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Sri Lanka: A Land Like No Other (Part 10) Adam’s Peak

Sri Lanka —  10) Adam’s Peak

Adam’s Peak (also known as Sri Pada, or “holy footprint”) is located in the southwestern part of Hill Country.  It’s 2,243 meters (7,359 ft) high, the tallest mountain in this region and the fourth largest in Sri Lanka.  Because of its size and distinctive pyramidal top, Adam’s Peak stands out when one is traveling through the region; on a clear day it can be seen from the ocean.  The mountain is set in a region of wilderness so much of its vegetation and fauna are pristine.

I was first introduced to Adam’s Peak in Arthur C. Clarke’s book, THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE (which also features Sigiriya, hence the title).  In this story a mountain bearing an uncanny resemblance to Adam’s Peak is the earthbound terminus of Arthur’s space elevator.  Arthur was fascinated by this peak and prominently featured poster-sized aerial views of it and Sigiriya in his office; he told me with pride of the time he had made the climb up Adam’s Peak “a long time ago”.   I was ready to see it up close!

Adam's peak, Sri Lanka

Adam’s peak, Sri Lanka. One of the tallest peaks in the country.

Adam’s Peak is best-known for its “sacred footprint“, a 1.8 m (about five and a half foot long) rock formation near the summit which resembles a large human footprint.  This formation is sacred to many people: some Buddhists believe this to be the footprint of the Buddha; some Hindus think it is the footprint of Shiva; some Muslims and Christians think it represents the footprint of Adam — the site God placed him on earth after creation (implying that Sri Lanka was Eden).  Adam’s Peak is a popular site of pilgrimage among Buddhists and Hindus as it has been for over a thousand years.  Many make the fairly strenuous climb to its peak at night (starting no later than 2 am) to be at the peak for sunrise.  On a clear day you can watch the distinctive triangular western shadow of the mountain retract as the sun rises. The pilgrimage season begins with the full moon in December and ends at Vesak in May during which the trail is lite up by lights at night (not so in the off season).  It is estimated that 300,000 people complete this pilgrimage each year. .

The only time I climbed Adam’s Peak was several days after Vesak.  It was a cloudy and rainy day, overcast though with moments of clearing, not the sort of day I’d usually pick to climb a mountain (there’s a real risk of a lightening strikes which I’m a little paranoid about).  But I had just this one day in which to do it so I was determined to try.  There are a variety of trails that join the main route to the top but one trail clearly is dominant which is the one I took.   And it was deserted — I only encountered two other hikers (and their guide) along my entire journey.  So from the perspective of peace and solitude, it was a pleasant hike as I was alone the entire time.

The 7 km journey to Adam’s Peak begins near the small town of Dalhousie.  The trail at first has a fairly smooth ascent and you walk through a lovely tea plantation.  You pass through an “welcome” entrance arch and go by the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba (constructed in 1976).  After this your ascent becomes steeper to the point where you are nearly continuously climbing up hill on some 5200 stairs.  Some of these stairs are in good condition but many are cracked and broken so you need to watch your footing.  Towards the top of the mountain the slopes are more precipitous but there’s a good metal guardrail on both sides; it’s probably the safest part of the hike.  It was raining on and off during my climb but near the top the rain became heavy and the mist was especially thick. At the summit there’s a cluster of buildings including over the site of the “footprint”.  Everything was locked up when I arrived in the rain and visibility was non-existent so I didn’t linger.  It was enough to have made it.  Descent is also precarious, especially when the steps are wet so exercise caution.  My descent was remarkable for the presence of a small friendly dog following me all the way down from near the summit to the parking area.  I considered him a good luck charm as I made the journey safely.  I think if my wife had been with me she’d have taken him with us (she’s got a big heart for animals).

A portion of the trail to Adam's Peak

A portion of the trail to Adam’s Peak

My climb to the summit took 3 hours and the climb down 2 hours including a few brief rests in sheltered stops (I waited for 15 minute in one shelter while a heavy thunderstorm blew over) for a round trip time of 5 hours.  The hike would have been much longer on a clear day as I like to stop and look and take photographs.  I couldn’t get any good information about the elevation gained in the climb but would estimate it at about 3000 feet.

The mountain and setting were beautiful but the quantity of trash left by the trail was disgusting.  In places it looked more like a trash dump than a sacred mountain.  And the stuff smelled pretty bad, too.  My driver told me that the trash is removed after the pilgrimage every year and I hope this is the case because otherwise in a few generations the trail will be buried by junk.

The mountain can be cold and very windy so you’ll certainly need a warm jacket and a shell to protect you from wind and rain.  Good hiking shoes with top-notch traction are mandatory.  Be sure to carry several bottles of water with you.  I think a good pair of rubber tipped trekking poles would be helpful, especially in reducing the strain on your knees and providing stability during the descent.

We returned to Colombo and stopped in Kitulgala at the Rest House for dinner. This Rest House has a picturesque location overlooking the wide Kelaniya Ganga River and jungle surrounding it.  The river is now a popular venue for whitewater rafting — the best in Sri Lanka — but to me it was important because it represented the original shooting location for David Lean’s classic film, “Bridge on the River Kwai“. The Rest House walls are covered with photos from the filming of this epic. I think it would have been a cool place to spend the night.

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