5,500 Steps to the Sun

By Dave Fox
Sri Pada (“Adam’s Peak”), Sri Lanka

[This story is a continuation of Dave’s article last week, Crazy Stuff My Wife Makes Me Do, which was his rebuttal to his wife’s article, Crazy Stuff I Make My Husband Do: Climbing Adam’s Peak.]


I stifle my whining when I meet the old lady in flip-flops.

The old lady in flip-flops is hunched over, determined as she creeps down another step. She is thin and frail, but her presence is sturdy. She has crumpled skin; sagging eyes; a warm, exhausted smile that’s missing a couple of teeth.

A gate and prayer flags mark the beginning of the trail up Adam’s Peak: Seven kilometers long, one kilometer up, roughly 5,500 steps. Double that if you want to come back down.

I guess she’s around twice my age. I’m 43. Just living as long as she has is a respectable accomplishment. But on this night, the old lady in flip-flops has accomplished something bigger than just her age. On a spiritual quest, she has just climbed to the summit of Sri Pada – Adam’s Peak, as it’s known in English – Sri Lanka’s holiest mountaintop, revered and shared by Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. From the base at Dalhousie, she has completed a seven-kilometer hike with a 1K elevation gain. She has made the cold, steep journey by herself.

In flip-flops.

It’s 3:45 in the morning. I haven’t made it to the top yet. I’m going up. She’s coming down. She squints at me and smiles through the haze of her fatigue.

“Hello,” she says in English. I say hello back. Our exchange  is fleeting. I never get to hear her story, never get to discover which religion has sparked her pilgrimage, or why she is doing it at this moment in her life. We trade nods of encouragement. Then we continue in our opposite directions, never to see each other again. But our 17 seconds of friendship is what I’ve needed in this moment to figure out that the rest of my night will be more fulfilling if I silence my internal whining.

As fatigue takes hold, a strange protrusion sprouts from my forehead,

“I’m tired. My feet hurt. This is hard.”

I haven’t been saying those things out loud. I’ve been moaning them to myself. But now I’ve met the lady.

Twice my age. Flip-flops. Enough said.

I didn’t want to do this hike. My wife has cajoled me into it. I don’t get why we must climb a mountain to see the sunrise when we can see beautiful sunrises at sea level. I especially don’t get how Kattina considers this a way of savoring nature when we can’t see a damn thing in the dark.

The big, yellow light at the top doesn’t look so far away. Distances are deceiving when you can’t see anything.

After a bumpy three-hour drive to Dalhousie from our hotel in Nuwara Eliya, we’ve been hiking since 2:15 a.m. We’ve been following a meandering string of what I’d normally call “street lights,” only no vehicle could drive here. The lamps illuminate a zigzagging path. High above at the top, a glaring yellow floodlight marks the finish. There, we hope to catch the sunrise and an “eerie natural phenomenon” Kattina has read about, in which, on mornings when nature cooperates, the mountain’s shadow floats upon the clouds for the first few minutes of the day.

The first hour of our hike was easy – a concrete path, a mild incline with a single step up every ten to twenty feet. When I did the math, the easy part made me nervous. A one-kilometer altitude gain on seven kilometers of trail meant an average grade of 14 percent. If the first part wasn’t steep, the later part was going to be killer.

A shrine offers motivation to weary pilgrims.

And now, that killer part is beginning. The stairs have tightened together – concrete in some spots, stone in others. Some steps are missing, necessitating awkward lurches. Teahouses are peddling hot drinks and fresh-baked samosas. Buddhist monks in thin, orange robes greet us at shrines. We don’t stop for tea or meditation. We’re into a rhythm.

Walk, walk, walk, walk, don’t think about the top. Think about that tree, 28 steps in the distance. Just get to that tree. Then pick another tree.

There’s a distinct difference between those of us going up and those coming down. The uphill climbers are foreign tourists. The Sri Lankans, the pilgrims, are here for something bigger than a sunrise. Starting at 2 a.m. doesn’t help their spiritual quest. So the pilgrims have trudged to the top at saner hours. They’re on their way down now.

Ramshackle, 24-hour tea houses offer sustenance to pilgrims and non-pilgrims alike.

Most look bedraggled but happy. Some just look bedraggled. A few, unable to bend their knees after too many steps, look tortured. Many are in flip-flops. Some are barefoot. Parents are sherpa’ing comatose youngsters on their shoulders. Older children – seven and eight-year-olds – are too big to carry. Some look awake and unfazed as they trudge. Others are crying. One girl of about 10 is staging a protest – sitting on the steps, throwing a tantrum, hugging a railing, refusing to budge. But she too has been to the top. If she can do it, so can I. And as she needs to throw a tantrum on her way down, so might I, but I’ll worry about that later.

Walk, walk, walk, walk, 1,836 steps till sunrise.

The higher we climb, the steeper and more ragged the path becomes. Some steps are higher than my knees. Clamoring up them is tough, but what scares me is the trip back down. Never mind what they’ll do to my joints; I have a phobia about long, downward staircases. And I’m pretty certain this is the longest downward staircase I’ve ever encountered. I try not to think about it.

