When Sophie Cairns’s parents announced they were leaving Hong Kong, where she was born and raised, she vowed to return. A teenager, biracial and fluent in Cantonese, she never felt like she belonged in the UK, and longed for the Hong Kong of her childhood. Cairns later joined the South China Morning Post as a correspondent. Her dream to become a bureau chief was derailed when her father, then retired to France, fell ill from lung cancer. Cairns asked for a transfer to the SCMP’s Paris bureau; she told her father she would be back in a week after she cleared out her Shanghai apartment.
She never saw her father alive again.
Cairns suffered from massive guilt over her father’s death. To deal with her grief, she started climbing mountains. This evolved into a project to climb the tallest volcanoes on each continent, with the objectives to set a world record, raise money for cancer research, and, somehow, feel more connected to her father.
Climbing the Seven Volcanoes tells the story of her climbs, the literal and figurative ups and downs of reaching the tops of these volcanoes, often more than 5000m above sea level, a challenge complicated by asthma.
She chose to climb these seven volcanoes because most mountain climbers concentrate on reaching the highest mountain summits. But no one had yet climbed all of the seven highest volcanoes. The stories of her climbs are exciting and often frustrating, especially when she’s grouped with taciturn guides and hotshot climbing partners. But it’s her flashbacks to Hong Kong that brings her story to another level.
Lush waterfalls of bougainvillea hung over the walls of our weekend house in Hong Kong. Every Friday evening, my parents and I drove out to the New Territories to spend lazy afternoons by the pool and hike the nearby hills. My father especially loved his garden, with its fat waxy grass and tropical plants. Sometimes my Chinese grandparents and cousins visited, and the whole family spent a happy afternoon picking lychees and longans off the trees, packed them in newspaper to take home.
On her climbs, however, Cairns was careful to share her real reason for her goal of reaching the top of these seven volcanoes. As a solo woman traveler (her husband stayed home in the UK for all but one of the climbs) she often stood out and felt she had to prove herself strong enough for these climbs.
If I’d met someone who told me they were attempting to climb volcanoes to bring back memories of their dead father, I’d have thought they were nuts.
As it turned out, Cairns was stronger than most of the other climbers she encountered, including the many of the guides. But she did experience setbacks on almost each climb, which prompted her to re-evaluate her reasons for trying to break this record and the guilt over leaving her father on his deathbed.
I wasn’t going to chase the past anymore. I’d been living in this wistful, grief-stricken world for so long. I knew I would never really forgive myself for not being there for Dad. But the truth was, there was no way to repair my mistake. We only have one chance to appreciate the people we love, and I’d squandered mine. I no longer wanted to punish myself or search for long-long memories, when there was so much to cherish in the present.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.