out right before the peak. It had taken two flights (Perth to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Colombo), two trains (one crushingly packed commuter scramble up the mountain from Colombo to Kandy and one pleasantly empty trip in third class reserved from Kandy to Hatton), and a 38km ramble in a tuk-tuk, to reach The Grand Adam’s Peak Guest House in Dalhousie at the base of Adam’s Peak, so sleeping in was really not an option.
Slowly, we extracted ourselves from the site of our all too brief slumber and collected our packs ready for the 7km onslaught ahead. Our brilliant driver had convinced us to stay at The Grand (www.adamspeakholidayinn.com) which offers impressive views of the peak itself at the cost of 10 to 15 minutes of extra hiking to reach the start of the trail. By the time we’d checked our packs and stowed a few sandwiches for the road, it was 1.45am and definitely time to make tracks. Walking through the village of Dalhousie (or Delhouse, depending on with whom you speak), we came across a fair few pilgrims headed for the summit, but we were mostly alone (which came as no surprise as we were travelling in early October during the low season). The stalls and lights of the December to May pilgrimage season were absent, but so too was the 7-plus hour ascent time thanks to crowds and queues (two of my least favourite mountain climbing companions).
Once we reached the start of the trail itself, the climb began gently enough and the undulating path could be navigated without a torch thanks to the recently full moon. We knew that climbing the peak could be done at no cost (unlike most other tourist attractions in Sri Lanka which force greatly inflated rates on foreigners at almost any site of note), but I still allowed myself to be relieved of 1000 rupees (AUD $10) in the form of a donation to the monks maintaining the various shrines stupas and temples along the route (I was still sporting the cord-blessing bestowed upon me as proof more than a week later as I wrote by candle light from Unawatuna).
Shortly after the monk’s post we passed a large dagoba (stupa) and a small village which presumably services the huge crowds that make the climb during the high season. On this night, everything was quiet – the only light coming from a stall at the edge of town – and we moved on at a steady pace as the incline increased and the famous stairs began. The first major trial was a flight of stairs running up beside an unseen waterfall. This 200 meter stretch served to remind us of the 5500 more we had elected to ascend by taking on Adam’s Peak. At the top of the section we were briefly rewarded with a bridge crossing and a glimpse of the waterfall through the early morning shadows. By this point we had been walking for a little over 40 minutes and were feeling quietly confident of making the summit well before sunrise (which had been elusive in recent days thanks to the variable conditions of this between Sri Lanka’s two monsoons) at 6am. Immediately upon crossing the bridge, however, the situation steepened dramatically and the mountain’s test truly began. Over the ensuing three or four kilometres, we were assailed by stairs of all types and of various grades from steep through to practically vertical. About a kilometre from the summit we were assisted by a welcome handrail as the path climbed almost straight up the cliff face. While the path may have been tough on the thighs, it was a treat for the eyes as – even in the dark – the view of the area was spectacular.
Just before 5am – a mite shy of three hours after setting our – we reached the final landing and found ourselves at what appeared to be a block of apartment buildings (not quite what you would expect at the top of a renowned religious pilgrimage site). Beyond this, however, lay the temple which houses the ‘footprint’ that is responsible for the peak’s moniker. Sri Pada/ Adam’s Peak is said to be the site where Adam first set foot on earth after being eject from Paradise (and promptly stood on one foot in an act of contrition) or – depending on your faith – the footprint of Budda, or Shiva. Viewing this chameleon of pediatric imprints is a thrill reserved for pilgrims enduring the long queues at the peak, so I was spared any decision as to the true ownership of the rocky recess.
Shortly before 6am, the chilly air lit up with a spectacular sunrise bolstered by wispy clouds whipping across the summit thanks to the almost freezing wind. After 6am the temple was opened and the forty or so climbers were able to ring a bell to affirm their ascent and to watch the pyramid shadow of Adam’s Peak expand across the landscape below. We were lucky to have such brilliant weather for the climb, particularly considering the inclement weather in both the days before and following our trek. Even as we descended the stairs back towards Dalhousie, the clouds closed in as if chasing us towards the warmer valley country down below. Despite the five days of tendon pain that followed, climbing Adam’s Peak remains one of my favourite experiences in Sri Lanka