2:00 a.m. is an awfully early time for the alarm to ring. Especially when 80% of your previous day was spent on jam-packed buses, your sleep count barely reaches 3 hours, and… you have a mountain to climb.

Not just any mountain, either: the famously challenging Sri Pada, more commonly known as Adam’s Peak — a venerable ridge that towers above most of Sri Lanka’s hill country, with a height of 2,243 metres. At its summit lies a holy relic of mysterious origins: a gigantic (1.8 m) footprint carved in stone. Whose mighty foot actually stomped there is subject to debate (Adam leaving Eden? Buddha crossing to Siam? Saint Thomas The Doubter? Lord Shiva? Bill Murray?), but what is certain is that the place has been revered by people of many faiths since ancient times, and attracts a solid stream of pilgrims from December to April every year.

Most ascend the 5,200 steps of the trail by night, to avoid the daytime’s suffocating heat. And today (tonight?) A., L. and myself have decided to join them, lured by the promise of the grandiose sunrise awaiting us at the top. As we climb the first step, around 3:00 a.m., I am actually terrified: I have heard multiple tales of this being an extremely tough physical challenge (the lady running our guesthouse in Sigiriya said she gave up mid-climb), and we are currently running on pretty much no sleep — and a dry sugar brioche.

admas peak by night Photo via Ingmar Zahorsky on Flick

I am enjoying every bit of the eerie atmosphere, though: it is strange to be hiking in the heart of the night, surrounded by impenetrable darkness, seeing absolutely nothing beyond the electrically-lit path. Smothered in fog, the summit looks ghostly — almost ominous. Our exhaustion only adds to the feeling of having crossed a portal to another world.

The first kilometers are easy, and I start thinking the stories I heard were grossly exaggerated. That is, until the trail starts getting steeper, and the height of steps irrationally uneven. Okay, this is actually hard! Well, not for everyone: pilgrim families seem to find the exercise a walk in the park. Young kids are skipping, adults carrying babies like an extra 5 kilos ain’t nothin’, 80-year-old grandmas killing it. Most of them are barefoot, some dressed in the distinctive white of the pilgrims, a furry beanie protecting them from the cold of the night. As my muscles get stiffer with every step, I grow concerned about my (visibly wanting) fitness level — especially when a very pregnant lady overtakes me.

Monotony of the climb: lift foot, step down, haul body up stairs. Repeat. Indefinitely. After what could be minutes, hours — centuries? did we accidentally enter a temporal rift? —, L. and I command a halt at one of the all-night tea houses that line the track. But A. grows antsy and decides to ditch the slow kids in order to rush straight to the top — no halts, no breaks.

Sitting still for the first time in hours, I notice how freezing the air actually is: while climbing (and sweating buckets), it seems much warmer. The cup of tea — poured by a morose employee, not too happy to be running the shop while his boss is snoring somewhere behind the counter — is hot and soothing, a blessing to both my stomach and my soul. Equally comforting are the words of the local who tells us we are only about 40 minutes away from the top — 30 if we are fast. Looking back at the snakelike shape drawn by the lights, I marvel at how long we have already come, and the thought of crossing the finish line soon gives me wings. Around a corner, I spot A.: he has reached the summit… and then run back down to our level, for the sheer joy of climbing the last part a second time (?!). He carries news of the last stretch being really, really steep — and as A. is the kind of person who partakes in a triathlon without prior training, I trust him to not exaggerate.

Indeed, a few hundred metres further, the track suddenly turns vertical. I wonder what the climb must have been like in the old times, when this was just a rocky trail, before “the new government” built the current stairs (as a local recounts while we are pausing to catch our breath). Thank God (/Buddha/Shiva, etc.), the path is now lined with metallic handrails, which help me haul my reluctant body up the steps. Yes, that’s cheating. But my legs are on the verge of mutiny, so I don’t really have a choice. I will crawl there if I have to.

