To the top of the world

I’m not sure why I agreed that climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka was a good idea for a 61-year-old woman with an arthritic knee. Sometimes, I think our minds – younger by 40 years than our bodies – play tricks on our ambitions, making us think we can do it.

Or maybe it was my desire to be able to participate in activities with my daughter that convinced me I could climb this mountain seven kilometres high, 4,800 steps straight up. I wanted her to think I was still a cool mom.

From the moment we arrived in the Colombo airport, I ruminated over and regretted this decision. By the time we arrived at the base of the mountain at the Punsisi Rest House in Dalhousie, I could taste the terror in the back of my throat.

Adam’s Peak is on the western edge of the southern hill country of Sri Lanka, the highest, the wildest and certainly one of the most beautiful places in the world. This fascinating tea country, where the British colonial influence is still evident in sleepy towns, is ruggedly beautiful with swaths of elegant tea bushes in endless green terraces marching up the mountainsides, plunging waterfalls, misty forests of pine, fir and eucalyptus and the occasial white dome of a dagoba (Buddhist temple) or the colourful spires of a Hindu temple. The tea pickers in their bright saris are Tamils who have worked these estates since the British colonial times.

Next time, I tell myself as we drive the winding cliffside roads wide enough for only one car on our way to Adam’s Peak, I’ll be sensible for my age and stay in a beautiful tea estate bungalow, sip bop (broken orange pekoe) tea and write romantic novels. The bungalows were originally built for the British estate managers. They’re inexpensive to rent, about $50 Cdn a night.

Some would say Adam’s Peak is not a big deal. Pidurutalagala, at 2,555 metres, is the highest peak in Sri Lanka while Adam’s Peak is only 2,243 metres. But this peak is legendary, claiming that a depression at the top is the footprint of the Buddha or even that of Adam. And it’s been a Buddhist pilgrimage for about a thousand years.

We happened to be here on a poya day, a holiday in Sri Lanka, which coincides with a full moon. It’s also Easter weekend. Buddhists make a vow to climb Adam’s Peak once a year, and several vehicles sport coconut flowers tied to the front to celebrate the holiday and the impending pilgrimage. For some, it’s a rite of passage, a symbol of manhood; for others, it’s party time. Along the way, we pass vans full of young people being stopped by police. If they find arrack (the national alcoholic drink of Sri Lanka), they confiscate the liquor as well as any musical instruments: no one is allowed to party at Adam’s Peak. It reminds me of spring break and college kids heading for Daytona Beach.

We arrive in Dalhousie, the closest village to the peak. I’m sure we’ve been transported back in time to the Wild West as our driver parks along the lumpy desert-like road. I expect Wyatt Earp to poke his pistol round the corner of the Punsisi Rest House. Our room is on the third floor, and my knees ache from climbing the three flights – a good reason to cancel the mountain climb.  

But I am chastened when our hosts bring a pot of tea to our room. It’s the prime room in town with a big bay window overlooking the main street where stalls sell toques and snacks for the climb. Most pilgrims start the climb at night so they can be at the summit for the sunrise, and the air gets cold. Hah! They think this is cold? Imagine what they’d say about Canada.

Hundreds of buses and vans line up below us in a huge open area. Music plays gently. Incense burns. A sudden rain pelts the dirt road. Beyond the town is Adam’s Peak. It looms very high and very far away.

Before leaving Canada, I read that the climb is exhausting for even seasoned hill walkers. I must have had a temporary lapse of common sense in agreeing to this.
Our driver, Sunil, has found us a guide who will take us to the top. Dinesh, a tiny man who has climbed the summit 5,000 times, knocks on our door at 2 a.m., and we set out.
The first part of the climb is gentle, ethereal almost, in the black night pierced by a full benevolent moon. I begin to breathe easily and when a monk stamps our foreheads with a dot of red ash, I feel I have begun a personal spiritual pilgrimage.

Still, we seem to be the only white people, the only women and certainly the only people wearing sturdy shoes for climbing. Most climb in rubber thongs. Soon, a beautiful thin Sri Lankan woman in her 70s in a flowing white sari passes us – barefoot.

The climb begins in earnest. It’s not a particularly vertical climb, but these are not shallow steps. They are high, double-height stone steps carved into the mountainside.

The stops become more frequent as we near the summit. Dinesh has taken my pulse twice on the way up. Finally he takes my hand for the last two kilometres. The resting places, where we can buy tea and snacks, are a sheer physical relief and a chance to mingle with these gentle people with their warm chocolate eyes and dazzling smiles of encouragement and welcome. If it were light, we would be able to see the cloud forest and lots of alpine bird life. It’s just as well it’s dark though, less terrifying to look down.

By the time we get to the top, along with thousands of pilgrims, my brain and my legs are blubbery.

There’s a sense of accomplishment though, a feeling of exhilaration, of being part of something special.

It’s taken us four hours. At 6 a.m., the sky brightens, and the sun begins as a thin red line on the horizon. We sit mesmerized as it unfolds and spreads a glimmering orange-pink blanket over the surrounding hills. A group of saffron-robed monks begin a descent down from the summit chanting.

The 360-degree view is astonishing, like being able to see the entire world below us. The white dome of a dagoba glows beneath us. A blackbird soars through a pine grove. Bells ring from a remote valley. Everything is right with my world at this moment.
The feeling of elation is short-lived as we begin our descent, and my legs have no mobility. I feel like the gingerbread man. Dinesh takes my hand, and I hang on tight for the two-hour hike back to our room at the Punsisi.

On my way up the three flights (they seem so easy now), I meet a young girl from Pakistan who has just completed the climb.

“It was torture,” she wailed. “I kept wondering why am I doing this? I’m not even Buddhist.”

She’s about 25 years old and, for her, it was just as difficult. I felt exonerated and much, much less rickety and old.

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Sri Lanka Tsunami Challenge Trek
You can visit Sri Lanka and help build the coastal city of Galle, seriously damaged in the giant tsunami that struck last December. The trip is scheduled for Nov. 18-29 for CAD$3199 per person, all inclusive with flights offered at reduced rates on Air Canada and Sri Lankan Airlines. The entire profits of this tour CAD $300 per person) will be donated to Ontario International Development Agency, a Sudbury based NGO that is building a housing complex called “Ontario Village” for those who have lost homes in the tsunami. The 10-day soft adventure tour visits Habarana, Sigirya Rock, Dambulla Cave Temple, the city of Kandy, Nuwaraeliya tea country, Horton Plains Banadarawela, Singharaja Forest, Ratnapura, Hikkaduwa and Galle.
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