Ex-Post reporter conquers mountain trial, for her dad

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 4:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 8:50pm

A Hong Kong-born former South China Morning Post reporter has climbed the highest volcano on each continent in a record time of just five months in memory of her father, who lost his battle against cancer in 2008.

Sophie Cairns, 35, reached the summit of the dormant Mount Elbrus in Russia's Western Caucasus mountain range on June 10, bringing to a close the challenge she started in December.

Previous attempts have taken well over a year, she said. In the process, Cairns raised nearly £6,000 (HK$79,000) of a £7,000 target for Cancer Research UK.

"I was working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Shanghai when my father suddenly got ill in April 2008," Cairns said. "He was finally diagnosed with esophageal cancer."

The cancer affects the tube linking the throat to the stomach and kills about 400,000 people a year, with about half of all cases occurring in China. Her father, Richard Taylor, died that September aged 64, two weeks after being diagnosed with the condition. "He went very quickly," said Cairns. "It was a massive shock."

Cairns, who left the Post in 2004, then saw only two options: "Either you go on being more and more depressed, in which case you can't help anybody including yourself, or you conquer the depression in a concrete way."

With no prior climbing experience, she and a group of friends from Hong Kong set out to climb the 5,895 metres to the top of Africa's highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, in September 2009. Cairns went on to climb a mountain a year.

Starting the "Seven Volcanoes" challenge in December, she reached her first summit - the 4,285-metre high Mount Sidley in the Antarctica - a few days after Christmas, and from there went to Mexico's Pico de Orizaba, which stands 5,636 metres high. Next came Chile's Ojos del Salado, the second highest mountain in the western hemisphere at 6,893 metres, and the highest active volcano in the world.

Papua New Guinea's Mount Giluwe at 4,368 metres came next, before she returned to Kilimanjaro.

Next on the list was Iran's Mount Damavand (5,670 metres) and finally Russia's Mount Elbrus (5,642 metres), which took two attempts due to bad weather in April.

Guinness World Records does not recognise the Seven Volcanoes challenge, but Cairns said: "It would be lovely to have the validation of a record. But … the whole point of doing it was not really for me. I'm not looking to be some kind of hero by setting a record, I'm meant to be raising money for charity."

Cairns, who has switched careers from journalism to the healthcare sector after studying for a master's in public health, added: "[My father] was very good fun… a very strong and honest man. He was always good to me.

"He was very British, and wouldn't talk about his feelings very much… [but] he really believed in me."

Cairns, who lives in Buckinghamshire, England, now plans to take a break from climbing.