The SLA & LSR Adventure; Day 10, 11 and 13, Climbing Adams Peak

During 2014 the Trek and Run team joined others to cycle and trek over 650kms, coast to coast across Sri Lanka. We were supported on our journey by the following companies, who provided the resources we needed to make the best of our time there.

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There are 4 routes up Adam’s Peak. The main Hatton Road, which is just 7km long from it’s trail head, the Ratnapura Path which is 11km long, then the Iratna Path at 14km long and finally the Maliboda route, which we was taking, that was 17km long and had 1,900 metres of climbing.

Our route was challenging, leeches were on us if ever we stopped, unless we paused whilst on huge rocks (the leeches rarely stray onto rocks) and since there weren’t that many rocks in the jungle we passed through it meant we only rested 3 or 4 times in the 5 hours it took us to reach the pilgrims shelter below the peak. The jungle was thick from the moment we set out and it was hot, very very hot. My clothes were soaked with sweat inside minutes.

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We’d smothered our feet with tiger balm to warm off the leeches, then covered that with sun cream and finally insect repellant. Our guides had said the combination of smell, slipperyness and repellant would help keep us clear of the bloodsuckers. But it didn’t help; the leeches moved terrifically fast and I’m guessing I had over 100 fix themselves to me during the hike. In the time it took for my foot to hit the ground and then move away again a leech, if it were on a leaf by my shoe, would cling onto me and work it’s way towards open skin.

Of course, it’s no real problem. They don’t spread disease, they just drink a little of your blood. You’re not going to get sick from leeches drinking a little blood from your leg, it’s just the initial reaction was to keep them away but as the hike wore on I had a change of heart. We’re hiking a mountain holy to buddhists, I thought, I should give my fellow creatures a break. We were the first tourists to hike the Maliboda route, our guides said, usually it’s only used by people from the villages, so the poor leeches don’t have much to feast upon, maybe a person passing once every few months (or more often in worship season) and the occasional wild elephant (the leeches fix onto their trunks). I felt then like a mobile blood donor van, doing some good, although dispensing rather than collecting.

If you do this route and don’t want leeches on you I’d suggest you wear white socks and trainers, so you can see the leeches clearly in order to pick them off as they’re difficult to spot on darker colours.

We saw lots of elephant poop, some fresh, and broken down areas where they had recently rested, and a green spider that was the size of my hand. We couldn’t wait around enjoying these sights for long though, besides the leeches (which not everybody in our group was so happy to be around) the going was tough, mostly uphill and over slippery rocks, and it looked like rain and we had a large river to cross that would be impassable if it started to rain, so we pressed ever onwards.

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But the rain held off and having jumped the river via a selection of exposed rocks we found some large flat rocks on which to sit and have lunch. Many years ago I would have read this story and tried to work out the route so that I might do it alone, without guides, as I thought back then that it’d be a more wild experience. But that would be a mistake; some areas offer themselves well to solo exploration, the desert for example, but there are so many paths in the forest, and so few people to ask directions of (we saw 2 men in 5 hours, neither of which spoke English) that I’m certain you’d get lost, dangerously so, if you tried to do this route alone.

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Then it was onwards to the Umbulana, a communal covered space where pilgrims rest before a final push up to the peak. There were toilets there, fresh water, a small restaurant and a wonderful view of Adam’s Peak, with our route tomorrow lit up by small lights dotted up the mountainside.

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The rest of our team joined us via the Iratna Path, an easy route that was mostly leech free, and we dined on fresh bread and a coconut and potato curry before getting a few hours sleep on the concrete floor (which actually did my back a lot of good as I’d been aching for days after being hunched over the bike handlebars).

Pilgrims arrived and left all night and not much sleep was had. Families were excited, this was their holiday, a major event, going on pilgrimage to the top of Sri Lanka’s holiest mountain; children chattered and most adults were acting joyous and a little raucous, like teens on a school outing.

