Poking up from the southwestern edge of the hill country, the soaring summit of ADAM’S PEAK (Sri Pada) is simultaneously one of Sri Lanka’s most striking natural landmarks and one of its most celebrated places of pilgrimage – a miniature Matterhorn which stands head and shoulders above the surrounding hills, giving a wonderful impression of sheer altitude (even though, at 2243m, it’s actually only Sri Lanka’s fifth-highest peak). The mountain has accumulated a mass of legends centred around the curious depression at its summit, the Sri Pada or Sacred Footprint. The original Buddhist story claims that this is the footprint of the Buddha himself, made at the request of the local god Saman; different faiths subsequently modified this to suit their own contrasting theologies. Sometime around the eighth century, Muslims began to claim the footprint to be that of Adam, who is said to have first set foot on earth here after being cast out of heaven, and who stood on the mountain’s summit on one leg in penitence until his sins were forgiven – Hindu tradition, meanwhile, claimed that the footprint was created by Shiva. Many centuries later, the colonial Portuguese attempted to rescue the footprint for the Christian faith, claiming that it belonged to St Thomas, the founder of the religion in India, though no one seems to have ever taken this random assertion very seriously.

Despite all these rival claims, Adam’s Peak remains an essentially Buddhist place of worship (unlike, say, the genuinely multi-faith pilgrimage town of Kataragama). The mountain has been an object of pilgrimage for over a thousand years, at least since the Polonnaruwan period, when Parakramabahu and Vijayabahu constructed shelters here for visiting pilgrims. In the twelfth century, Nissanka Malla became the first king to climb the mountain, while later foreign travellers including Fa-Hsien, Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Robert Knox all described the peak and its associated traditions with varying degrees of fanciful inaccuracy.

When to go

The ascent of Adam’s Peak is traditionally made by night, allowing you to reach the top in time for dawn, which offers the best odds of seeing the extraordinary views free from cloud as well as a chance a glimpsing the peak’s enigmatic shadow.

Most visitors climb the mountain during the pilgrimage season, which starts on the Duruthu poya day in December or January and continues until the Vesak poya in May. During the season the weather on the mountain is at its best, and the chances of a clear dawn at the summit highest; the steps up the mountainside are also illuminated and little stalls and teashops open through the night to cater to the throngs of weary pilgrims dragging themselves up. It’s perfectly possible, if less interesting, to climb the mountain out of season, though none of the teashops is open and the lights are turned off, so you’ll need to bring a decent torch. Although most people climb by night, you can also go up the mountain by day, but the summit is often obscured by cloud and, even if it’s clear, you won’t see the famous shadow, or (assuming you’re visiting during the pilgrimage season) be able to enjoy the spectacle of the night-time illuminations and all-night teashops on the way up.

Finally, don’t despair if you arrive in Dalhousie and it’s pouring with rain. The daily deluge which usually descends on the village out of season often stops at around midnight, allowing you a clear run at the summit during the night, although the path will be wet and the leeches will be out in force.

Routes up the Peak

The easiest ascent, described below, is from Dalhousie. An alternative, much longer route (15km; around 7hr), ascends from the Ratnapura side of the mountain via Palabaddale. An interesting walk, if you could arrange the logistics, would be to ascend from Dalhousie and then walk down to Palabaddale. Another possibility is to take a tour from Nuwara Eliya, climbing the peak from Dalhousie, although this makes for a long night.

Guides offer their services all round Dalhousie (Rs.1500–2000), though you’ll only really need one if you’re a solo woman or are attempting the climb out of season at night, when the mountain can be a very cold and lonely place. A (free) alternative is to borrow a dog – all the local mutts know the track well, and will be happy to accompany you– “Bonzo” at the Green House in Dalhousie is particularly companionable (although their famous three-legged dog known as “Tuktuk” is sadly no more).

However fit you are, the Adam’s Peak climb is exhausting – a taxing 7km up a mainly stepped footpath (there are around 5500 steps) which can reduce even seasoned hill walkers to quivering wrecks. Allow around four hours to get up the mountain, including time for tea stops (although at particularly busy times, such as poya days, the crowds can make the ascent slower still). Dawn is at around 6–6.30am, so a 2am start should get you to the top in time, and there are plenty of tea houses to stop at on the way if it looks like you’re going to arrive early (there’s not much point in sitting around at the summit in the darkness for any longer than you have to). It can get bitterly cold at the summit: take warm clothing.

The climb

The track up the mountain starts at the far end of Dalhousie village, passing a large standing Buddha, crossing a bridge and looping around the back of the large pilgrim’s rest hostel (if you reach the Green House guesthouse you’ve gone wrong). For the first thirty minutes the path winds gently through tea estates, past Buddha shrines and through the big makara torana arch which marks the boundary of the sacred area. Beyond here the path continues to run gently uphill to the large Peace Pagoda, built with Japanese aid during the 1970s. In wet weather the cliff-face opposite is spectacularly scored with myriad waterfalls.

Beyond the Peace Pagoda, the climb – and the steps – start in earnest; not too bad at first, but they become increasingly short and steep as you progress. By the time you reach the leg-wrenchingly near-vertical section equipped with handrails you’re within about 1500 steps of the summit, although by then it’s a real physical struggle. The path is very secure and enclosed, however, so unless you suffer from unusually bad vertigo, this shouldn’t be a problem (unlike at Sigiriya, for example) – and obviously at night you won’t be able to see anything on the way up in any case. The upper slopes of the mountain are swathed in dense and largely undisturbed stands of cloudforest which are home to various species of colourful montane birdlife such as the Sri Lanka white-eye and Eurasian blackbird, the sight of which might offer some welcome distraction during the slog up or down.

The summit

The summit is covered in a huddle of buildings. The footprint itself is surprisingly unimpressive: a small, irregular depression, sheltered under a tiny pavilion and painted in gold – although tradition claims that this is actually only an impression of the true footprint, which lies underground. Upon reaching the summit, pilgrims ring one of the two bells (tradition stipulates that pilgrims ring a bell once for every successful ascent of the mountain they have made). The views are as spectacular as you would expect, while as dawn breaks you may also see the mysterious shadow of the peak – a spooky, almost supernatural apparition which seems to hang magically suspended in mid-air in front of the mountain for around twenty minutes, given a clear sunrise. One of the mysteries of Adam’s Peak is the shadow’s perfectly triangular outline, which doesn’t correspond to the actual – and far more irregular – shape of the summit itself. The Buddhist explanation is that it’s not actually the shadow of the peak at all, but a miraculous physical representation of the “Triple Gem” (a kind of Buddhist equivalent to the Holy Trinity, comprising the Buddha, his teachings and the community of Buddhist monks). Locals reckon you’ve got an eighty percent chance of seeing the shadow during the pilgrimage season, falling to around forty percent (or less) at other times of year.

The descent is much quicker (count on around 2hr 30min) though no less painful, since by now your legs will have turned to jelly.