Pidurutalagala – 8,281ft
Matthew and Amanda
September 25, 2016
“The guard says that at 10:30, there will be a shift change, and the gate will open up for you then,” our driver Neel said, gesturing toward the young uniformed man with the AK-47. “Then you can go to the top.” He nodded in the direction of the top of the hill: the summit of Pidurutalagala – the highest mountain in Sri Lanka. It was tantalizingly close, only a mere 50 vertical feet or so, but between us and it was a gate and several lines of razor wire. It might well have been the most fortified and hard to get to point in the whole country.
“But why do you need to go there, isn’t this high enough?”
His question illustrated an important point that we had come to realize during our research and discussions about climbing Pidurutalagala: most people made no distinction between the true summit of the mountain (i.e., highest land you could walk to) and the conveniently accessible ground that was merely a few hundred feet below the summit. It was all “the top” to them.
Of course, being more of a purist, I considered these to be two completely different things. Either you are on the summit of the mountain (“the top”) or not. If there is higher ground you can walk to, you’re not at the top yet. Simple.
Often in highpointing and peakbagging, the final 5% of the walk to the true summit – the top – can be vastly more difficult than the other 95%. Many countries have protected military or communications installations at the summit of their highest mountain – a strategically sensible location but frequently the bane of mountaineers seeking to reach the top. Examples of such countries with difficult high point access are Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Antigua and Barbuda, to name a few.
And of course Sri Lanka. We knew that there was an extensive complex of heavily guarded military and communications installations covering the summit. This meant that there was also a road to the top.
The information we could find online and by talking to Sri Lankans in person painted a confusing picture. Accounts spanned a wide spectrum from “sure, nowadays everyone can go to top, as long as you take a taxi,” to “nobody is allowed to go to the top,” and everything in between. And of course, we never knew what exactly people referred to when they said “the top.”
I happened upon an excellent report by highpointing colleagues Patrick Thornley and Tom Cope (link here http://peakbagger.com/climber/ascent.aspx?aid=647762), who gave an account of their remarkably successful ascent to the true summit a few months earlier.
. In their report, they indicated that officially, you could get very close to the top, but the true summit was off-limits. Nevertheless, their local guide had miraculously managed to persuade one of the guards to allow them to walk to the top. (Their guide said something to the effect of: “They’ve come all the way from America to go to the top”). In their report, they included a photo of a concrete compass rose at the summit. This would be our quarry for the trip.
Tom and Patrick’s account heartened me because it suggested that it might actually be possible for us to get to the top today. All that it would take was some persuasion and a benevolent guard.
Amanda and I had a good feeling about the guard at the gate. Unlike the previous six various guards we had talked to, who had all firmly denied our request, this man was about our age and had kind look about him. He had smiled when I first spoke to him. He lacked the gruffness and the foreboding moustache of the other guards. In short, we felt that he was going to be our best shot at getting past this final gate.
Thankfully, our driver Neel knew our definition of “the top” – we had made sure to explain this detail quite clearly to him. Also, as a seasoned tour operator, he had been to the summit area numerous times, and had even been the concrete compass rose marking the summit a few years earlier. He said that nowadays they weren’t letting people to the top, but he would try his best to help us.
Amanda and I had fortuitously and randomly met Neel a few days earlier when he gave us a ride from the Nanu Oya train station to our hotel in Nuwara Eliya – the town situated at the base of Pidurutalagala, or “Mount Pedro” for short. As we drove to town, he began talking about Mt Pedro and we immediately recognized from his familiarity with the mountain that he could very well be our ticket to the top.
Today, he had picked us up at 8:30am and, after checking in with the guard at the beginning of the road, we headed up the windy 8km toward the summit. Due to the risk of leopard attacks, it was not permitted to stop or get out of your vehicle.
After 20 minutes or so, we rounded the last corner and arrived at the second checkpoint. Here, the guard waved us through and motioned for Neel to park in the nearby lot.
There were already a few other tourist cars in the lot and at least two dozen Sri Lankan tourists milling about, snapping photos. We happily joined them, but were not rejoicing yet. Our prize – the summit – lay somewhere upwards, beyond armed guards and a tall fence topped with razor wire.
We approached the first guard and Neel did all the talking, telling him politely where we would like to go. For clarity, using my phone, I showed the guard the photo of the concrete compass rose from Tom/Patrick’s report.
“No,” he said sternly, looking at me, “not allowed.”
Dejectedly, we said thank you, sighing with dismay. We found a few other guards, repeated the request, but received the same rejection. Our hope was fading. Then, we walked around to another gate that happened to not be swarming with other tourists. It was here that we met the young friendly guard who represented last hope.
After he told us to come back at 10:30am – one hour later – we walked around and did some thinking.
“It is a difficult situation,” Neel said. “Since there are other people here, if he lets you in but not others, then others will see you and ask ‘Why didn’t you let us in? You let in Americans but not Sri Lankans?’ So you can see how it is difficult for him to let you in. What to do?”
Indeed, we recognized the conundrum. If there weren’t all of these other tourists around (who, of course, had every right to be there), then it’d be much easier for him to sneak us in.
“If you had come in the early morning on a weekday, instead of Sunday, then it would be much easier,” Neel said. (*Future climbers, take note*.) He put the odds of our success at 50 – 50.
At the appointed time of 10:30am, we rounded the corner once again and looked up towards the gate. It was open, and people were pouring in!
The friendly guard gestured for the three of us to enter and followed closely behind. His shift had apparently just ended, and another guard was taking over. We noted that the replacement guard looked considerably less benevolent and we counted ourselves very lucky. Was the gate open just for us, and these other tourists had been lucky enough to arrive at the right time? Or was this something the guard did routinely? Eager to avoid jeopardizing the delicate situation, we didn’t ask any questions as we passed through the gate.
After a short walk, we arrived triumphantly at the concrete summit marker. Mission accomplished! I let out a big sigh of relief. It was foggy, cool, and windy so there was no real view, but that was just fine with us.
Initially, the guard had told us no photos, but he relented, and even snapped a photo of the three of us. After we basked in the glory for a few minutes, the guard indicated for us to follow him to a small nearby shrine.
As we approached the shrine, I noticed a small bit of rock protruding from the grass. This looked slightly higher than the concrete summit marker, but it was hard to tell. After waiting for a few other tourists to clear out, we snapped some photos and soon headed down. We thanked the guard profusely and waved goodbye.
“You were very lucky,” Neel said as we hopped in the car. “Very, very lucky.”
Indeed, the day could have gone very differently. 20 minutes later we were back at our hotel in Nuwara Eliya. We slumped onto the big sofa and exhaled a big sigh of relief.
Email me (matthewg [at] alum [dot] mit [dot] edu) for the contact info for our driver or for any other specifics of how we got to the top. Keep in mind that access rules are always changing and could very well be different by the time you read this. Tour operators like Neel would likely have the latest info.