Farther east in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, about 2.5 hours from the tea country of Nuwara Eliya and 3.5 hours from the biodiverse plateau of Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak looms from the heart of a wilderness sanctuary. No matter which way you’re travelling from, the entire region is bursting with astounding natural beauty.
Ever since my first visit to Sri Lanka when I was ten, I wanted to climb the stairs of Adam’s Peak, a conical mountain 7,400 feet high. The peak holds deep religious significance for multiple faiths, which I found unique and compelling. But I never had the chance to even see it until now.
Though commonly known as Adam’s Peak, the Sinhalese know it as Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”). Both names refer to the footprint-shaped mark at the summit. Buddhists believe this footprint belonged to the Buddha, while some Christian and Islamic traditions believe this footprint belonged to Adam when he first set foot on Earth after being cast out of paradise. Hindus believe that the footprint belongs to Hanuman or Shiva.
So it comes as no surprise that Adam’s Peak is a holy site for many faiths and an important pilgrimage destination. Primarily Buddhists make the pilgrimage, probably because Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist and the peak is most easily accessible to Sri Lankans. But foreigners (especially monks) also visit the country to make the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage season is from the full moon in December to the full moon in April, when the weather is drier. The journey typically begins in the middle of the night, around 2:00 a.m., so that the summit is reached by dawn. Sunrise at the peak is said to be spectacular.
EZ and I stayed at an inn in Nallathanniya, a small village situated near the base of Adam’s Peak. The village is surrounded by sprawling natural beauty, and its economy is driven by tourists that have come to climb Adam’s Peak, with small markets and stalls populating the path to the base of the mountain.
The inns and hostels are fairly simple; no luxury hotels here. Just a homebase from which to start and end the difficult trek. Oh, and mosquitoes.
Our accommodations, Wathsala Inn, offered some helpful tips and walking sticks (whittled from natural tree limbs), with a huge map of Adam’s Peak painted on one wall.
The evening of our climb, EZ and I ate a light meal at the inn. The last thing we wanted was to have to use the restroom during our trek. Although there would be restrooms along the way, their cleanliness was questionable.
From the inn’s open-air dining area, we had a stunning view of Adam’s Peak at sunset, the rays of light bursting out from the luminous clouds. It felt like a good sign for our climb tonight.
Yet an hour later, the clouds burst again—not with sunshine this time, but with rain and thunder. A lightning storm. This did not seem like a good sign. Would it rain heavily all night? If so, should we still go through with the climb? It didn’t seem like a great idea to grow drenched to the bone at night while exerting ourselves for hours.
With such uncertainty swirling in our heads, EZ and I packed our backpack with protein bars and water, arranged our hiking gear, and went to bed.
When we awoke at 1:00 a.m., the rain had stopped. All was clear. We’d gotten up an hour earlier than the traditional pilgrimage time in hopes of beating the crowd. Poya (full moon) nights are auspicious and thus the most popular time for the pilgrimage, with huge masses of people known to crowd the stairways. Although it wasn’t a Poya night, it was still a weekend, so we were bound to run into people.
The air was cool and crisp as we walked the ten minutes from our inn to the base of the mountain. Along the way, we passed various religious structures, statues, and arches, donated by other Buddhist or Hindu countries.
In the thick darkness, a string of lights revealed the path up the mountain.
Before us lay more than 5,500 steps up and around the summit. I couldn’t even process whether that was something I could handle. The stairs were scattered with small groups of people, mostly locals. Sometimes we passed them; other times, they passed us. The weather grew temperate, and even warm at times in parts of the stairway crowded with people.
At first, climbing the steps felt fine, no worse than going upstairs in my house. Then it evolved into a workout, like being on the StairMaster. Soon it became much more arduous; my muscles started to burn, and I grew short of breath. Fatigue set in from my lack of sleep. Each step took longer to scale as I hoisted my weight up over each one. We stopped more frequently for breaks. The stairs went on and on, up into the darkness. When would they stop?
In the blackness of night, we couldn’t see much of our surroundings except for what was along the path. The lit stairway curving up the mountain was intermittently lined with stalls selling food, bottled beverages, tea, toys, religious trinkets, and souvenirs. That made me feel a little better; if we ran out of water, there would be more we could buy. What I didn’t understand was the toys—why were the vendors selling toys?
Then I saw the kids. And grannies. And women carrying babies. And people wearing flip flops and saris. These locals were hard core! How many times had they made this pilgrimage before?
Here we were, two young, relatively fit Americans suited up in hiking gear and shoes, wielding walking sticks, unencumbered by children or babies—sitting on the edge of the stairway, drained. But the sight of these incredible locals rejuvenated us. If they could do this, so could we. After sipping some water, and catching our breath, we continued onward and upward.
Time crawled. We slogged uphill, sweated out most of the water we drank, and luckily didn’t have to use the restrooms, though we saw signs for them every so often. We ate our power bars. Plenty of stalls sold hot short-eats and other snacks, but we didn’t want to risk an upset stomach on this climb, although nothing we’d eaten in Sri Lanka had troubled our tummies. But better safe than sorry on a climb like this.
