It’s 1:45 a.m. and our alarm has gone off. We’re putting hiking clothes on and preparing to ascend the summit of the fifth highest mountain in Sri Lanka. The top of Sri Pada Mountain, also known as Adam’s Peak, is home to an important Buddhist temple. Our goal is to arrive at the summit before sunrise.
It’s cold when we step outside. Other couples from the hotel are leaving at the same time as us. We pass by numerous shops that are open 24 hours to serve pilgrims. We missed the opening of the pilgrim season by one day; marked by the full moon. The journey to the top is a ritual that many people from Sri Lanka undertake many times. A man we meet half-way up the mountain takes the record at 173 ascents.
It’s seven kilometres and 5500 stairs from our hotel to the top. The weather is holding for us. The first few kilometres is gentle. It’s a few steps followed by a ten foot flat piece of concrete. After a few kilometres the incline becomes gruelling.
Around I can see the other tourists who are hiking are adding longer and longer pauses into their ascent. At first we wait for appropriate spots: a little shop or a designated rest area. That doesn’t last long and soon people are stopping in the middle of the stairs catching their breath, wiping away sweat, and stretching tight calves.
All along the trail are little shops selling food and drinks. It makes our climb feel insignificant; knowing the shop owners have had to carry their wares up by hand. We reach a place 300 metres from the top at 4:30am. We take the time to have two mugs of tea in the shelter of the shop. The walls are plastic canvas flour sacks attached to a wooden fram. The top of the mountain is unprotected from the elements and will be cold.
After savouring the warmth of the shop, at 5:15 a.m. we make our last push to the top. The sun is rising. The small break has refueled our legs and we’re at the top, scouring for a place to watch the sun come up.
We’re above the clouds. They have nestled themselves into the valleys of the surrounding hills and mountains. The path which we have just ascended is lit by streetlights all the way up.
There is chanting music playing on the speakers, tourists scramble on the lower level to find prime photography locations. Higher up, the devout are in the temple. As I sit there, watching the sky change, Sri Lankan men and women of all ages finish their ascent. It’s not long before the sun has risen and we climb back down all those stairs.
In those few moments of sunrise it’s easy to imagine that we’re on top of the world.