A False Peak of Agony: Part 1

Adam’s Peak, or Sri Pada, is located in the west hill country of Sri Lanka. Surrounded by tea plantations and rubber farms, it stands roughly 2200m. It is only Sri Lanka’s 5th highest peak but few involve such a rigorous ascent as Adam’s Peak. It’s 5520 steps are guaranteed to exhaust you in more ways than one. However rough the scaling of such a mount would promise, the toughest part would be one we had never expected.Adam's Peak

Janae and I were driven to the base of the mountain and arrived near 1:30 in the morning. The night was vaguely illuminated by the crescent moon, which was doused further by our half-sleep daze. We had awoken an hour and a half prior and chose a continued attempt at slumber in the curvy car ride to the peak. Niroshan walked us to the start of the trail and assured us that the path up the mountain was lit and there were vendors along the way to keep us headed in the right direction. If that failed we could always just follow the wild dogs scrounging the trail for tourist scraps.

The night air was chilly while burnt incense and garbage grabbed hold of our nostrils. The odors molested us little after almost 2 full days in Sri Lanka. It seemed the government had elected a national scent and declared it be sprayed daily. Either way, we began the hike in very good spirits despite getting only 4 hours of tattered sleep. The trail was large, well lit, and the people we passed friendly. It also eased the apprehensions we had started with, upon looking at the steep climb, when our current path was only slightly tilted. The four hours that we were told it would take to hike the trail would be nothing at this incline… but it didn’t last.

Nightime VendorsAfter passing the first of many Buddhist statues that speckled the trail we hit our first steps. Those steps would continue to plague us the rest of our journey. Up and up we went into the starry night. We could tell our energy was failing at hour two when our conversations became fewer and fewer. Where once we had blazed up the hillside with amazing speed, now blazing by us were the other hikers who had mistakenly chosen this for a pleasant early morning stroll. It didn’t help that the steps seemed to grow proportionally to the rate at which our energy shrank. This is also where we witnessed something truly unique.

Four men were literally jogging down the mountain and they were carrying something. Lined up in rows of two right behind one another, they had a wooden pole on top of their inner shoulders. As they got closer and closer we saw that there was a dark blue sheet wrapped around the middle of the two poles connecting them. What further struck us was that embraced in that sheet was a small human being. The four men were carrying an elderly woman of about 80 years old down the mountain in a makeshift stretcher. I instantly saw the look of panic in Janae’s eyes.

Would that be her? Would she be rescued like the elderly woman? Would she collapse midway up the mountain and be carried off the slope like a war-wounded soldier at the Battle of Antietam? For the first time that night, I saw a look that said, ‘Maybe we should turn back’. Truthfully, I wasn’t all that surprised. What surprised me was what happened next.

Janae took another step forward. And another. And another. And another. She had distanced herself a good 15 steps higher and counting. I was speechless. It wasn’t until she turned back and asked cooly, “Are you coming?” that I was jolted out of my stupor. The strength of this woman was astounding. She was dead tired and near vomiting from exhaustion and yet she continued to climb… cheerfully!

We often see and hear stories of men and women getting into situations in which they were ill prepared. We witness their confidence and arrogance at first and see it dwindle with each passing moment as hardship chips away at their conceptions of possibility. What I had imagined before starting this climb I barely remembered now. What I did remember was what I didn’t think about. I didn’t think about how my greatest challenge this morning would be of the non-physical variety. My confidence that we could do this quite easily was shattered when I realized that the “we” I had thought of was, in all reality, “me”.

I realized at step 3000 that this was going to be one of many of life’s peak’s that we’d have the opportunity to conquer together. So putting aside “me”, I reached back my hand to do this as “we”. Little by little we overcame each of those stone barriers. Ten steps here, thirty-five steps there. Our hands were sweaty and the rest breaks numerous. Janae’s thighs ached and her heart was racing, but we didn’t stop.

I encouraged her to keep her head down, to focus on the next step. It mattered not the shear depth of the climb ahead, or the The Orange Lightorange light at the top of the mountain that signified the end, what took hold of our thoughts and demeanor was that “next step”. We focused not on the peak but on the present. Hand-in-hand we rose. The elderly hikers descending the steps smiled and awed at the physical union we had formed, but we paid them no mind. We trudged on. We went forward. For what seemed like ages we went. Then finally, as we dared to glance upward, we witnessed a sweet sight if ever there was one: The Top.

We had spent more than four hours moving in an upward direction and that orange light was nearly upon us. The only problem was the final hundred or so steps were the steepest of all. If that wasn’t daunting enough we felt a jolt of panic course through our veins as we witnessed the morning sky. The dark blues of night had begun to morph into the soft blush and tangerine sparkle of a new day. It would not bode well to have spent 4 ½ hours scaling a mountain to just miss the most glorious part of the day. We had to go up and we had to go fast.

I grabbed the side railing with one hand and Janae with the other and we made our final ascent. The orange light grew brighter and brighter as we neared the summit. We triumphantly made it to the final step. And as we perched there reveling our victory, as if signaling the end of our journey, the light turned off. The sun shown enough light. The night was no longer necessary. We had reached the top, that glorious top.

Ten minutes later the sun congratulated us for our persistence by presenting himself in glorious fashion. The colors of that daybreak sky were like Christmas morning. The fog washing over the valley like New Year’s Eve, promising exciting things to come. Despite how crowded the small peak had become by the many weary travelers we felt like the only two people in the world,adam's peak sunrise gazing out over cliffs of wonder and beauty. We didn’t want the sun to continue its own climb, but alas, it did.

The rosy pinks and violet reds gave over to silky light blues, which signaled to us that it was time to move on. The day was ahead of us. Suddenly there was a second dawn, the realization crested into our minds that we were only halfway done this mountain. We still had to go back down. The top step, the one we had just minutes before claimed so joyously, was now a beacon of intending doom and apprehension.

We had partially fitted ourselves for the climb, but we had in no way mentally prepared for the descent. And we certainly had no clue the de-climb would challenge us in far greater ways than the ascension. But despite our reservations… down we went.

Stepping Down