A group of young Sri Lankans, maybe college students visiting from a different part of the country, trooped up the stairs chanting motivational mantras (perhaps the Sinhalese equivalent of the “I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told” cadence popular in the U.S. military).
A foreign Buddhist monk, perhaps Tibetan or Malaysian, climbed the stairs in his turmeric-colored robes.
Small clusters of people who had already made the climb earlier in the evening or afternoon were now descending the stairs, passing us on their way down, looking utterly wiped out.
Along the way up, between the vendor stalls, were shelters with benches where people could nap if they needed to. Some of these were occupied by those who made part of the climb during the day, slept in the shelter for most of the night, and awoke to finish the climb just in time for sunrise. Most people just took breaks on the side of the stairs, sitting or leaning against he railing, breathing heavily until they could go on.
Part way up, we began to see more religious structures and Buddhists flags, reminding us that for many, this was a spiritual journey.
About three-quarters of the way to the top, just when I began to feel like a zombie, EZ and I bought some Milo (a protein drink that tastes like chocolate milk) at one of the stalls to give us an energy boost. It worked! All of a sudden I was climbing stairs at a steady pace without needing much of a break. We were in the home stretch now.
Then came the light at the end of the tunnel. Or, to be exact, the light at the top of the mountain. The faint sounds of Buddhist chanting echoed somewhere in the upper distance, along with the ringing of bells. We were close!
The closer we got, the more crowded the path became. There were those who started the trek after us, but were much faster, passing us. There were also those who had climbed the mountain earlier in the night or the day before, and were waiting near the top until sunrise.
Clouds of incense began to curl up around us, setting the tone of sanctity. The tolling of bells from the summit grew louder. Before us, lengths of white thread stretched up across the stair railing, symbolizing blessings from the Lord Buddha. Guiding the way.
The air grew chilly. Freezing, actually. We pulled on the jackets and beanies that we’d stuffed in our backpacks. Just as we neared the top, a sign appeared requesting that we remove our shoes and headgear. So much for warmth.
We reached the summit around 5:00 a.m., nearly four hours after we had begun our trek.
At the summit, throngs of people bustled as icy mists swirled around us. EZ and I shifted with the tides of humanity through the small space, observing the Buddhist and Hindu shrines, as well as a structure with two elephant statues over a large bell.
Since I was raised Buddhist for part of my childhood, we waited our turn to enter the Buddhist shrine.
EZ stepped back to watch as I bowed to the Buddha statue and paid our alms to the monk. Then we emerged, suddenly awash in the gratifying awareness that WE DID IT! WE MADE IT TO THE TOP!
Then we noticed the people lined up to ring the bell. Some rang it once, while others rang it multiple times. What was the significance? EZ asked a nearby local, who explained that ringing the bell signified that you had completed the pilgrimage to the top of Sri Pada. The number of times you rang the bell denoted the number of times you had completed this climb.
This sounded like the perfect way to commemorate our achievement.
We felt exhilarated, purified.
But now that we had paid our respects and marked our ascent, there was nothing to do at the top but wait for the sunrise. A section of the peak was cordoned off just for this purpose; already, a swarm of people had taken seats, while others stood restlessly. More and more pilgrims and tourists were still filtering up to the summit and would soon join them. But while waiting, there wasn’t much to do but grow numb from the freezing air, watching the darkness surrounding the mountain.
As the waiting area became increasingly packed, it dawned on us that while everyone’s ascent had been staggered with different times, almost all of these people would descend the mountain at the same time, right after sunrise. So after some debate, we decided to get a head start on our descent to avoid the chaotic masses. We could still catch the sunrise on the way down, after all.
The way down seemed harder than the way up. This is where our walking sticks really came in handy, keeping us supported as our already sore legs strained even further. The sticks couldn’t banish our fatigue, though. We’d only had a few hours’ sleep that night, and our waking hours of the night had been spent in a strenuous, relentless climb.
But the descent brought with it the sun.
We descended to a new world as the spreading blush of dawn transformed the darkness around us into paradise.
Who knew we had been surrounded by such beauty all along?
Near the base, a Buddhist monk awaited, circling our wrists with string and marking our foreheads to bestow upon us a blessing for completing this pilgrimage.
As we looked backward, Sri Pada, now revealed by sunlight, looked imposing. Had we really climbed that?
Then later, almost collapsing with the weight of needed sleep, we looked back again as we neared our inn. It was incredible that we had traveled so far by foot. Round trip.
We were so proud of us. This had been an amazing challenge, and yet we had persevered. It had been such a unique experience, a collective experience shared by locals, tourists, and expats alike as we all overcame our exhaustion and discomfort to scale this sacred mountain. My heart brimmed with a special kind of joy.
Given our screaming muscles and drooping eyelids, we planned on sleeping the rest of that day and peacefully enjoying the scenery the next day. And then, we’d be off for a leisurely visit to Kandy, the ancient capital!