I’m feeling the first gentle hits of delirium. The hypnotic, repetitive crunching of my backpack, disorienting flashlight blasts on my pupils, that surreal and floaty sensation that comes with sleep deprivation, are all lulling me into a spent sense of bliss. The clock ticks past 5 a.m. My adrenaline is waning.

Walk, walk, walk, walk, 34 steps to the next tea house.

The tea house is a shack, made of wood and corrugated aluminum. There are more people here than I’ve seen all night. I hear Australian, British, and Canadian accents. I hear French and Spanish, Russian and Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, and Danish. I say hi in Norwegian to a Danish woman. She grumbles back in English. No desire to chat. She’s hit a wall.

A skinny guy, early 20s, is slinging tea behind the counter.

“How far is the summit?” I ask.

“Fifteen minutes.”

We have time for a quick roti and a drink.

But as I nibble my snack, the world begins to wobble. I feel pangs of nausea. It could be the altitude, but I suspect it’s simple exhaustion. In sitting down, I have staunched my adrenaline spigot.

Kattina notices me staring at the floor. My eyes are glazing.

“Do you want to get going?” she asks.

My body is begging me to rest. My mind, however, cloudy as it is, knows better. If I don’t get moving again, quickly, I’m going to melt into a snoring stupor.

“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s go.”

Walk, walk, walk, walk, 19 steps to that next corner.

We round a switchback, and… WHAM!! Nineteen steps, a bend in the path, everything changes.

We are suddenly exposed. The wind unleashes a chilling assault. For the last five months, we’ve been living in the tropics. Now, we’re 7,000 feet above sea level. I’d forgotten what it feels like to be so cold.

I dig in my backpack for more layers. Kattina does the same. She’s zipping her jacket when I spot a feeble, faraway glow – a thin slice of gray light that spans the horizon.

“The sun’s about to rise,” I say. “Let’s go.” Without waiting for Kattina, I begin chugging, yanking the guard rails to propel myself, wriggling around other hikers who have sat on the path to rest.

Kattina is scrambling behind me. “What’s with this sudden burst of energy?”

“I didn’t climb this far to miss the sunrise,” I pant. (Dramatic pause.) “And I’m not doing this again tomorrow.”

The wind is howling. I’m sweating and shivering. I’m pissed we’ve misjudged the sunrise, pissed we’re cutting it so close. As we approach the top, the sky is transforming from gray to charcoal-red. It’s about to burst. I think we’re going to make it.

We reach the top, the grounds of a Buddhist monastery. A sign instructs us to remove our shoes. I toss mine in a pile with hundreds of others. The flagstone viewing deck feels like ice through my thin socks, but there’s no time to whimper. The sky is igniting. Psychedelic pink.

If I raised my arms like the guy in front of me, my camera got to have an okay view of the sunrise.

Hundreds of climbers – pilgrims and tourists – are jostling for views. Where have all of these people come from? How long have they been standing in this biting wind? Fools! Only, they’ve claimed all of the good vantage points.

Fringes of sunrise peek into the northern sky.

The main clump of crowd is too thick. All this way, just in time, and a sea of heads is blocking the horizon. Kattina and I scurry to the side, up the first three steps of a staircase that leads into the monastery. It’s not center stage. A high, stone railing is obstructing our view. But we’re elevated above the masses. Once the sky lightens, dozens of mountain ridges appear below us, poking up through puffy white clouds to form an infinite, mystical view.

Buddhist prayer flags: They might look tattered, but they’ll endure the elements a lot longer than I can.

Inside the monastery, monks begin chanting guttural prayers, accompanied by drums, cymbals, and nasal-sounding flutes. Outside, tattered, stoic prayer flags are whapping in the gusts. The wind is battering my eardrums. I’m trembling. My nose is running. My toes are stiff with an icy, burning sensation.

I am having one of the most sensual experiences I have ever had with my clothes on.

The monks emerge, and continue their chanting in a procession around  the monastery. I don’t understand what they’re saying, but that doesn’t matter. Whatever bigger power might exist in the universe, I’m feeling about as close to it as I ever have.

Many who reach the summit of Adam’s Peak never get to see this. We got lucky.

And then, the “eerie phenomenon” happens – and we are in a perfect place. Relegated to the back of the monastery at sunrise, we now have a front-row view of Sri Pada’s shadow – a massive black pyramid hovering in the sky like an otherworldly ghost city.

The pyramid shimmers for only a few minutes. Once daylight becomes normal, the shadow fades into brightness.

I get it now. I get why people put themselves through this climb.

Halfway point: We’ve reached the top.

“That was pretty cool,” I confess to Kattina, trying to sound nonchalant as we shuffle with the crowd back to the shoe pile.

“Are you glad you did it?” she asks.

“Yes,” I confess.

She smiles.

Of course, there is one more thing we still need to do. What goes up must come down. We have another 5,500 steps ahead of us.


[Coming soon: A hallucinogenic descent.]

Published on Friday, April 13, 2012

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