Climbing Adam’s Peak The Hard Way
By Michael Hardy
“How long will it take to climb?” I asked.
My friends looked at each other. “You aren’t supposed to ask that question,” one of them finally replied. “It’s considered inauspicious.”
Adam’s Peak has been an active pilgrimage site for over a thousand years. It’s revered by Muslims as the place where Adam landed after being cast out of Eden and by Hindus as the site of Lord Shiva’s footprint. Buddhists, who make up most of the pilgrims and for whom the government has erected a sprawling temple at the summit, ascribe the legendary footprint to Lord Buddha.
me, climbing Adam’s Peak offered an initiation of sorts, a tangible proof of my commitment to Sri Lanka. There comes a point in every expat’s friendship with a Sri Lankan when that Sri Lankan, if he knows the foreigner well enough, will ask him whether he’s climbed the Peak. The answer separates the tourists from the permanent residents, the unserious from the serious. Nothing, it seems, is more authentically Sri Lankan, or provides such instant respect, as successfully making the climb.
Our guides for the ascent were two girls whom Nimanthi met during her research on the Free Trade Zones. Ganga, aged 23, and Dharshini, aged 17, were distant cousins who worked in the Biyagama garment factories. After making friends with Nimanthi, they invited us to spend the New Year with them at their home in Pelmadulla. Since neither Nimanthi nor I had ever spent time in a Sri Lankan village, we readily accepted the offer, curious to see what life was like for the majority of people on the island who live in rural areas.
The first challenge was making the journey from Colombo to the girls’ home high in the tea estates. Last Sunday, we boarded a crowded A/C bus in Fort and joined the massive exodus of people leaving Colombo to celebrate the holiday in their village. Fortunately, we arrived early enough to secure two comfortable seats. The bus quickly swelled to capacity with dozens of sweaty, impatient passengers and one severely overworked conductor. The standing passengers, squeezed together cheek by jowl, loomed over us rather ominously, their bodies pressing insistently against Nimanthi’s shoulder as if to dislodge her from her position.
By the time we entered Pelmadulla town, the traffic had slowed to a crawl. An open-air market was in full swing on both sides of the two-lane road, with swarms of gaily-dressed people milling around stalls filled with clothing, sweets, and chintzy holiday decorations. At the bus stand, we hailed a tuk-tuk to take us up the hill. The first half of the climb went pleasantly enough, as we wound our way through landscaped fields of tea plants and rubber trees. Small baskets attached to the rubber trees brimmed with gooey sap from the stripped trunks.
As the tuk-tuk labored its way up the hill, the ride began getting rougher and rougher. The smooth asphalt that had lined the road thus far grew patchy and then disappeared altogether. The bare road was rocky and uneven, forcing our driver to slow down and gingerly maneuver the tuk-tuk around each gaping pothole. We later learned that there had been no bus service along this road until about ten years ago, forcing the villagers to walk several kilometers to the nearest grocery store. Even today, children have to take the bus an hour and a half each way to the village school.
We finally arrived at the house where we would be staying, a spacious three-bedroom residence with white-washed walls and a tin roof. Greeting us on the house’s front door was the smiling visage of Mahinda Rajapaksa, looking down from a campaign poster for the January election. Everyone in the family voted for the UPFA in the last election because the party’s local candidates had promised to pave the road to their house. The family has good reason to be hopeful; after all, as told us, it was Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government that finally provided the village with electricity after decades of empty promises by the UNP. In the 1980s, they told us, the UNP made a big show of building utility poles and stringing up wire in the vicinity, but no electricity ever made it to them or their neighbors. Eventually, local scavengers tore down the poles and sold the wire for scrap.
Although the house now has electric lights, the cooking is still done over a wood fire behind the kitchen—gas is too expensive. A plastic tarp served as a ceiling for most of the rooms in the house. This keeps out the rain, which can leak through the tin roof. Plastic was a favoured material inside the house. The cushions for the sofa and armchairs were encased in clear plastic, as was the mattress in the bedroom we were assigned. Many of the plastic Buddha statuettes that made up the family shrine had remained sealed in their original wrapping, and the bookcases luxuriated in a riot of plastic flowers. The walls were hung with posters featuring babies (invariably pale), dogs (usually a golden retriever), and rural landscapes (of the kitschy, Ye Olde England variety). As anyone who’s taken a tuk-tuk knows, these three subjects maintain a powerful hold on the Sri Lankan imagination.
The next day, we set off in a van for Ratnapura, where we would begin the climb to Adam’s Peak. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, and carried a sweater in my bag for when we reached the top; the others in our group of eight were dressed similarly. After paying a visit to the Buddhist stupa, where we prayed for a successful climb, we started up the long, winding path that led out of sight into the distance. Since we began our climb in the afternoon (and since, as I later learned, we had chosen the longer, less popular route to the top), there were hardly any other pilgrims on the route.
Still, most of the shops lining the route were open for business, and we stopped frequently for tea and snacks. Once in a while, pilgrims would pass us on the way down from the summit. Many of them were singing, and I noticed that the girls in our group often sang back to them. “They’re saying that they are completing this climb for a relative,” Nimanthi told me. “The girls are congratulating them, and asking their blessing for our own climb.”
It was only after the first four hours of climbing that I began having doubts about this adventure. Shouldn’t we be close to the top? I wondered. By now it was getting dark, and we had planned on being home in time for bed. I knew better than to ask my climbing companions how far it was to the top, so when they weren’t listening I asked one of the shop owners.
“Well, you’re about half way there,” he said. “There are nine more miles to go.”
I had to sit down. Half way there? We’d have to spend the night on the mountain. It was then that Nimanthi remembered that there was another route to Adam’s Peak from the Hatton side, a much shorter and more convenient route.
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” I asked her. “I forgot about it,” she said. “Anyway, we’re guests here.
We have to go along with what they want to do.”
By the time we finally reached the conical summit it was around midnight. The mountain was shrouded by fog—we were quite literally in the clouds—and we couldn’t see much other than the florescent lights marking the path that we had just climbed. We removed our shoes and paid homage to the Buddhist shrine atop the summit, which marks the site of the sacred footprint. Then, we retreated into a spare building where pilgrims could sleep sheltered from the elements. Here, attracted to the electric lights, were more butterflies of more varieties than I have ever seen. The butterflies were everywhere, flying into my face, getting tangled in my hair, landing on my leg while I tried to sleep.
That night our group slept close together to preserve our body heat against the chill night air. Having dressed for warm weather, we had to borrow a thin blanket from another pilgrim, which we stretched over as many of our bodies as we could. In the morning, everyone woke up around 5:30 a.m. and we filed outside to wait for the sunrise. For the first time, we saw non-Sri Lankan tourists, who had climbed up the Hatton route during the night, as their Lonely Planet guidebooks had no doubt recommended. Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans alike clustered together on the summit, craning their necks and pointing their cameras to the east.
Gradually, light began to define the edges of the distant clouds. Then, a patch of fog would drift over the summit, temporarily plunging us back into darkness. When the fog disbursed, we received a startling burst of color: pink, aquamarine, turquoise. As the sun lifted itself over the horizon, I witnessed Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” with a clarity and precision I’d never known. No wonder poets have always competed in describing the dawn. Even in a non-religious man, the dawn inspires religious feelings.
All the way down the mountain (this time wisely taking the Hatton route) we were treated to the stunning views we missed during our nighttime ascent. The entire earth, it seemed, was spread out before us. Then we were at the bottom, and Adam’s Peak again loomed above us, lofty and unapproachable. We had made the climb.