8th February 2017
It’s 1.30am and my alarm is ringing. What I should do is wake up and get ready to climb Adam’s Peak. What I want to do is throw the alarm out the window and go back to bed. There is absolutely nothing that appeals less to me at this moment in time than the thought of walking up 5200 steps in the dark to get to the summit of a 2,243m peak. Especially since I have just had the worst sleep ever.
It is recommended that you start climbing Adam’s Peak around 2am in order to get to the top for sunrise, which is around 6am. Therefore, it is also recommended that you go to bed at about 9pm the night before. Being the night owl that I am, it’s hardly surprising that it’s about 10.30pm by the time I settle into bed. Still, I can function very well on minimal zzz’s so I’m not overly concerned at the thought of getting only three hours sleep.
Too bad someone in the village thinks that 10.30pm is an appropriate time for doing construction works. I don’t know about you, but I find it a tad difficult to fall asleep when the soothing sound of an electric saw is grating in my ears. I decide to listen to music to try and drown out the noise. This works well- until my playlist finishes just when I’m on the verge of entering the land of nod, and the bloody saw cuts straight through my dreamy reverie.
By now, it’s about 11.30pm and I desperately want to sleep because climbing a peak on two hours of shuteye is pushing it, even for me. I’m hyperaware by this stage, and not only do I have the grinding saw to contend with, the whole village is buzzing with noise. There are locals conversing loudly, dogs barking even louder, and loudest of all are the vehicles that tear up and down the road every couple of minutes.
Around midnight, the village quietens down and the saw is switched off. How considerate, I grumble into my pillow. I know it’s too late to get anything resembling a good night’s sleep now. I doze off, but my sleep is fitful, and I manage a couple of half hour naps, at best.
So, this is why I don’t want to go for a midnight stroll up a mountain and wish to spend the wee hours of the morning sleeping, like a sane person. But in the end, I get up instead of ignoring the alarm. Because, let’s face it, I am far from being sane.
All I’m taking with me is my camera, water bottle and 500 rupee, so I’m ready to go within twenty minutes of my alarm going off. A van is waiting outside the guest house, and I hop inside, as it’s been arranged to provide guests with a free lift to the base of Adam’s Peak. There’s five other people in the van, Russians, I think, and we all sit silently in the dark for ten minutes. At 2am on the dot, our driver starts the engine and we head off. It feels odd to drive through such a small village that is so alive at this hour, but as there are people climbing the peak at all hours, the area surrounding it is essentially open 24/7. The drive to the starting point only takes five minutes. We’re dropped off outside a bakery and told to meet in the same spot around 8am. I get out of the car, eager to get started, and feeling a lot more energised than I’d expected.
Setting out to climb Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, as it is also known, instantly brings back memories of trekking up Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar in Nepal, as I started each of them in the middle of the night. That’s where the similarities end, though. Early morning climbing in Nepal was a quiet battle of will against formidable Mother Earth. Here, I feel like I’m climbing up Party Mountain. It’s a very strange feeling, especially considering the religious significance of the peak. It is a famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists, in particular, who believe that the ‘sacred footprint’ (a rock formation near the summit which resembles a footprint) belongs to the left foot of Buddha himself. However, the site is also considered holy by other religions. Hindus believe that the footprint belongs to Lord Shiva, while Christians and Muslims believe it to be the area where Adam first set foot after being exiled from the Garden of Eden.
I’m glad I’m not hiking Adam’s Peak for any religious purpose because it would have been hard to appreciate the supposed sacredness of the site with so much blatant commercialism. On either side of the steps, there are countless shops selling snacks and soft drinks. There’s no short supply of vendors selling street food, or tea, either. Advertisements seem to line every available space. Music blares from speakers, and although there are occasional religious hymns or chants, often the tunes are pure pop. I even notice a few spots where you can stop for a foot massage. I understand that Adam’s Peak is visited by masses of people, but I would’ve thought that half the challenge of doing this sort of walk is to go without some creature comforts. In any case, I don’t stop at any of the stalls. After giving my 500 rupees away as a donation, I don’t have any money to spend, anyway.
I find myself walking at a pretty fast pace, determined to get past all these little shops. By the time I realise the lights that I can see winding up the peak are not torches, like I was used to in Nepal, but the glow of more shops, I’ve actually made it a good way up the mountain. (To be fair, not all of the emanating lights are from shops. Many are also from the lamp posts installed along the way, so you certainly don’t need a torch to climb Adam’s Peak.)
I’m two-thirds of the way up the mountain now, having rushed to try and reach a quiet and still part of the trail, only to realise that no such magical path exists. There’s no need to rush anymore, but I don’t see much point of taking lingering rest stops, either. The stairs aren’t giving me much grief, and although it’s not as crowded as I expected, I figure it won’t do any harm to get to the top early and find a good spot from which to view the sunrise.
Famous last words.
