Just as I prepare for my next adventure, one I’ve been dreaming of for a long time and am mindfully mind explodingly excited about, I come across a story explaining Adam’s Peak perfectly.
Check it out.. and if you want to come along, message me as we’re making plans now!
A Spiritual High: Climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka
IT WAS THE MOUNTAIN of a million yawns. All over the flagstone stairway, people slumbered in various uncomfortable positions. Some huddled in groups, their heads on their arms. Others sat on benches, hats pulled low to block out the lights of the tea stalls. Parents trudged uphill with their children slumped on their shoulders.
For half the year, such sleepy scenes are a ritual on the slopes of the 7,359-foot-high Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s most famous mountain. At the summit of the granite spire that rises above the Sri Lankan hill-country is a 5-foot-long depression in the bedrock—a “footprint” held sacred by four religions.
To Christians and Muslims it was made by Adam; to Hindus it belongs to Shiva. Buddhists believe it is one of the many traces that the Buddha left throughout Asia. For over a millennium the peak has been a place of pilgrimage for Sri Lankans, a challenge to be tackled on faith, adrenaline and an endless torrent of tea.
And ever since Marco Polo wrote of its significance in the 14th century, outsiders, too, have been drawn to Sri Pada. Several thousand tourists undertake the climb each year. This past February, at the peak of the six-month-long pilgrimage season, I was among them.
I had no spiritual yearning to quench, but it was hard to resist the lure of the mountain. There were the views—wraparound hill-scapes of rippling tea plantations that are among the most glorious panoramas in the Sri Lankan interior. But the pilgrimage’s symbolism also appealed to me. Five years after the end of the bloody 30-year war between the government and Tamil separatists, which threatened to cleave the island in two, here was a place that united it all.
Traditionally, pilgrims set off in the depths of night, climbing the 5,200 steps to the top in time for a summit sunrise. Akram, my tuk-tuk driver, made it sound simple as I sat hunched in the back of his three-wheeler on the way to Dalhousie, the village that is the starting point for the most popular trail up Adam’s Peak.
“Start one o’clock sir, walking four hour upstairs, sir. Five-thirty sunrise,” he said, steering us around another hairpin turn.
It had been four hours since I’d jumped on an antiquated bus in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s old capital, heading out into the provinces to catch a tuk-tuk. Now, at 10 p.m., I was half-regretting the last-minute decision to shoehorn the trip into my jam-packed itinerary.
Crouched at the base of Sri Pada’s eastern slope, Dalhousie does little to soothe a tired traveler arriving after dark. Despite the late hour, the central square hummed with comings and goings. At stalls decked with fairy lights, mustachioed men sold snacks, warm clothes and fluorescent cuddly toys. High above the town, a blinking necklace of lights coiled around the barely discernible outline of a sheer mountain—which, so I’d read, could turn even the strongest legs to jelly.
Three hours later, after I’d stolen some sleep in a cheap flophouse in town, I set off to the soundtrack of burping frogs and chirruping insects. Several stallholders were now snoozing over their wares.
Based on the number of people I would see later, it seems extraordinary that I spent the first hour of the climb in solitude, save for the shaven-headed monks manning the entrance and the mendicant who emerged from the shadows a little farther along the trail. In return for a 10-rupee donation, he offered a pink string for my wrist and a dubious incantation to send me safely on my way: “You go up, you come down, nothing happen…”
‘To the west, a colossal triangle—the mountain’s famous shadow—extended for miles. ’
As the stairway began in earnest, all was eerily calm. A gong rang far away; the odd ghostlike shrine appeared by the trail. But the bamboo benches lining the path were all empty. Fluorescent strip-lights situated every 30 feet cast a haunting glow.
Eventually, a British couple materialized out of the gloom. I made to say hello—to ask about the route to come—but they were hobbling and mid-argument, having turned back defeated.
“It was you that wanted to do it in the first place,” the man said as they disappeared around a corner.
