In January a friend visited me at my home in Colombo, and I promised him that we would climb Adam’s Peak. That plan was scotched when, days before he landed, I went down with dengue fever. But I’d done Adam’s Peak before (twice, actually), and there would always be another chance to do it, right?
Things changed. When lockdown came to Sri Lanka, I found I was already bored and irritable in the first week. Then I saw a cheery Facebook post about some chap called David Sharp who used his time in isolation to calculate how many stairs he would have to climb in his home to ‘top’ the various mountains of the British Isles. Virtual mountaineering, if you will. Well, I thought, why don’t I do the same with Adam’s Peak?
At 2,243m, Adam’s Peak — or Sri Pada (‘sacred footprint’) in Sinhala — is not the highest mountain in Sri Lanka (it’s fifth), but it is certainly the most famous. It’s visible on clear days from the western sea routes; mentioned in the Mahavamsa and in the writings of Fa-Hsien, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta; and sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and even some Christians and Muslims. Under normal circumstances, peak (as it were) pilgrimage season would be about now.
The standard route to the top takes two or three hours (including a lot of uneven stone and concrete steps, plus handrails), and then an hour or so to come back down, if your legs still work. Folk mostly set off in the small hours so as to be at the top when sunrise casts the mountain’s conical shadow across the plain. It’s not the Matterhorn, obviously; but it’s not comfy either. And it isn’t part of anybody’s fitness schedule — except perhaps a few monks.
But I had made up my mind. I calculated my ‘route’. There are 72 steps from my ground floor to the roof. Sharp had said that six steps was equal to about one metre, so one journey up or down my stairs would be the equivalent of 12 metres on Adam’s Peak. So, having done precisely zero exercise in the past few months, I thought I’d try for half an hour a day to see how I got on.
Day one, 8 p.m. — A good start. At the end of my first 30-minute stint I’d notched up 23 full circuits — three floors each way — for a grand total of 552m. Gear: bright orange shorts, and trainers.
Day two, 6 a.m. — Up and at ’em! Another 23 laps. Running total of 1,104m; but toe already starting to go through my right trainer. I’ve seen a monk skip down the real mountain in flip-flops while playing the tambourine. But now is not the time to get competitive. In the not-so-cold light of day, I twig I ought not to be counting my steps as I return to the bottom of the stairs. So it’s back to 552m, cumulative. Just saw my neighbour on his roof, doing some mere horizontal wandering. Candy-ass.
Day three, 8.30 p.m. — Torrential thunderstorm. Some cooler air, at least; but then our staircase turns out not to be watertight. The stairs themselves, what’s more, aren’t straight on any axis. I suppose I should be thankful there’s no booze with dinner these days (I ran out long ago). But then if there were booze, I wouldn’t be doing this tomfoolery. I take the stairs two at a time, for a more natural stride, but the ankles of my shoes have started to rub. Nonetheless, 23 laps/276m again (my ‘pace’ is nothing if not steady). 828m total.
Day four, 2.30 p.m. — Our staircase is encased in heavy glass, turning it into some sort of biblical blast-furnace by early afternoon. Inspired architecture, that. My phone’s weather app includes a ‘RealFeel’ feature, which describes what the temperature actually feels like, based, I guess, on extra factors like humidity, a lack of wind and so forth. Max temperatures all this week are 32°C, but today is RealFeel 36°C. My pores are gasping! Almost halfway there already, though: 1,104m.
Day five, 9 p.m. — My legs hurt. I clip the newel post with my hip, and hit the concrete wall where there’s a weird outcrop at shoulder height. More brilliant design. Apropos of nothing, my phone starts playing ‘Spem in alium’, and as I try to turn it off I lose all night-vision and nearly plunge to almost-certain death. There is a mouldering smell all up the stairs. I’m fairly sure it isn’t me, but an electric sky without rain just means more sweat. I introduce a sort of idle pirouette upon the rooftop, in an attempt to force a little air into proceedings. I spy the small red dot of a distant cigarette. My neighbour’s watching me. 23 laps again. 1,380m.
Day six, 10 a.m. — An unexpected surge to 25 laps. That’s 300m in a session (total = 1,680m). I’ve scaled back my caffeine intake on the grounds of shortages, but actually, I just can’t take the heat. While I’m here, slogging it out, my wife is in the bedroom, doing a Zumba class with the air conditioning on.
Day seven, 7 p.m. — One of my legs, I swear, is longer than the other. There must be long-term side effects to always turning left on the way up the stairs, and right on the way down. Still, steady improvements. 26 laps. Total: 1,992m.
Day eight, 7.30pm. — Two neighbours watching me now. They’re probably thinking: ‘What a completely pointless exercise.’ They’d not be wrong. (28 laps/336m, mind!) Pouring again.
Day nine, 7.15 p.m. — A while after I set off, I realise I had already ‘summited’, last night. I just didn’t notice: too busy getting in the shower and not doing maths. But there you have it. All done in eight half-hour sessions. I think I’ll celebrate later with a cigar, which I’m not sure you’re allowed to do on the real Adam’s Peak. For now, though, I might as well just keep on climbing. Not like there’s that much else to do, is there?