We climbed alongside them at daybreak, most of them were barefoot and moving swiftly up the steps that led from the shelter to the summit through misty forest.  As pilgrims passed us on the way back down the mountain our guide, LH, sang to them and they in turn sang back to him.

‘There are more than 1,000 sayings,’ he explained, ‘you’re basically just saying hello and blessing the person, so you might say, hi, lady in a pink dress, bless you, that sort of thing, and they sing their thanks back to you, and bless your own journey to the peak.’

The walk was much easier than the day before and within 2 hours we reached the summit, the final few steps through fragrant undergrowth and then we were there, surrounded by prayers, bells and incense.

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Many of our fellow pilgrims were in white shirts and sarongs with a white sash, signifying that they were here for meditation purposes. Women offered us fruits, and sweets, and lots of smiles and good wishes.

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A couple of girls were trembling as they inched towards the footprint shrine, they were seers, mystics from Colombo and they were in a trance-like state, shaking with the emotion of the occasion. Later pilgrims would kneel before them to obtain their blessings. LH, the most patient of guides, told us all this, and so much more, never tiring of our questions and never without an answer.

In the pilgrims dorm, which was basically an open ended, whitewashed rectangle built into the rock, the game was to secure floor space and fencing it off somewhat with your bags. We scoured around for cardboard to acts as beds and then sat and rested. Locals gifted us food, and we gifted it on, and we began to relax, knowing that we’d be here for sunset and then sunrise. The views were starting to open up and since it was only around 15 degrees we could stand outside comfortably and enjoy them.

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At 4pm there was a loudspeaker announcement; the head monk was requesting everybody leave so that cleaning could go on. It was the end of the season the next day and they wanted to shut the place down entirely. After tomorrow the summit would not be attainable, the gates would be locked and not re-opened until the pilgrim season opened again in several months time, after the rains. I could understand the logic but it seemed odd, like throwing everybody out of church on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass.

So we began to descend, this time down the Hatton Road Path, all the time being passed by more and more pilgrims heading for the top. I was told they’d not be able to stay up there but some clearly had camping gear and since we never saw them come down until the next morning I assume they just ignored the monks and stayed for sunrise anyway.

I was disappointed not to see sunrise but I understood; sunset and sunrise, even moonrise, are of no real interest to Buddhists, so our guides were just doing what they thought was best, which was obeying the monks wishes and getting us in a position from where we could watch the procession down the mountain the next day.

We ate a hearty meal at a pilgrims shelter and then laid out for another night on a concrete floor. There was no need for blankets, it was so warm, we just pulled sarongs over ourselves and tried to rest.

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Pilgrims were ascending, and descending, all night. Faint music, from food stalls and the transistors of pilgrims, serenaded the rush of water from the nearby waterfalls. I slept little but enjoyed watching the people go by. They were often so full of joy, exchanging pleasantries with strangers, smiling at everybody. Westerners among them said the mist had obscured sunrise until half hour after it’d come up but the experience of being on the summit among the devotees was incredible. I could imagine it was. But I was happy with our own experience, of seeing the mystics, of eating curry in the pilgrims dorm on the summit, the testing climb, the basic comforts of the concrete shelters. And of this 3rd morning on the trail, when we sat under a Jacaranda tree munching on fresh guava, watching the Perehera, a procession that escorts the holy sandlewood buddha down from the summit to Dalhousie and then onto Ratnapura.

Men carrying monks possessions and also stock from the food stalls came first…

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…followed by other carrying bags of donation money – guarded by police – and several Cambodian monks.

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The procession is late, LH said that nobody asked how long something will take on the mountain, it was the will of the guardian diety. When it arrived we followed it, there were drummers and as we got into Dalhousie town stall holders sprinkled saffron water at our feet.

You can see highlights from the procession, and the 3 day journey, in the short film I made about our journey, here (skip to about 19 minutes if you want to miss the cycling bits)…

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