It’s dark, cold, and misty. My knees ache and my feet throb. The sky is gradually beginning to gain murky light and I keep telling myself it can’t be much farther. But the endless staircase before me, rising at an impossibly steep angle, has a different opinion.
I am climbing Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak, the holiest mountain on the mango-shaped island nation of Sri Lanka.
A footprint-shaped rock formation near the summit is revered by Buddhists as the footprint of the Buddha, by Hindus as that of Shiva, and by Christians and Muslims as the place Adam first set foot on earth.
All Sri Lankans make the five kilometer pilgrimage at some point in their life, as do some tourists, like myself. Ideally, one leaves after midnight and reaches the summit before dawn to watch the sunrise.
During pilgrimage season, around April, hundreds of pilgrims, young and old, climb the steps that lead the way to the mountaintop. Numerous lights illuminate the path; food and drinks are sold at stalls along the way.
But it is October. There are no lights aside from the beam of my flashlight, borrowed from the hotel.
Rather than hundreds of pilgrims I have a handful of other cold, tired tourists to keep me motivated, along with a couple of stray dogs that trot ahead as if to say, come on this is easy.
I had thought five kilometers couldn’t be that long or hard. But I am by no means an athlete; the repetitive motion of climbing 5200 steps is no easy feat for under-used muscles and joints.
It is only after four hours, buckets of sweat, and several bouts of tears that I am greeted at the top by a cup of piping hot tea.
The stray dogs may have arrived first, I might still have 5200 steps down to go, I may not be able to move my legs for days, and the joy I feel could just be too much adrenaline, but watching the sunrise from here, orange and pink spilling across the cloudscape below my feet, I know it was worth it for this single moment.