Step after step, we soar higher. Some fellow climbers are gracefully gliding up, some are miserably limping, others are begging their mates to please stop for a second. As I start seriously considering bribing someone into carrying me, relief suddenly comes in the surprising form of a minuscule Buddha statue, enshrined in a rock wall and surrounded by fairy lights: I know this little guy means that the summit is near. Possessed by excitement, I hurry up the last flights of stairs like a madwoman. The sky has began to clear up, finally revealing the contours of the landscape. Yessss, we are there!

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka3

However the summit platform is completely overcrowded with impatient pilgrims and tourists, so we decide to settle a few metres below instead. My breath is nowhere to be found; neither is my sanity. But who needs any of them with this kind of sight?

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka4

An orange tint has started to appear behind the clouds. The sky slowly turns indigo, purple, pink… Bright red! I feel like I’m looking at infinity. The tiny fluffy clouds caught on the surrounding mountaintops seem to be sitting still, just like us, waiting for the sun to rise.

The atmosphere is electrical: hundreds and hundreds of people of diverse faiths (or none at all), both emptied and exhilarated by the strenuous climb, waiting together for the spectacle of the elements. A faint murmur arises from the crowd: wait — is it…? Yes! The sun breaks free from the curve of the earth, setting the sky on fire. A light of pure, liquid gold splashes onto the faces of all those present. Silence. Sometimes horizons have a way of shutting you up.

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka5

For a few minutes, time seems suspended. I have never seen anything like this. We are all opening our eyes as wide as we can, petrified by the miracle of the morning, trying to engrave all the details of the moment in our mind (except this one gangsta pilgrim with a rapper’s beanie and a gold tooth, who will not be caught losing his cool because of a sunrise).

gangstacopy Original photo by Ludovic Ismael

And then the magic dissipates: within seconds the crowd starts dispersing, eager to get off the mountain as fast as possible. It’s every man for himself again. Hundreds of fidgety pilgrims form a giant human traffic jam as they all try to rush down the stairs at the same time, and get it over with the long migration back to where they started from.

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka7

We take advantage of the opening to climb the final stairs, kicking our hiking boots off to explore the sacred space. A strange sight awaits us: the shadow of the peak is drawing a perfectly symmetrical triangle on the carpet of clouds. It seems that weird and magical things just keep happening at Adam’s Peak.

Walking around the platform, we find ourselves in the middle of a religious ceremony: monks are chanting, devotees taking turns to salute the sacred footprint, climbers ringing a bell for good merit. The only thing disrupting the contemplative beauty of the moment is the strident noise that a zealous (but sadly little-skilled) flute player is drawing from his instrument. He’s probably an intern.

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka9 adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka8

Fleeing the cacophonic attack, I walk off to the other side — only to discover that a delicate golden haze has taken over the surrounding valleys, shrouding mountain cliffs and forest edges. Sunbeams are drawing patterns in the mist.

I might or might not have shed a tear or two at this point.

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka10 adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka11

Knowing that the heat of the day will soon be upon us, we finally force ourselves out of the hypnotic power of the morning light and put our shoes back on. The downhill first seems way easier than the ascent, and the now revealed views make this a completely different, quite pleasant hiking experience. Until, about halfway down, our legs just stop working. Drunk on effort and sensory overload, we stumble down the rest of the stairs at an embarrassingly slow pace. When the end of the track — finally! —  comes into sight, a silly oath is taken:

We will climb Adam’s Peak together again, in 40 years time.
And make sure that we’ve still got it at 70 years old.

adam's peak sri pada climbing sri lanka2 copy

(Note: After this, my carves opposed strict resistance to movement for two entire days.)
(Worth it.)

All pictures by Marie Colinet, unless otherwise noted.
For more about Adam’s Peak, read about Rita’s experience here.

mariecolinettravelettes Marie Colinet was part of the Travelettes team from 2013 to 2015. Originally from Toulouse, France, two years lived in Australia left her speaking English with an awkward Fraussie accent. In September 2015, Marie is starting the epic 6-month-or-who-knows-how-long road-trip along the Panamerican Highway that she’s been dreaming of since her teenage years — all the way from the U.S. to the very tip of South-America. You can follow her on Instagram @mariecolinet!