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S2 Ep 6: Sophie Cairns – Conquering the seven volcanoes

Author, Britain

While growing up in Hong Kong, journalist Sophie Cairns has always dreamt of becoming a China watcher. Her work at South China Morning Post and then at Reuters have brought her to Shanghai for the Beijing Olympics, and then to Paris. The life-changing moment of her father’s passing set her off to climb seven volcanoes to raise funds for cancer research, and she’s also written a book of her personal journey, Climbing the Seven Volcanoes: A search for strength.

In this episode:

What got you into journalism?

“My mother wanted me to marry a prince and she was actually very serious about that [laughs], because then I would never have to fear for my health or anything. My father just said one thing, ‘Don't become a lawyer’, because he was one, ‘We already have too many bad lawyers in the world [laughs]’. I (have) wanted to become a journalist my whole life because I read these books by so-called China watchers in the 80s. Those were the stories behind, at the time it was the Cold War still, and these stories from China, it was just over the border from Hong Kong, but I knew nothing about it. And I wanted to go and witness history and I thought, what better way to travel and chronicle these events, or history in the making, than being a journalist, because you're paid to travel as well. So that was my big dream. And I wanted to be only in China as a journalist basically, or Hong Kong, because in my head that was where all the events were happening, or everything was about to happen.”

Life-changing moment

“After the (Beijing) Olympics, the very last day pretty much, my father took very ill; he fainted at home. My mother called up, and I (had) just woken up from festivities the previous evening to celebrate the end of the Olympics, and she said, ‘Dad is not well, we're in the hospital.’ They were living in France at the time, they retired to France in a countryside village, and she said, ‘Can you please come back?’ because her French wasn't very good. I'm the only child anyway, so I flew straight back to France to be with them. After a month, my father passed away, very sadly. We didn't think he was going to actually pass away; we didn't think it was anything that bad until the very, very end. So, I had to look after my mom, because [laughs] an Asian kid knows you can't just run off and abandon your family when they need you, you have to be there. I transferred basically, to the Paris bureau of Reuters.”

Climbing seven volcanoes

“In the weeks after he passed, we were in shock, my mother and I, because it was just so sudden. We went from being told, ‘Oh, he doesn't have cancer, it's just some auto-immune thing’ to, suddenly he was gone. And I got back from Shanghai two hours too late… So, everything changed. My career, I was actually unemployed for four months, between jobs while my jobs changed from Shanghai to Paris. I was then financially the head of household suddenly, I had to take care of the bills and stuff too. It was just too much, and I felt myself getting depressed, I guess. I never get depressed, but I felt myself slipping into grief, and I felt like I had to do something just to turn things around. You know when you're feeling numb, you pinch yourself to wake up and take stock and rally. I thought, ‘To hell with this, I'm just going to do something to get out of this.’ My mother needs me to be functional, I have to work, you know… Just on a whim, I thought I'm gonna just go. I'm gonna book a flight with some friends and climb that mountain (Kilimanjaro). It didn't cost too much anyway, I got cheap, everything. So, just went, and I trained, and I thought I had to just give myself a shock to wake up. That seemed to do it. After five years of climbing one mountain a year for cancer research fundraising, I tried to break a world record by climbing these seven volcanoes in my dad's memory, and to raise more money and get more awareness of esophageal cancer. That's your food pipe, your gullet. So that's how it came, it was actually quite a gradual process in the end.”

Extract from your book that captures an unforgettable moment from the first climb

“I’ll read the beginning of the chapter on Kilimanjaro, the first time I climbed it. It's called See you at the summit. ‘Boy did I hate mountain climbing. I couldn't remember a time or place before this dark night. The banshee wind screeched at me to turn around and head back down. The freezing gusts scoured my cheeks and tightened my throat. Every part of my body was in pain. The cold bit through my tooth and trousers and stung the skin around my eyes, easily finding their way past my ill-fitting goggles. I had long ago lost the feeling in my fingertips and smaller toes. Our summit push had begun at 11pm. I was operating on less than two hours sleep and the altitude made my head spin. For seven long hours, I fought the cold and the dark and the pain, as I struggled towards the summit of Kilimanjaro. The summit was invisible in these dark hours before dawn. All I can make out was a shuffling line of exhausted climbers above me, who were as ill-prepared and unfit as I was. If I raised my head, I could see pinpricks of light on the switchback trails high above. Sometimes I thought I was looking at head torches, but when I blinked, I realised they were stars. I had eaten nothing for the past several hours, except for a bite of frozen Sneakers that nearly cracked my teeth. During our short hourly breaks, I was able to take only one gulp from my water bottle before the oxygen drained from my system, and I had to snatch the bottle away, gasping.’ So that that's how it felt basically, to climb Kilimanjaro [laughs].”

What kept you going during the climb?

“It was a goal. I think no one really enjoys the sensation of pain for hours and hours. It's like you being floored off a mountain. I think, this doesn't sound very healthy but wholesome, but I felt like I owed it to my father. I was in his debt because I’d made this mistake of missing him or saying goodbye, which is forever, you can never take it back or change it. I felt like I had to do it because it was like a penance, almost. I wanted to show his memory or spirit or whatever you want to call that, that I was sorry. There was another insane aspect to this, was that somehow when I got to the top of mountains, if I got to the top – it could be the thin air or feeling exhausted or lightheaded – but I felt like he was closest, somehow. It's a very magical place, the summit of of tall mountain. It feels completely unnatural, like you shouldn't be there and often, humans shouldn't be there. And it doesn’t feel like a top of the mountain, it feels like you're on a springboard to heaven, because it's just you and the sky. There's nothing between you in the sky, you look up and you see pretty much a dark blue of space through the atmosphere. It’s bright there and it's very intense. So in a way, I was closer to him, by climbing.”

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