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Climbing the walls

A lockdown challenge in Sri Lanka

April 16, 2020

12:12 PM

16 April 2020

12:12 PM

Colombo

In January, I promised a visiting Army reservist friend that we’d climb Adam’s Peak. That plan was scotched when I came down with dengue fever. But I’d climbed Adam’s Peak before (the first time, Christmas 2004, when the tsunami struck, probably saved my life) and there would always be another chance to do it, right?

Things change. Like everyone else in town, I was already bored and irritable from the first week of our lockdown when I saw a burst of British news items on COVID-19 nixing Everest expeditions, pensioners trying to keep fit indoors and some chap figuring out how many stairs it took to ‘top’ the mountains of the British Isles. Challenge accepted. At 7,359ft, Adam’s Peak — or Sri Pada (‘sacred footprint’) in Sinhala — is not the highest mountain in Sri Lanka but it is certainly the most iconic: visible on clear days from the western sea routes; mentioned in the Mahavamsa and in the writings of FaHien and Marco Polo; sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and even some Christians and Muslims for a range of fun reasons you should all feel free to Google. Under normal circumstances, peak (as it were) pilgrimage season would be about the second week in April. It seemed an apt time for another shot at it.

The standard route takes an unforgiving two or three hours to climb (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 mainly set off in the small hours, to be at the top when sunrise casts the mountain’s distinctive (i)conical shadow across the plain. It’s not the Matterhorn, obviously, but it’s not easy either. And it isn’t part of anybody’s fitness schedule — except, perhaps, for a few monks.

But I had made up my mind. So, sticking a fresh apple and a hunk of cheddar in my virtual knapsack, I girded what my regular-Army brother calls my ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai physique’ and set out for my remote and quite invisible objective.

Day 1, 8 p.m.

A good start. At the end of my first 30-minute stint, I’ve notched up 23 full circuits — ground to roof (three floors) and back — for a grand total of 1,811ft. Gear: bright orange shorts and sneakers (model’s own). I could pretend the shorts are some concession to the Buddhist thing, but they’re really a safety measure, in case someone has to retrieve me from the darkened stairwell.

Day 2, 6 a.m.


Another 23 laps: 3,622ft so far but big toe now starting to poke through my right sneaker. I’ve seen a monk skip down the real thing in flip-flops while playing the tambourine. But now is not the time to get competitive. In the cold light of day, I realize I ought not to be counting down stairs. Dammit. Back to 1,811ft, cumulative. I also realize that Adam’s Peak’s ‘base camp’ is not until 4,105ft, but too late now. Just saw my neighbor on his roof doing some mere horizontal wandering. Candy-ass.

Day 3, 8:30 p.m.

Torrential thunderstorm. Some cooler air, at least, but our staircase turns out not to be watertight. What’s more, the stairs themselves aren’t straight on any axis, and it’s pitch black in the stairwell. 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, would I? 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/905ft again: my ‘pace’ is nothing if not steady. Total: 2,716ft.

Day 4, 2:30 p.m.

Our staircase is also encased in heavy glass, which turns it into some sort of blast furnace by early afternoon. My phone’s weather app includes a RealFeel® feature (and even RealFeel Shade™), both based, I guess, on extra factors like humidity, a lack of wind and so on. Max temperatures all this week are meant to be 90F; but today is RealFeel® 97F, and I reckon you can add a couple more to that in the stairwell. My pores are gasping. Like all other forms of abstract exercise, this is extremely boring. So I am listening to the 154-episode West Wing Weekly podcast, in lieu of access to the actual West Wing show. Almost halfway there to the summit already, though: 3,622ft.

Day 5, 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. Apropos of nothing, my phones tarts playing ‘Spem in alium’, and as I try to turn it off I lose all night vision and almost plunge to my near-certain death. There is a moldy smell all up the stairs. I’m fairly sure it isn’t me. But electric skies without rain just mean even more sweat. I introduce a sort of idle pirouette on the rooftop, in an attempt to force a little air into proceedings. I spy the small red dot of a distant cigarette. My neighbor’s watching me. Weirdo. Twenty-three laps again: 4,527ft.

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Day 6, 10 a.m.

An unexpected surge to 25 laps. That’s almost 1,000ft in a session. I’ve scaled back caffeine intake on the grounds of shortages, but actually I just can’t take the heat. RealFeel Shade™ says it’s 95F. Given that my glass chimney faces due east, any time between about 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. is most emphatically not in the shade. And it’s not like I can switch locations. While I’m here gritting it out like an absolute hero, my wife is in the bedroom doing a Zumba class — with the air-conditioning on.

Day 7, 7 p.m.

There is a dead fly on the floor beside my sneakers. My wife is now insisting that I use the dog towels. If anything goes wrong — with the laundry system, not me — I shall be doing laps in a sarong. 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 upstairs and right on the way down. Perhaps I’ll ask next door if I can use their sister set? I try to change my angles, but the steps are only so deep, and a size 10 shoe is too big. Still, steady improvements. Twenty-six laps. Total: 6,535ft.

Day 8, 7:30 p.m.

Two neighbors are watching me now. They’re probably thinking, ‘What a completely pointless exercise.’ They would not be wrong. Today they’ve had the pleasure of observing 28 laps, 1,102ft.

Day 9, 7:15 p.m.

Set off, but then realized I’d already ‘summited’ last night. I just didn’t notice: I was too busy showering and not doing math. But there you have it: all done in eight half-hour sessions. I think I’ll celebrate with a cigar — which I’m not sure you’re allowed to do on the real Adam’s Peak. For now, though, much like Forrest Gump, I might as well just keep on going. Not like there’s that much else to do, is there?

A.S.H. Smyth is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. This article is in The Spectator’s May 2020 US edition.


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