“…Stop again!?” I whined, exactly thirty steps after the last sit down. I looked up to see my friend Jane was already perched a few steps above me, panting nearly as much as I was. We were sleep deprived and still feeling full from the kottu we’d stuffed ourselves with the night before, having risen at 2:30am to begin our ascent. My lungs burned and my ears popped. All I could hear was the roaring sound of my own laboured breathing. Above us, tiny dots of light glimmered in the darkness, where other pilgrims pushed on with their torches towards the summit. Despite us having to now stop roughly every thirty steps for a rest, and there being thousands more to go before we reached the still indistinguishable summit of – no, not Everest – Adam’s Peak, I knew we’d make it for sunrise within the hour. We had to!
Sri Lanka, for most people, is synonymous with warm, sandy beaches and surf. And rightly so. The beaches such as Marissa are among the best I’ve ever had the privilege of nursing my arrack-induced hangovers on.
But if you’re considering Sri Lanka for nothing but a relaxing holiday, look away now. Because it was the island’s highlands which really stole my heart.
Whether I was spotting wild elephants on safari, or watching them parade down the streets of Kandy during the Esala Perahara festival, biking around ancient ruins, rattling around the heavenly hills in a clapped-up old bus or chugging through them on a train, every day spent away from those luscious beaches of Sri Lanka brought something completely unique.
The standout experience for me was rising at 2am to hike roughly five and a half thousand steps to the sacred summit of Adam’s Peak in time to watch the sun rise. Even if, at the time, I strongly questioned my sanity.
I’d met Jane a few days before in Kandy and we’d organised to travel to Dalhousie, the village at the base of Adam’s Peak together so we could have a crack at climbing it. Skeptical about the bad weather others had warned us of, we lay awake most of the night listening to the sound of the rain outside and affirming that if it was still raining and foggy when our 2am alarm sounded, we’d turn it off and go back to sleep.
Alas, come 2:30am, the stars were out and some other friends we’d met the night before congregated outside our guesthouse door so we could set off together.
I was even suffering from major CBA on the long walk to the start of the 5500 steps: an uphill path leads you through woodland to a beautiful gateway marking the official beginning of the ascent.
And so, there we were, dying on the side of a mountain in the middle of the night. But we were still keen to push on to the top, so we could unite with fellow climbers who’d faced the same ordeal (and left us behind because we we’re so slow). I can understand why the big mountaineers call it ‘summit fever’ – the only way was up!
I knew we were getting closer to the top when, after two and a half hours, the steps began to grow even steeper, until finally, they resembled a concrete ladder with metal railings on each side. By this time, my adrenaline fully kicked in and I was able to pound the last twenty minutes as the sky grew lighter. I’ll never forget the elation I felt when I conquered the final flight of steps and made it to the temple at the top, just as the sun poked its head over the highlands to the east.
We’d been warned not to bother with Adam’s Peak in September. Since it was the lowest of low season, there was a 90% chance you’d be inside a dense raincloud the entire time.
Speaking to at least twenty other travellers about the climb throughout my time in Sri Lanka, I learned most weren’t bothering… and those who had done it, had had such bad visibility, they couldn’t see past their own outstretched arms.
But was it worth taking the chance and struggling on up anyway? Absolutely. We were so lucky!
As the sun evaporated all of the mist, and the clouds parted to reveal the beautiful expanse of Sri Lanka below, I finally realised just how high I’d climbed: over 7,000 ft, from pretty much sea level, on my own two little legs. Everything hurt, but I couldn’t stop smiling.
We had to leave the freezing cold summit long before the sun had chance to warm us up, since we had to catch the mid-morning bus out of Dalhousie that day and head back to Kandy. By the time we were halfway through the excruciating descent, the sun was high and the sky was completely clear, revealing the paradise around us.
Five waterfalls! Trekking in ‘rainy’ season does have it’s perks; in dry season, they’d be, well, dry.
By the time we arrived back in Dalhousie, my legs were jelly. Each knee gave way with every step, I kept going over on my ankles, and once I sat down on the bus back to Hatton, I passed out cold. Be prepared for some seriously sore legs!
Climbing Adam’s Peak: What you need to know
Adam’s Peak is a 7359ft mountain in central Sri Lanka, famous for the ‘Sri Pada’ – the ‘Buddha’s footprint’ located on the summit. It’s a sacred pilgrimage site for not only Buddhists, but Hindus, Muslims and Christians too, who all believe the footprints to belong to Shiva, the prophet Muhammed and Adam respectively.
When to climb Adam’s Peak
The main pilgrimage season for Adam’s Peak lies between December and May. During this time, you’ll have the best chance of clear weather, no rain, and the pathway up the mountain is beautifully candle lit all the way up. Despite this being the best time to go, you won’t have Adam to yourself; I’ve heard reports of crowding, as families complete with babies and 80-year old grandmas plod their way to the top. I think this would create a good atmosphere though, especially since most Sri Lankans are so polite and friendly: and you definitely wouldn’t be short of laughs on the way up!
I tackled Adam in September, during the low season. Other travellers I met either showed me off-putting photos of their failed attempts (nothing but fog and rain), or told me they weren’t bothering at all because of the reports of bad weather and zero visibility. I was lucky though; you could be too 🙂
How to get to Adam’s Peak
To get to Adam’s Peak using public transport, book a train (in advance, if you want a seat!) to Hatton, which is on the main train line from Colombo, Kandy, Ella, et cetera. From Hatton, it’s around two hours bus journey to Dalhousie, which will cost around 70-100LKR. Buses are sporadic but frequent, although you will have to change halfway if it isn’t pilgrimage season. This wasn’t a problem for us since the drivers know where you’re trying to get and help you change in one of the villages along the way.
During pilgramage season, there are buses that run directly from Hatton. You may even be able to find a direct bus from Kandy.
Keep your eyes open and your camera poised during the ride from Hatton to Dalhousie: it’s breathtaking… and you can see big Adam dwarfing the landscape from miles away!
Hiring a guide
Hiring a guide is not necessary, since there’s only one straight pathway leading up the mountain, and a navigation app such as Maps.me will easily help you find the start of the path from Dalhousie village.
However if you’re travelling alone and can’t find a climbing buddy or group to join onto, it would be best to hire one for security. Especially if you’re female.
Do I have to be fit?
I’m incredibly lazy, smoked like a chimney in Sri Lanka, and never go running, so more than anything it’s a sense of determination that will get you to the top. If you’re worried you’ll get out of breath and need to rest more, then set off at 2am instead of 3am in order to make it to the top in time for sunrise.
- The climb will take two hours if you’re fit, and up to four if you’re not.
- It’s kind of ‘a thing’ to set off in the early hours of the morning to get to the top for sunrise. Not just because sunrise is pretty, but also so you aren’t caught struggling uphill in the intense heat of the day, which can exceed 35 degrees. No, thank you.
- Use booking.com to secure a room before you arrive in Dalhousie if you are making the trip in high season. Otherwise, it’s safe to turn up and find a room.
- Take a torch, water proofs, plenty of water and a banana.
- Make sure your shoes are well worn in: Climbing Adam’s Peak in new hiking boots will rip your feet to shreds.
- Don’t forget to stretch before and after to avoid your whole body seizing up for days!
Adam’s Peak was the most intense hike I’ve ever done: 5500 steps in three hours! But I hope I inspired people taking a trip to Sri Lanka to take it on regardless: after all, what’s travelling without the rewards?