I continue on my way, and before long, I reach Tea Stop Central. There’s heaps of people sitting around plastic tables, sipping steaming hot tea. As I walk past, a man informs me this is the last chance to buy food or drinks, as I’m only ten minutes away from the summit. With the knowledge that I have officially just passed the last shop on Sri Pada, I find myself positively bounding up the remaining steps, with JT’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling’ trailing out behind me. The last few minutes of my ascent are the quietest I’ve experienced during my hike, and I reach the summit of Adam’s Peak at 4.30am- an hour and a half before sunrise.
It quickly becomes very apparent to me why getting to the top much earlier than expected is not actually a good thing. It’s cold- very cold- and the warmest item of clothing I have brought with me to Sri Lanka is a cardigan. A thin, grey cardigan which is providing absolutely zero warmth, especially now that I’m not moving and my body is rapidly cooling down from the exertion of climbing over 5000 stairs. I huddle up against a wall, trying to shield myself from the biting air. I pull my knees up under my chin and wrap my arms around them, stretching the sleeves of my cardigan to try and cover my numb fingers. All attempts to insulate myself fail spectacularly. I sit and I shiver, knowing I’m in for a miserable ninety minutes.
I have no idea if I’m facing east, and frankly, I don’t give a damn. I close my eyes and try to mentally block out the cold, but of course, that works about as well as a trap door on a lifeboat. I open my eyes again, hoping that a few minutes have ticked by at least, only to find there’s still eighty-nine minutes until dawn. I stare at all the people wearing down jackets and gloves with absolute envy. Everyone on the summit looks warm and toasty, except me. While I progressively begin to resemble Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, an old French couple sit down in front of me and rug up in a blanket. A goddamn blanket. I feel like crying. The irony is not lost on me that I feel colder on the tropical island of Sri Lanka than I ever did while trekking in the middle of the Himalaya in Nepal.
After about forty-five minutes of frozen frustration, the summit is starting to fill up and I hear a newly arrived group debating which way is east. After using their phones to figure it out, they move off to my right. I’m hardly surprised to discover I’ve been sitting facing the wrong bloody direction this whole time. The only reason I’m enduring being chilled to the bone is in order to see the sunrise, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my view be obstructed by five hundred heads after all this mind-numbing effort. I stand up and follow the group to their easterly viewpoint, scanning for shelter. I find a little crevice to crawl into, though a couple of young guys are in the way. They let me claim the spot, though there’s no escaping the cold. The guys are Australian- the first Aussies I’ve encountered so far in Sri Lanka, and coincidentally, they’re also complaining about being under-dressed. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing. We commiserate over a handful of peanuts, and then I close my eyes and wish for the sun.
By some miracle, I think I actually drift off, because the next thing I know, the air is full of murmur and movement. It’s 5.45am, and I open my eyes to see the first signs of the oncoming dawn. A streak of golden light is breaking through the deep, inky curtain of darkness and rising high above the misty-headed hills, curling through the fading night sky like a dancing flame. I get up and edge my way into the gathered crowd. It is still bitterly cold. There’s a Polish family on my left, and a Sri Lankan woman trying to push me out of the way on my right. Below me, a group of people have climbed the roof of the toilet building to gain an unobstructed viewpoint. A couple of them turn their backs on a security officer, who is telling them, repeatedly, to ‘please, get off’. They smirk and laugh while ignoring him. The officer struggles to scramble up onto the roof but eventually succeeds in kicking the group off. I can’t believe how brazenly disrespectful they’ve been. Instances like these make it hard to fully enjoy the new dawn unravelling around me, and I can’t help but feel that yesterday’s sunset, where I didn’t have to contend with any crowds, was far more special.
I return my focus to the changing sky. The veil of night has well and truly lifted and the pale blue light of the heavens looks fragile, as though it might shatter over the steely grey tops of the encircling peaks. To my right, the horizon is glowing, but to my left, it’s a blurry haze of colours, almost as if the sky is melting into the mountains. The layers of dusty orange, rosy pink and baby blue feel like an illusion, as though this part of the world is awakening and dreaming at the same time. Outlines of hilltops come in and out of view, as if playing hide and seek. It’s a mystical atmosphere, and the best magic trick of all is the emergence of a mysterious triangular shadow. Looking at it gives one the impression that at any moment, Adam’s Peak might just tumble into the misty valleys below.
The horizon captivates me for a long time, but by 6.30am, the crowds are beginning to disperse and I’m ready to start descending myself. I decide to check out one final viewpoint. I pass through a corridor and am almost blinded when I come out the other side. Here is the sun, fully risen and blazing in all its glory. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, and the rays of the sun reach out across all the land. It is a sight to behold, but the most sublime thing of all is the sudden heat I feel emanating around me. A huge smile spreads across my face. Standing in this golden shroud of sunlight and basking in its warmth is the ultimate reward for all my efforts.