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Adam's Peak/Sri Pada - a Climber's Guide
From your first sighting of this famous mountain and long before you reach the start point of your hike, you realise you are in for a very special and different hiking experience here. Sri Pada, more familiarly known to many as Adam’s Peak, is not the highest peak in Sri Lanka and there are 4 others that are higher, but it stands alone and its shape commands that you take note. Should your eyes first see it at night, during the annual pilgrimage months, then that view generates even more wonder. The path is marked by a string of lights snaking their way to the top of the mountain and luring you to make the wearying but astonishing climb to the summit in time for dawn.
A few facts
Adam’s Peak is of significance to more than one religion. The name of Adam’s Peak refers to it being the spot where Adam first set foot on earth or, if you prefer the Buddhist take on it, “Sri Pada” which means sacred footprint where Buddha left an impression of his foot before leaving this world. Other religions also stake a claim to this most sacred of places.
It is located in Sri Lanka’s southern hill country and is arguably in the most beautiful part, albeit not the most accessible region of the country. To get there involves a little thought if you are an independent traveller, but with a car and driver, you can sit back and enjoy a drive through some of the most glorious countryside that you will see anywhere in Sri Lanka, taking in views of azure lakes, grand mountains and passing tea plantations full of Tamil tea pickers.
From the village of Dalhousie, it is a mere 7km to the summit but do not be fooled; this mountain will test even the fit and regular walker, due to its steepness and progressively large steps as you near the top. You have around 5,000 steps to climb before you finally haul yourself to the summit.
There are two start points for the walk but I will concentrate on the more popular and easier of the two, from the small village of Dalhousie. The other starts near Ratnapura and involves an even more arduous climb, following a path which is also plagued with leeches. The Dalhousie ascent is, by comparison, a lot more comfortable!
When to Go. The hike is traditionally made between the pilgrimage months of December to May. The actual start and finish dates are determined by two Buddhist Poya (full moon) days and vary each year, starting on the Duruthu Poya day and ending at Vesak. During this time, the path is lit after dark and it is normally climbed at night in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise. It also avoids walking during the heat of the day which would add to the difficulty of the climb.
During the pilgrimage season, there are many little tea stands lining the route to provide much welcome refreshment along the way. Outside of the season, the path is in darkness and everything is closed.
You can still climb outside of the season, but it is a lonely place, the weather is more unpredictable and the summit is often shrouded in mist. One of the main rewards of walking during the pilgrimage months is experiencing a clear sunrise. This generates a spectacle known as the “Shadow of the Peak”, where a perfect triangular shadow appears just after the first light and hangs, as if suspended in the air, gradually sinking as the sun rises ever higher. It is an extraordinary sight. The other joy of climbing during pilgrimage time is the atmosphere created by the hundreds, possibly thousands of visiting pilgrims. There are very few tourists, which adds to its appeal.
Accommodation. Dalhousie has a number of mainly simple guesthouses, some of which are only open during the pilgrimage season. It is advisable to book in to one for the night of the climb, even if you are only going to be using it for part of the night. Get to bed early for a few hours of sleep and set your alarm for the unearthly hour of around 1.30am! You will be back down again in time for a late and very hearty breakfast!
Timing. It is advisable to start the climb in the early hours of the morning, allowing time for a gentle hike to the top with plenty of rest breaks and still arriving in time for sunrise. If you begin your climb too early, you will get extremely cold at the top whilst waiting for the sun to rise, but similarly, you do need to pace yourself and allow plenty of time to reach the summit before the magical moment of sunrise. Having done the climb several times, I would recommend beginning your walk at around 2.15am. Even the slowest should make it to the top with time to spare and have time for numerous refreshment breaks along the way. Do not rush the climb. It is a fascinating experience with an opportunity to join with other pilgrims and witness some extraordinary sights along the way. Do also take time to stretch your muscles periodically along the way to help prevent them seizing up in the following days.
