What Goes Up Must Come Down

Descending Adam’s Peak in a Cranky Mood

By Dave Fox
Sri Pada, Sri Lanka 

[Continued from last month’s article, 5,500 Steps to the Sun.]

Overnight, we’ve climbed Sri Lanka’s holiest mountain. We’ve shivered through a noisy Buddhist procession, watched an explosive sunrise, and reveled in intoxicating sensory overload. We’ve seen Sri Pada’s shadow float on the clouds like an untouchable sky kingdom. We have arrived at the summit and accomplished our goal.

Not until now, an hour into daylight, does it dawn on me: this is just the halfway point. We have 5,500 steep, downhill steps to retrace. My knees are going to hate me.

We’re above the clouds. Distant mountains are poking above them. Ribbons of fog flood faraway valleys. I imagine something similar in my brain – clouds of sleep deprivation settling in the crevices. I haven’t slept in 24 hours.

Flopping down stairs of stone and concrete, it’s not long before my joints are screaming. I grab rusty railings for support where they exist. I can’t bend my legs. This is what “Lonely Planet” meant when it said Adam’s Peak “can reduce even seasoned hill walkers to quivering wrecks.”

Kattina is a more experienced climber. She’s got all kinds of suggestions to ease my knee strain. “Try walking sideways,” she advises. “Try going backward.”

She’s watching me, waiting as I inch my way, step by step. She’s trying to help but I’m not perceiving it that way. What I’m imagining her saying, what my mind is hearing, is, “Keep moving. Hurry.”

It’s my frazzled interpretation, skewed by lack of sleep. I don’t want tips on how to get down. I want to creep my way at a slug’s pace, and moan, and cloak myself in a blanket of self-pity.

“Just go ahead of me,” I say.

I pop some Ibuprofen and rest a few minutes. Once the anti-inflamatories kick in, walking gets easier. I pass a teahouse like the one near the top where we stopped before sunrise. Like most of the other tea houses on the mountain, this one has walls of wood and plastic canvas, a corrugated aluminum roof. Like all the others, it doesn’t just sell tea. It sells baked goods, and bottled water, and soft drinks. Everything in these shacks – from the building materials to the goods for sale – has been carried up here. All of the discarded plastic bottles must later be carried down. And I have a hunch they don’t use pack animals.

That hunch is confirmed a few minutes later. I pass young men climbing, balancing hefty palates of bottled drinks on their heads. They do this every day.

An hour downhill, a group of Sri Lankan teens stops me. They’ve never met an American. I tell them I’m from Seattle. They ask my opinion on grunge music, and Michael Jackson, and President Obama. We chat for a few minutes, then continue in our opposite directions.

Farther along, I meet more pilgrims – a mother and her teenaged son. They’re intrigued by my travel mascot – Sven Wondermoose. Svenny is there to help me get down safely. He nudges me back into spirits when I need such nudging, and poses for pictures in strange places without complaining. The mother and son speak little English, but they seem to get Sven’s purpose in life. He makes them laugh. We laugh together. For a couple of minutes, we are united across cultures and language by my stuffed moose.

It’s three hours to the bottom. I eventually catch up with Kattina. Few other times have I felt so spent. The sensation is like a drug – a dizzy, floaty, natural high of adrenaline-spiked exhaustion.

I turn around and look up at summit.

We just climbed that?!

I’m glad we arrived in darkness the night before. Had I seen the way to the top – not as the optical illusion of distant floodlights zigzagging up a hill of unperceivable height, but as the steep, rugged path it really is – I might have stayed at the bottom.

The climb up and down Sri Pada has tested me physically and I’ve succeeded. Even through my pain and exhaustion and gurgling crankiness, I feel a sense of contentment. There’s something about stretching your physical limits that can make discomfort feel invigorating. What I am not currently aware of is how far I have just stretched my mental limits.

Our journey isn’t over. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. The ligaments in my knees feel badly strained. But in the aftermath of this exhausting night, what is about to snap is nothing physical.


[Next week: The strange road to slumber.]

Published on Friday, May 25, 2012

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