Soon afterward, the stairway was brimming with people as I caught up with the hordes on the upward trudge. At the first of many trailside tea shops, I stopped for a porcelain cup of chai and watched the crowds. Every age was represented. A woman walked downhill while breast-feeding a baby; four boys, drunk on whatever sloshed in the plastic bottles they carried, bounded up the steps three at a time. Many pilgrims were infirm, their elbows cradled by attentive youngsters.
Next to me sat an entire extended family who hailed from Galle, the Dutch colonial town on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Three generations had traveled here to pay homage to the footprint and the sun. The sallow-faced patriarch introduced himself as Nankada.
“How old are you?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Old,” he replied, ignoring my impertinence. “Seventy-two.”
“Have you been here before?”
Two hours later, nearing 5 a.m., the crowds were even larger. The trees clinging to the lower slopes had given way to scraggly shrubs, and the trail wending through them had narrowed and steepened, so pilgrims plodded in single file, hauling themselves upward on metal handrails. The climb and the ungodly hour were starting to take their toll. The topmost coil of the trail came in and out of view amid the inky foliage.
The peak, when I finally reached it, was thronged with people. Adding my boots to the hill of discarded shoes at the entrance of the summit complex, I joined the queue to shuffle into the small brick-walled shrine that housed the footprint of Adam/Buddha/Shiva. People took turns muttering earnest prayers before the impression—which, buried in garlands of flowers, couldn’t even be seen.
Outside, dozens more pilgrims sat on east-facing bleachers, where the first hint of sunrise was casting a corona over the hills. On a terrace above stood the tourists, cameras poised.
When the dawn arrived in a fiery orange blaze, it felt meaningful as much for the hushed reverence with which it was welcomed as for the beauty of the landscape it revealed. We watched the sun spread over the Musakelle Reservoir, the jostling black hills.
Arguably more magical was the view to the west, where a colossal triangle—the mountain’s famous shadow—extended for miles. Warming my hands over a huge concrete fire pit, I stood and watched the shadow recede back into the mountain as the sun rose. Intermittently, a large bell pealed to herald the return of someone who had climbed before.
The bell was still tolling as I headed back down the stairs. Rounding the first corner was the man from Galle, a grandson at each arm. Together they stood and breathed in the dawn.
Getting There: Qatar Airways and Emirates fly to Colombo from New York via the Middle East. From Colombo, numerous buses and trains travel to Kandy; from there, it’s a three-hour bus ride to Dalhousie. Buses go more regularly from Kandy to Hatton, where you can hire a tuk-tuk to take you the remaining 20 miles.
Staying There: Dalhousie has a number of basic guesthouses where you can catch some sleep before or after the climb. A tourist favorite is Slightly Chilled, which has simple rooms with attached baths in a quiet location above the river (from $55 a night, slightlychilledhotel.com). For a more luxurious stay, Ceylon Tea Trails’ four converted tea planters’ bungalows offer colonial-era decadence, complete with butler service and walking trails through tea gardens (from $556 a night, including meals, teatrails.com).
Climbing There: The pilgrimage season for Adam’s Peak runs from December to May, roughly concurrent with the area’s driest period and top tourist season. At other times of year, the climb is likely to be a much more solitary experience. The route described above is by far the most popular, and is undertaken by people of all ages and fitness levels. There are three more-challenging trails for those who prefer less-travelled paths (see details at sripada.org). Starting between 1 and 2 a.m. should give most hikers enough time to reach the top for sunrise.
What to Take: Snacks, water and tea are available along the route during the pilgrimage season. While trails are open at other times of year, you’ll need to bring a flashlight and your own refreshments.
If you are curious about Sri Lanka here are previous essays from the last several years trips:
- Sri Lanka Day 7: a place of refuge for those who lack shelter
- Sri Lanka day 1: Discovering the pure genius of the Middle Path:
- and for all the essays on Sri Lanka, go HERE