Clothing. Do take gloves, a warm hat and some warm clothing for the summit. Even in Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, the temperature plummets at the top of Adam’s Peak at night and after a sticky climb, you quickly become cold when you reach the summit, which has an altitude of 2243m. If you don’t wish to carry these items with you, they can be purchased cheaply and easily during the pilgrimage months from stalls at the base of the mountain before commencing your climb.
Footwear. It goes without saying that you should wear comfortable footwear, although the majority of local people seem happy to climb in flip-flops. I cannot say I would want to do the same however. The path itself is decent enough in the main, but your feet and in particular, your leg muscles, will feel the strain, especially on the descent afterwards.
Guide or not? There is no need to have a guide for the walk. Simply follow the crowds and even if it is quiet at the time of your visit, the route is pretty obvious, apart from at the very start when there are a choice of paths before you leave the buildings behind, close to where you cross a small bridge. At that point, however, you have not started to climb so it is no great effort to double back a few steps! It is as safe a place as anywhere in Sri Lanka and whilst there is no cast iron guarantee of complete safety anywhere, I have always felt very comfortable when strolling around the Adam’s Peak area. I would not suggest walking alone outside of the pilgrimage season, but from December to May, you will be perfectly safe amongst the friendly crowds of people. Take the normal precautions with your valuables.
Crowds. If you make the climb on a Poya day, ie, one of the full moon days during the pilgrimage season, expect it to be extremely crowded, probably overly so and you will also need to allow longer to make the climb. Weekends are also busy, although I have done it at this time and did not find it too bad and I also enjoyed the atmosphere of the crowd.
Toilets. Yes, there are some! There are a couple of toilets available along the way. I have used the one that is not too far from the summit. It is not the most salubrious of places, it has to be said, but I have known worse. You will need to flush with a bucket and you will pay a small donation for the privilege of using them, but they are a most welcome sight when needed.
Water. You can take some with you but there is no need to carry too much if climbing during the pilgrimage months as it is available from all tea stalls along the route. It does get progressively more expensive as you near the top, which is hardly surprising, bearing in mind that some poor soul has had to carry it all the way up there. There is a small supermarket in the centre of Dalhousie village where you can purchase food and snacks to take with you for the climb if you wish.
Dalhousie is a very small village and it will not take you more than a few minutes to walk through, so there is no problem in finding the start point. There is also a small car park at the base of the mountain, so if you are arriving by car and not staying in the village itself, you will be dropped off here. There are a great many temporary stalls at this point, selling mainly gloves, hats or cheap jewellery and toys. It is worth mentioning at this point that if you are staying in the village and arrive during the late afternoon before the night of your climb, it is well worth taking a stroll to this area just before sunset. There is a special atmosphere at this time, with the stallholders burning little dishes of oil to light their stands and, if you wander just a little higher, there is often the sight of colourfully dressed tea pickers returning with their sacks of tea leaves at the end of their working day.
At the start of the climb, you will pass a number of shrines and Buddhist statues, some of them rather gaudy and kitsch in design but all of them totally fascinating. At this point, there are few steps and the ascent is gradual. Do not be fooled; it doesn’t remain that way! Linger for a few minutes when you reach the makara torana arch where there are further shrines and often a number of people bowed in prayer, together with a resident Buddhist monk. You will also pass a bathing area where many pilgrims cleanse themselves before continuing the climb.
A word of warning at this stage. You will soon pass a point where a Buddhist monk offers to bless pilgrims for a safe climb and will then tie a small string bracelet around your wrist. He will expect a donation. Bear in mind that there is no charge to climb Adam’s Peak and whilst it is fine to give a small donation if you want to, the monk that I have encountered here on several occasions is rather sneaky. He will produce a donation book, containing extremely generous donations that were supposedly given by previous visitors. This is a common trick throughout Sri Lanka sadly. The donations of rupees have had several “000’s” added to the amount and you will be made to feel that you should give a similar amount. Either pass the monk without receiving a blessing, which you are perfectly entitled to do, or enjoy the experience and put just a small donation into his bowl.
