Sri Pada, Adam's Peak || Words and photos by Lizzy Keen

Scenery and sunrise aside, perhaps the most notable sight on Adam's Peak, for me, was the contrast between the Sri Lankan pilgrims and the international tourists, or hikers in this case. 

While we tourists donned our flashy functional sportswear to reach the summit at 2,243 metres above sea level, yielding GoPros to capture the journey and sunrise finale up top, many locals rocked barefoot and casual wear.

Indeed, comfort and orthopaedics appeared secondary to the religious dedication that drove the locals there in the wee morning hours; Adam's Peak, or Sri Pada, is the most sacred mountain in Sri Lanka, revered by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus alike. 

We climbed Sri Pada two days after Valentine's Day, beginning from Dalhousie, where most tourists stay among a handful of guesthouses and hotels scattered at the foot of the lush, conical mountain. The five-six-hour roundtrip is one of Sri Lanka's most popular tourist activities; every morning between December and May (peak season January-February) dozens to hundreds of international hikers complete the trail alongside even more Sri Lankans. 

Like most climbers, we woke at 1.30am and began the climb at 2.15am, after a quick coffee at one of many 24-hour tea stall-come-restaurants preceding the trail. On that note, I'd like to add here that said tea stalls made the hike unlike any I've completed (lol, which isn't many). In place of the pre-dawn serenity I'd imagined is a long series of crudely-lit makeshift stalls bulging with alternations of sweets, garish children's toys and incongruous posters of Western and Asian babies. 

Somewhat surprisingly, this doesn't detract from the trail's attractiveness, especially once the sun is up. In fact, I came to appreciate these stalls; we bought mandarins early into the ascent and stopped for tea and coffee before the completing the final stage before sunrise.

While most online reviews and travel blogs wax lyrical about the sunrise show and soaring valley views from the summit, they tend to exclude the part about its physical intensity. Even a young Portuguese chick I questioned beforehand about the climb in Dalhousie had said "it's not such a tough climb". 

Well, it is – it was! Aaron disagrees and points at that we did pace it up there pretty quickly; we reached the summit in 1.45 hours, just 50 minutes behind the record held by some uber-fit Norwegian guy. That said, however, it was difficult, namely when the flat zones morphed into long sections of wickedly steep stairs that wound across the mountain face. 

Though it is, of course, doable. Watching scores of barefoot elderly people huffing their way up, helping each other in the lactic-acid-burn sections with little complaint, cut my perceived struggle short. If that's not #fitspo I don't know what is. 

Our finishing the trail quickly, however, did mean that we reached the near-top early and had to burn nearly two hours by drinking tea, eating crappy Sri Lankan chocolate (not the island's culinary forte) and sheltering ourselves from the cold. We almost missed the sunrise by snuggling into one of the hallow concrete buildings that serve as warm up/nap zones for pilgrims – we lost track of time in our exhaustion.

But when that fat, fiery orb finally creeped over the grey wafer clouds and washed the hundreds of trekkers and pilgrims in gold, all the sweat and pain was worth it, especially when a light chanting began at the very moment the sunlight split the horizon – I'm guessing from the Buddhists.

The descent was, again, pretty difficult. We stumbled down like a pair of crazed scarecrows trying to walk for the first time, such was the stiffness of our thigh and calve muscles. But the vistas – miles of plunging valleys; copper and lime green treetops cascading down mountains; an oddly shaped lake of liquid steel pooled near the base – were gorgeous; the freshly cooked egg roti and honeyed black coffee for breakfast soon after was well-deserved.

The morning before completing the trail proper I took a walk around the base and up a small side trail, and captured some shots of other cultural shrines, Buddhist temples and local tea pickers at work. I'd recommend exploring the lower part of the trail for an hour or two separate from the climb, just to check it out in daylight. Trust me, after five-six hours of climbing before 8.00am, further exploration of the area mightn't sound so fun later that day. 

Some advice for climbers:

  • You mightn't need to begin climbing at 2.00am like most hotel staff and travel blogs suggest. Aaron and I, after all these months of street food and cheap chocolate, are certainly not at our physical peak and yet completed the climb in 1.45 hours. However, reaching the summit earlier helps to secure a better sunrise viewpoint. 
  • Wear or take a decent jacket – at over 2,000 metres above sea level, the summit is quite cold before dawn, though it warms up quickly after sunrise. 
  • The huge bell that pilgrims ring, located next to the small summit temple – don't do what I did and ring it three times because it seems like a nice, sacred-esque number to go by. Pilgrims ring this once for every time they've completed the climb. Aaron couldn't stop laughing at my triple ring. Whoops. 
  • There are toilets all along the trail but they ain't pretty. Take toilet paper.

More stories and photos can be found on Lizzy's travel blog - :D

Birralee Hassen