What DRIVES someone with chronic lung disease to seek out the thin air of high-altitude PEAKS? For Sophie Cairns, the mountains offered SOLACE and the chance of REDEMPTION
Most people – sane people – don’t try to climb seven giant volcanoes in a row. Especially if they have lungs like stiff new balloons, straight from the packet, that don’t fully inflate. And they certainly don’t leave home and husband to march through jungles in Papua New Guinea with strange men holding machetes.
We had set out for Mount Giluwe that morning just after dawn. The climb to the summit had been pretty easy, despite the fact that Simpson, our hired guide, was missing a big toe. He’d climbed barefoot, clambering swiftly past me like a Cheshire-grinning spider up the wet rock face. No one had accidentally maimed me with their machete, not even once. Now it was dark, and the six of us straggled towards the white van parked on the main road through the village.
Simpson was enjoying himself the most out of all of us. ‘WOO!’ he hollered from the front of the group. He jabbed his arms over his head in mountain-conquering triumph. He must have been chewing betel nut again. His front teeth were blood-red. ‘HO!’ shouted our guide Luke from the back. ‘Yay!’ I shrieked, feeling jubilant. Simpson didn’t speak English and I didn’t know any of the local languages, so we communicated in exclamations.
We reached the van. I set down my hiking poles and took my flask of water out of my backpack. I felt competent at last, like a real mountaineer. Then I raised the flask to my lips. The inside of the flask smelled like wet dog. My stomach convulsed. I vomited so abruptly and rudely that I barely had time to brace myself against the van. The others were too busy loading their packs into the back to notice. I stooped in a semi-crouch and purged myself of days of low-level anxieties: fear of murder by cannibalistic tribes; jetlag that engulfed me like a coarse burlap sack; legs that never stopped aching.
You idiot! What made you think you could climb all these volcanoes in four months? There’s no way you can pull this off, Asthma Girl. My stomach churned in agreement. I felt this way whenever I took a step back and thought about the mountains I still had to climb – literally. Over the past two months, I’d fought my way to the top of the highest volcano in Antarctica, North America, South America and now Australasia. But I still had three more to go, and I didn’t know if I had it in me to complete my mission.
Still crouching, I pulled a blue inhaler out of my pocket, brought it to my lips, and pressed down on the little canister. My lungs loosened as I breathed in the vapour. It smelled like an indoor swimming pool. The smell of the medication resurrected an early memory of those high-ceilinged, antiseptic hospital wards where I spent months of my childhood. The mornings when I woke flailing and scrabbling at my throat because I couldn’t breathe. My parents’ distressed faces and the doctor pressing his cool stethoscope to my concave chest with my xylophone ribs, saying, ‘Sophie’s asthma is severe. She mustn’t over-exert herself.’
Another memory. My father, dying at age 64. Looking up at me from his hospital bed. The tall Englishman who had read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to me so many times and hoisted me onto his shoulders so we could gallop around the garden snorting like horses. The man who had lifted me out of bed with every asthma attack and raced me to hospital. The father I had lost much too soon.
It made no sense, but my father – or the memory of him – haunted my thoughts more now than when he was alive.
Despite my defective lungs and the physical dangers, I was compelled to climb. He was the reason I flogged myself up big mountains year after year. He was the reason I was now in Papua New Guinea, throwing up in the dark by a van. I needed the pain that came with the high altitudes, extreme cold and lack of oxygen. I needed physical pain, because it made my emotional pain tangible and easier to handle.
Every gasp of freezing air was my punishment, every exhausting step up to 17,000, 18,000, 19,000 feet and beyond was my penance. Every time I finally emerged at the wind-scoured summit after an all-night battle and stood above the clouds, I felt redeemed.
‘Hoo-OOH!!’ The ridiculous yodel cut through my thoughts. Simpson was calling me. I steadied myself against the bumper of the van. The nausea had subsided, but now my throat burned. I’d trained for years to get this far. I wasn’t going to give up now.
‘Hee-eey!’ I shouted back. I stood up, forced myself to smile and pushed away the sadness. Maybe this is what you got for chasing impossible dreams. I splashed some wet-dog water onto my face. No, wait. This is what you got when big dreams grabbed hold of you. There was no choice. You just had to do it. No matter how much lunacy was involved.
Taken from Sophie’s book Climbing The Seven Volcanoes, A Search For Strength, available now.
WE CAUGHT UP WITH SOPHIE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HER VOLCANIC PEAKS CHALLENGE
Tell us about your Seven Volcanoes project
It was an attempt to set a world speed record climbing the highest volcano on each continent in the fastest time. The last record was 18 months and I tried to do everything in just four, which sounds a bit nuts! In the end, it took me five and a half months.
Where did the idea come from?
My dad passed away in 2008 and I began climbing in 2009, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. Dad loved mountains, hiking, and high-up sweeping views, so it made sense. I wanted to do something big to mark the fifth anniversary of his passing, to have his name memorialised in some way. Having a world record done for someone else is the ultimate way of remembering them — it can’t ever be erased. Even if someone beats you, you’ll always have your attempt logged somewhere.
You were in China when he passed and didn’t get to say goodbye; was this a farewell to him?