The path splits at one point and you can take either route. The main path continues to the left but a diversion to the right takes you up a flight of steps to a flat terrace where you pass the large Peace Pagoda. The main path goes just to the left of it but you can reach it either way; not that you will see a lot of it at night. It is probably best to take a better look on your descent the following morning.
Beyond this point, the climbing begins in earnest although the toughest part is reserved for the final section. At this stage, you are still a very long way off that. You will be grateful of the numerous little tea shacks and wooden benches that line the route. Stop frequently, rest a little and interact with other climbers, rather than make it a mission to reach the top in record time. As you get ever higher, you will marvel at the sight of the path below you, the lights marking the route all the way. You will already feel that you are climbing to the sky.
Despite what some guidebooks say about it being a place of reverence where music is not allowed, this has not been my experience. Music plays from most of the little tea shacks and actually adds to the atmosphere I feel. There is a sense of it being a great day (or night!) out for most of the pilgrims and the atmosphere is friendly and fun as you all encourage each other to continue ever upwards towards the summit.
You know you are eventually getting somewhere when the ascent becomes increasingly tough, with some of it involving huge steps. Parts of the path are separated so that those ascending and descending are on opposite sides. There are hand rails to grab on to and these are most welcome as you near the top, to help you haul yourself up the next enormous step. I consider myself to be fairly fit, but by this stage, I found myself having to stop and regain my energy after just a few steps. When you hear the deep chanting of Buddhist monks, you know you are nearly at the top . You are aiming to be at this stage by about 5.45am. Too much earlier than this and you will be shivering as you wait at the top; too much later and you will miss the excitement of the approaching dawn.
Finally, you drag yourself to the summit which is the point at which you must remove your shoes as they are not allowed in this sacred area. There is a small paved area and a raised central pavilion in the middle, accessed up some steps, where you can view the “footprint” although this is far less impressive than the sunrise views from the summit itself. There is a bell which climbers can ring and you do it once for each time you have made the pilgrimage to the top if you so wish.
Initially, you wait on the eastern side of the summit to wait for the first glow of dawn to appear on the horizon. As the sun finally starts to rise, there is a commotion of noise from all around. Music is hardly the word to describe it, but there is a sense of huge excitement and celebration at this point. As the sun hits the surrounding mountains, the whole scene comes into view and you are totally amazed at what is around you, having seen nothing but blackness during your climb. Mist hangs below you and the mountains take on every colour imaginable. It is a breathtaking sight as prayer flags flutter in the breeze and the scene opens up in front of you. Suddenly, your tiredness is forgotten and complete elation takes over.
As soon as you have seen the initial sunrise, make your way quickly to the opposite side of the summit, close to the bell, and look out across the mountains from there. Assuming you have been lucky enough to do the climb on a clear day, you will now have the reward of witnessing the phenomena of the Shadow of the Peak. It is an extraordinary sight as it appears as a perfect triangle and it hangs, suspended in the sky, for some time before gradually dropping as the sun rises ever higher. It is one further reward for making the climb, one of many that you can look forward to in this most magical of places.
Many people say that the descent is even harder than the climb. I cannot say that I would agree with them there, although your legs do certainly turn to jelly at this point. The thing which struck me was how much there was to look at on the way down which you were totally unaware of during the climb in darkness. The views are outstanding and all around you is the most beautiful montane forest which is full of birds and monkeys. The Peace Pagoda looms into view and I remember being very surprised at my first view of this, as I had somehow managed to miss it completely on my first nighttime climb. If the weather is good, the light at this time of the morning makes for some astonishingly beautiful photographs; of golden peaks, misty valleys and shimmering dagoba spires. You may well encounter the tea pickers again, heading up to the plantations with their baskets. Take your time to savour it all, before arriving back at Dalhousie village for a well deserved breakfast.