The climb up Sri Pada... an unforgettable experience (The Island - 2/7/00)

By Dr. A. M. Ladduwahetty - USA

It was around this time last year (February 6, 1999) that I made my first climb up Sri Pada (or Adam’s Peak as the colonials were wont to call it), and I have been left with one of the most exhilarating and unforgettable experiences of my life. Despite my family being one that regularly travelled the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, from Kataragama and Yala to Jaffna and Nagadvipa, it was a curious lapse that we had never undertaken the climb up the sacred mountain. More than two dozen years of living abroad, and now retired, we had begun to spend our winter months in Sri Lanka. This being coincident with the Sri Pada season, my husband had decided to join friends who were making the climb. However, I had thought the arduous climb was totally beyond my physical capabilities, and so decided that I would stay at ‘base camp’ in Hatton, while the rest made the climb.

Arriving in Hatton late in the evening, after braving a thunderstorm that almost forbade the climb, we found to our dismay that due to miscommunications, the estate Guest House we were supposed to stay at was fully booked, but we could luckily get rooms the Hatton Rest House. Here, the accomodation was quite adequate, but after weighing the alternatives, I decided that I would undertake the climb, at least as far up as it was possible for me, rather than spend a day in Hatton. A quick vegetarian dinner, and we were off to Nallathanni at the base of the Hatton route to Sri Pada. It was still drizzling, and the cold and damp was enough to turn us away, but we were assured by the people at Nallathanni that it would clear later in the night. Being totally unequipped for the climb, I was relieved to find Sri Lankan business alive and well at Nallathanni, the road being lined with shops carrying everything one needed, from caps and jackets to food, medicine, and temple and "devala" offerings. A quick purchase of a woolen cap with ear flaps that promised to keep me warm and dry, and I was on my way.

At the start of the journey were the temples and the ‘devalas’, a reminder of the interweaving of Buddhist and Hindu cultures in Sri Lanka, and of days of peace and tolerance. We stopped for the ritual prayers and blessings from the priests. The trail then took us through the foothill area of the Mousakelle Estate, and the ‘real’ climb started at the Seetha Gangula, whose icy waters cooled and refreshed us. Some of our more daring friends bathed at a spout. More prayers and offerings for a safe journey, and we resumed the climb which from hereon became more steep.

In the darkness of the night, the trail of stone and earthen steps though well lit was revealed only for a short distance at a time. The mountain blended into the darkness around, and except for a bright light far away at the top, we could not discern its height. Every few hundred yards we came to rest areas, where food and hot tea were available in little stalls, as well as trailside seating for those who needed to rest. The Siddhalepa people even offered free "peyava" among other medicines at their large and well equipped stall. While my husband and I were relatively more agile, the rest of our party was slow, with the result that we would move on ahead, and wait for them to catch up. This stop-and-go method it turned out was indeed the best way to make the climb without over-exertion.

In addition to the usual Sri Lankan pilgrims, we encountered several tourists, some of whom seemed well equipped with backpacks and mountain gear. To our surprise, we met people already returning from the top, and to our enquiry as to why they were not awaiting the sunrise, they told us that the cloud cover was too dense for a good sunrise. This was disappointing, but we decided to persevere. Strip after strip of steps, and they kept getting steeper. At the Indikatupahana, each of us first-time climbers observed the ritual of pinning a threaded needle and unravelling the entire spool as we climbed. The masses of thread from those who went before us had left a web that extended veil-like for quite a distance. We were told that the practice originated from the time the trail was choked with thorny bushes, and caring pilgrims would leave needle and thread for those who followed to mend their clothes. From here on, there were handrails for support, and I was thankful.

Our friends were getting slower and slower, and the time was already around 4a.m.when we decided that if we kept at their pace, we would never make it in time to see the sunrise.

So we reluctantly communicated our decision to move on ahead. By about 5.30a.m. we were at the bottom of the last flight, and I was ready to give up in exhaustion. We met a German gentleman who told us that we simply had to make that last flight in time to see the sunrise. He said that it was so impressive that he made the climb every time he visited Sri Lanka. With a spurt of new energy, and encouragement from my husband who was ready to carry me to the top if need be, I resumed the climb, one step at a time, and finally, by 6.05 we were there! And what a sunrise it was, despite the predictions to the opposite!

The sky to the east was just beginning to show a line of crimson, and as it grew, more yellow, pink and orange emerged with strips of dark clouds low in the sky, but revealing masses of blue, purple and grey waves of clouds and ranges below.

The Mousakelle Reservoir glimmered; a silver sheet. It was a breathless sight. In sheer silence we watched as the brilliant, giant yolk of a sun did its birthing dance for the dawn of a new day. We ran to the other side, and there it was, that strange and ethereal ‘shadow of the peak’. It was even more exhilaring than the sunrise itself, this blue and mauve translucent pyramid that rose into the sky, a perfect replica of the peak. For me it was an almost mystical experience! Perhaps the altitude effect lent to the breathless awe I felt. The unique shadow is probably caused by the dense clouds and mist below, which prevent it from being cast on the ground in the normal way, and instead casts it upright, into the sky. It remained so only for a few minutes. We watched as it dwindled to a flat ever shortening cone, a regular shadow on the vegetation below us.

A quick participation in the religious ritual, where, along with our prayers and meditations, each first timer was expected to offer two yards of white cloth, and we began the descent, aiming to avoid the heat of the noonday sun. The descent is so easy in comparison to the ascent that one simply runs down the steps; a BIG MISTAKE! Before long one’s knees turn to jelly and the almost involuntary, jerky movements become quite painful. The descent should be like the ascent, a rather slow stop-and-go performance, if one is to avoid the leg pains.

We met our companions, still making their way to the top, and were glad that we had gone on ahead in time for the sunrise. Slowly, with aching muscles, we made our way down. Quenching our thirst with fresh mandarin oranges, and cooling our tired, achy feet in the icy Seetha Gangula once more, we finally made it to the foothills. Looking back at the looming mountain, now so clear in the daylight, it seemed impossible that I had been at the top; it seemed so insurmountable. I knew that had I seen it like this before the climb, I never would have attempted it!

We pondered on the experience as we awaited the return of our companions. To me the whole experience had been so exhilarating; the panoramic view so indescribably thrilling, even mystical. Musing on the fact that I had not even intended climbing the mountain, and how easily I might have missed this experience, I found I had even learnt quite a few lessons from it:

First, one can undertake a project without ever intending to, and find it to be an absolutely wonderful experience. Second, if one takes a few steps at a time, and perseveres, however difficult and however far the goal, one can make it. Third, if one doesn’t actually sense how distant the goal is, and one sees only a short lap at a time, the path to accomplishment becomes that much easier!

Dinner at Hatton, a hot shower and comfortable bed at St. Andrews Hotel, Nuwara Eliya, and we woke up next day with relatively moveable limbs, none the worse for the strenuous work-out of the previous day. And so, I look back on this time last year, and remember the breathtaking beauty of Sri Lanka’s mountains, and the lessons of a climb up Sri Pada.

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