20th February 2012
The summit of Adam's Peak has the faintest imprint of a footprint of the Buddha (or was it Adam?) -either way, and it didn't appear to be an issue of much contention - housed in a sacred of sacred temple, high above the clouds. The mountain is a major pilgrimage site for buddhists, Christians and Muslims. And they come in their millions. Last weekend was the first weekend of the pilgrimage season, and over the 3 days, apparently 500,000 people made the climb. The figures sounded completely ridiculous. Until we got there. And be under no illusion, it IS a climb. (Sri Lanka's second highest peak, 2200m high, composed of 5557 steps.)
So, the weekend of our arrival is a national holiday, a long weekend, and the mountain is going to be at it's busiest, the realisation hits us and fills us all with a sense of dread. Pilgrims make the climb 24hrs a day, 7 days a week throughout the season. We have been hearing stories of 10km long traffic jams, even throughout the night, as bus after bus after bus arrives, all trying to get anywhere close to the foot of the mountain, such are the numbers of people wanting to prove their devotion.
We are planning to make our climb through the night to summit at sunrise, so we try to catch a few meagre hours sleep, and set our alarms for midnight.
At 1am, we are standing on a dark mountain road, waiting for any form of transport we might flag down, on a road so remote that at no time of day it has passing traffic, let alone in the middle of the night. The bus (our intended method of transport) has managed to get itself dug in up to it's axels in the ridiculously steep, and soggy (since the afternoon downpour) driveway leading out of our guesthouse. It is going nowhere. Well, not quite correct. It eventually, and with efforts that really were a struggle to tolerate at this time of the morning, managed to get out of the first "obstruction", and was immediately driven ONTO a huge boulder and at that point, was abandoned to the night. Frustration was starting to sap energy reserves we all knew we would be needing to get up the hill.
So at 1.30, we pile gratefully into the back of a decrepit minibus and are driven at rally driving pace through the mountainside villages, until an hour later, we begin to distinguish between the stars and the lit path leading up (capital U) to Adams Peak. (Same altitude I think).
Hundreds of buses are parked up, empty and dark on the roadside. Drivers sleeping through the night while their passengers climb. And climb. And climb.
The foot of the mountain is a brilliant but bizarre carnival... Buddhist shrines and monks giving blessings to those starting the trek, pilgrims rest houses with piles of weary bodies snatching a few hours sleep shrouded under sheets, but all interspersed with a market of epic proportions selling Chinese tat of a completely bewildering nature... Stall after stall selling plastic toys, huge and terrifying cuddly animals, artificial flowers and the best range of Hello Kitty fleecy hats you will ever find. (There must be a local law that these hats are only to be sold to men over 40, sporting moustaches.) We wandered through the haze of neon to start our hike. The path wasn't too clear to start with ... We found ourselves facing an army of people who were in many cases limping, being half dragged, half carried, crying (really) and zombie-like-exhausted-looking; we gulped hard and figured "that way".
The hike starts through tea plantations, winding your way relatively gently (false hope) in the dark under a large ceremonial archway, and then the steep steps start (at least at this point, you consider the steps to be steep. This inaccuracy will be corrected in your expectations over the next 2 hours.) You are walking in a sea of families and friends of all ages, states of health and fitness, like being a fish trying to find a shoal whose pace you can match, and at the same time trying to keep an eye on the incoming tide of people coming down, who are too weary to take an extra pace to give way to those on their way up. It's a huge 6hr long game of human Tetris. And the levels get harder as the steps begin deteriorating and falling away.
After 2 hours constant climbing we drop out of our slipstream and fall into a tea shop - a mug of the sweetest tea imaginable revives all of us. In all corners of the tarpaulin tent, people are sleeping and staring beyond-exhausted into space. Such a sense of a shared journey as we all struggled our own ways up, I think that memory will last far longer than the aches in my calves! At this point the tiny sliver of this night's moon seems to be close enough to grab (maybe you could hold on to it and pull yourself up the even more steps that are still to come?)
The steps turn from near-vertical to actual-vertical soon after and luckily there is a huge bottle neck for the final hour... Thousands of people queuing to get both up and down from the summit. 5 paces every 5 minutes. I don't know what has more legs than a millipede, but we were a vast human one of those. The horizon (far below us) started glowing pink as we pulled ourselves to the summit. We had timed it perfectly...drumming and temple processions with ringing bells marked the start of the sunrise puja ceremony, thousands of devotees kneeling in reverence, making offerings and thronging the area, anticipating (for us) the spectacle of sunrise; (for them) that one-step-closer to nirvana that the climb had granted them. The light was incredible. And so was our the elation at being There.
The whole experience of the climb is like a dream, which we could probably not accurately access now that the spell of night had been broken.
And all we had to do now was get our weary selves down again.