It was self-flagellation on one hand, but also a tribute to him. I felt so sorry that I made the mistake of not saying goodbye. I thought the least I could do was show him somehow that I’m so sorry by putting out all this effort in doing [this challenge].
His memory was what drove me up those mountains. When people go through a really hard time emotionally, taking on a difficult, physical challenge helps you deal with it better. You can somehow make those feeling more concrete by doing something really hard.
How much climbing had you done before this?
Not much, just the yearly climbs I’d done for charity. Kilimanjaro is hard, but it’s mainly technical hiking. I did a lot of roping, knots, and rescue courses. I didn’t want to be one of those idiots who goes out with nothing and no experience at all.
And it took a lot of planning?
Yeah, three years! I had to get sponsorship and equipment and plan the routes. I had to plan the climbs in the right order, to avoid having any huge gaps in between. I went from left to right [as you look at the world map]. Antarctica has a very defined window in the year when you can climb, then north America, Latin America, and so on…
What did you do in the way of training?
I did tons! I went to the gym and I ran loads. I began following a regime of carrying bottled water in my backpack. A litre of water basically weighs 1kg, so I actually got to carrying 25-26kg on my back on a treadmill. I went to wales to train on Pen Y Fan and when I couldn’t get away from London, I would go to Russel Square station where they have the longest spiral staircase [177 steps!]. I would take my big backpack of water and go down the elevator then climb up the steps like 20 times in a row with all these tourists just staring at me.
You have pretty severe asthma; how did that affect your training and climbing?
One of my earliest memories is waking up, clawing at my throat, because I couldn’t breathe. It was bad while I was growing up. I was in hospital a lot. I would spend up to a week every three months or so in an oxygen tent being treated with antibiotics because I’d often get bronchitis or pneumonia as well.
I was a pretty sickly, weak child. I didn’t actually have any effects from asthma while training. But then when I was about to go to Iran for the Mount Damavand climb, it came back. I went to the GP and they measured my lung function at 74%, which isn’t good. He told me I had the beginnings of an infection, so he gave me some good drugs, I took them, and then carried on!
It didn’t all go to plan, though?
Yes, spoiler alert: I didn’t technically get to the top of Ojos del Salado in Chile, I got within 30m of the summit because of bad weather and exhaustion. So I’ve been up all of the mountains, but only to the top of six of them.
You climbed Ojos del Salado twice in fact?
Yeah! The first time we rushed the acclimatisation process and my teammate and I got AMS, so we had to turn back. The second time I was on my own with a different guide. We took a wrong turn on a snowfield near the top and went up a very exhausting route of huge rocks. By the time we got to the crater, we didn’t have the energy for the final rock wall — it’s a 30m rock wall climb — and it was howling wind, so my guide said ‘no, I’m nixing it, we’re going down again’. And that was it.
How did that feel?
I was very, very upset, because of all the effort and I felt I was letting everyone down. But then I was so tired I couldn’t think straight and my guide was so tired he couldn’t go on. There’s no point being a megalomaniac and doing it come what may, you have to be sensible. It wasn’t safe, and that was fine.
How did your experiences differ from one climb to the next?
They were all completely different. It was like being in a Douglas Adams book, you never know what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re in this sleek airport in Tehran and next thing you’re in the outback in Papua New Guinea. There was no time to get used to anything. Antarctica was amazing, so cold and barren and beautiful. Camping out in the interior is something I still dream about. Then you go from that to Latin America, which is just fun and friendly, and then you go to Papua New Guinea where no one speaks English at all. It’s rugged and the people who do live there are really gnarly, tough ex-pats.
What was your favourite climb?
In hindsight, Papua New Guinea. I went with six burly guys, and only two of them spoke English, but they were all so brilliant. They were excellent climbers, so tough and supportive. We had lunch in makeshift teepees and everyone was carrying machetes, which freaked me out! It was really fun, but also the most terrifying experience because were in outback country where all these different tribes live.
We had to get down [the mountain] before nightfall to be safe because these tribes are not friendly to one another never mind tourists and they might take offence at us being on their land. The sky was getting dark and [our guides] were saying ‘c’mon c’mon, hurry up! We’ve got to get down!’. I was jetlagged and tired, and falling over on the wet leaves. Everything changes in the rainforest at night. These insects suddenly began screeching, and I was very aware I was in a hostile environment where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t belong.
And your most thrilling moment?
When I finally climbed Elbrus on the second attempt; I made it and completed the project. I’d been planning this for three years. I’d forgotten what it was to have a job and a routine. My life was all about getting up that mountain. Then when I climbed it and got down again, just knowing that life now could be a bit less driven, and that I could let go, that feeling was great.
What’s it like standing up there?
I’m usually in tears. Something happens to you at the top of a mountain. The air’s thinner and you’re higher than anyone else on the whole continent, so it’s a special place, but it also feels like you’re nearer the heavens than you ever have been. It’s a very touching, moving feeling. I felt very grateful, I guess.
What did you learn from the project?
Everyone has more strength than they know. If I can climb mountains as a skinny asthmatic then everyone can do more than they think. You can always draw strength, and it’ll come when you need it most.
How’s it changed you?
I’m more at peace having done the mountains and made this gesture to my dad. I’m much happier just taking things as they come now. I still love trekking, but I’m not crazy goal-orientated anymore, I just enjoy the journey.