Skip to content

Peak fitness: a virtual expedition diary

Climbing a mountain, lest I start climbing the walls

In January, I promised a visiting Reservist mate that we’d 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 (the first time, Christmas ’04, probably saved my life when the tsunami struck…), and there would always be another chance to do it, right?

Things change – and, like much of Colombo, I was already bored and irritable from the first week of our lockdown (no shops, no walks, no going out at all) when I saw a burst of British news items on COVID nixing Everest expeditions, pensioners trying to keep fit indoors, and some chap called David Sharp figuring out how many stairs would ‘top’ the various mountains of the British Isles.

Well… Challenge accepted!

At 2243m, 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 iconic: 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, 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 now – approaching Sinhala/Tamil New Year – so this seemed an apt time for another crack 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 so’s 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 comfy either. And it isn’t part of anybody‘s fitness schedule – except, perhaps, a few monks, incidentally.

But I had made up my mind. I recce’d the route from ground to roof, making it 72 steps. Yer man Sharp had said that six steps was about one meter, which comes to 12 metres or so in each direction. And, having done precisely zero exercise these past few months, I thought I’d try for half an hour a day (one mustn’t overdo these things), and see how I got on.

So, sticking a fresh apple and a hunk of cheddar in my virtual knapsack, I girded what my regular Army brother calls my ‘River Kwai physique’, and set out for my remote and quite invisible objective.

Day 1 8pm A good start. At the end of my first 30-minute stint, I’ve notched up 23 full circuits – three floors each way – for a grand total of 552m. Gear: bright orange shorts, and trainers (both Adidas: model’s own). I could pretend the shorts (more an electro-salmon, really) are some concession to the Buddhist thing; but it’s a safety measure, in case someone has to retrieve me from the darkened stairwell.

Day 2 6am Up and at ’em! Another 23 laps. Running (non sic) total of 1104m; but toe already starting to go through my right trainer. I’ve seen a monk skip down the real thing in flipflops… while playing the tambourine! But now is not the time to get competitive.

In the cold (ha!) light of day, I twig I ought not to be counting down stairs. Damnit. Back to 552m, cumulative. That said, ‘base camp’ for Adam’s Peak’s already at 1250m, so, y’know…

Just saw my neighbour on his roof, doing some mere horizontal wandering. Candy-ass.

Day 3 8:30pm 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 feel like Davie Balfour going up there in the pitch black. I suppose I should be thankful there’s no booze with dinner these days (I ran out long since). But then if there were booze, I wouldn’t be doing this tomfoolery, 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/276m again (my ‘pace’ is nothing if not steady). 828m total.

Day 4 2:30pm Our staircase also is encased in heavy glass, turning it into some sort of Biblical blast-furnace by early afternoon. Inspired architecture, that (against some local competition). My phone’s weather app includes a RealFeel® feature (and even RealFeel Shade™), based, I guess, on extra factors like humidity, a lack of wind, and so forth. Max temperatures all this week, e.g., are 32°; but today is RealFeel® 36°, and I reckon you can stick a couple more on that, in here. My pores are gasping!

Like all other form 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). Almost halfway there already, though: 1104m.

Day 5 9pm 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. See also: trying to kill mosquitoes.

There is a mouldering smell all up the stairs. I’m fairly sure it isn’t me. But electric skies without rain just means even 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. Weird.

23 laps again. 1380m.

Day 6 10am An unexpected surge to 25 laps. That’s 300m in a session (= 1680m).

I’ve scaled back caffeine intake on the grounds of shortages (or v.v.). But actually, I just can’t take the heat. RealFeel Shade™ says it’s 35°. Given that the chimney – I mean ‘staircase’ – faces due East, any time between about 6 and 11 is most emphatically not in the shade. Surprised I don’t have saltcicles in my beard. And it’s not like I can switch locations!

While I’m here, grizzing it out like an absolute hero, my wife is in the bedroom, doing a Zumba class – with the a/c on.

Day 7 7pm There is a dead fly on the floor beside my trainers. My wife is now insisting that I use the dog towels. If anything goes wrong – with 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 up stairs, and right on the way down. (Perhaps I’ll ask nextdoor 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… well, it’s a size 10, isn’t it.

Still, steady improvements. 26 laps. Total: 1992m.

Day 8 7:30pm Two neighbours watching me, now. Oi, oi. They’re prob’ly thinking, “What a completely pointless exercise.” They’d not be wrong. (28 laps/336m, mind!). Pouring again. Good for the ‘warm down’ (LOL).

Day 9 7:15pm Set off… and realise I already ‘summited’, last night. 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 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?

For The Spectator and The Spectator USA, in (two) different edits

One Comment