Book Review: Climbing the Seven Volcanoes by Sophie Cairns

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Nothing makes me happier than publishers asking me if I’d like to check out a new book.

I have a teetering stack that I flit between and would happily have one in each hand could I turn the pages like that. Amberley Publishing sent me Climbing the Seven Volcanoes to read and review – probably because they’ve somehow discovered that women leaping out of their comfort zones in far flung places is to me what marmalade is to Paddington.

Some of the books I link to in this post are affiliate links. One is to Amazon as the book is difficult to get, the others are to, a new and revolutionary platform where indie British bookshops can sell their wares and each receive a portion. Hurrah!

Climbing the Seven Volcanoes

I started to answer, but he was staring over my shoulder. I’d lost him already. What I should have said was, ‘I’m climbing Mount Sidley because I want to set a new world record…’

But the French man had already turned away to talk to someone more interesting. I was alone in a sea of synthetic jackets and backpacks.

Climbing the Seven Volcanoes, Sophie Cairns. Amberley Publishing.

I felt this numerous times during my three years of ocean voyaging. Perhaps I felt it even more so out the other side, when lifelong sailors looked right through me, my achievements and abilities not worth consideration.

Sophie Cairns is not a woman who deserves this kind of translucent gaze. She didn’t jump into some giant adventure without any preparation, she didn’t expect anybody else to do the work for her. Instead, she challenged herself to do something she’d never done before and, no matter how difficult it got, she carried on.

A global armchair adventure

I’m always down for a female-led adventure. From Tania Aebi’s incredible Maiden Voyage and Josie Dew’s joyous cycling tales to Ellen MacArthur’s Taking on the World and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, there are few things I love more than reading about women expeditioning. Often, these stories have a multi-faceted arc. These women don’t just do the thing. They take themselves with them.

Huge physical challenges are never just physical, they are always, always mental as well. It’s difficult to tell a story of physical endeavour while leaving out what’s going on in your brain. But it’s not easy to write a book that exposes your thoughts and feelings as brazenly as your physical actions, trust me. So I have an enormous amount of respect for anybody who attempts it, let alone who does it with as much grace, vulnerability and honesty as Sophie Cairns.

Climbing the Seven Volcanoes is a story of grief, of extraordinary human resilience and dedicated mental effort. It’s a story of chronic illness, of identity and of the self.

An experienced journalist living in Hong Kong and covering the equestrian side of the Beijing Olympics, Cairns receives the call that nobody wants. Her father is dying. After flying to his hospital bed in France, she resolves to pack up her life in China and be back by his side. And she does return. Except she’s two hours too late.

The death of a parent throwing one into emotional turmoil is not new but it is an individual experience. Cairns writes vividly, vulnerably and her sense of loss is palpable. It’s not just her father, it’s everything losing her father entails too. With him goes her life in China, her love of journalism and her lust for life. She recognises her own unmooring and does something unlikely.

She decides to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

What might be a perfectly reasonable life-affirming adventure for most, is merely the beginning for Cairns.

She goes on to climb peak after peak, training hard and building strength, stamina and experience. Did I mention she has chronic asthma? Like I said, not a women you want to overlook.

But the book really hinges on climbing the Seven Volcanoes. The highest volcano on each continent, these are not a group of peaks many have attempted to conquer. Let alone in four months to set a world record.

From Iran and Russia to Antarctica and Papua New Guinea, Cairns runs herself into the ground chasing these magical summits and the feeling of being closer to her father.

Along with the sheer challenge of climbing such peaks, what I found really fascinating was reading about all the people she meets along the way. It’s an incredible insight into the myriad types of people who climb to significant altitudes whether they’re lifelong mountaineers or not. Cairns treats them with honesty, telling their stories with humour and grace.

So does she complete the Seven? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

A word about adventure snobbery

Sophie Cairns finds herself surrounded by adventure/mountaineering/etc snobs. These are the people who look down upon those who have not (yet) achieved their lofty peaks, their imaginarily requisite background or even their clothing choices.

They are the people who believe that the great outdoors is only for a specific type of person. Of course, the idea that a subset of humans should be gatekeepers for mountains, seas and jungles is laughable. And anyone who has a deep love of these places surely understands that it belongs to nobody but itself.

Yet the snobbery continues. I experienced it as a novice offshore sailor before discovering that you don’t actually have to use the word ‘head’ to describe the bathroom on a boat, in order to cross the Atlantic double-handed. And if anybody tells you that you do, they’re sorely mistaken.

Climbing the Seven Volcanoes is a huge achievement of a book let alone of human endeavour. If you’ve ever thought you couldn’t do something, that somebody else would laugh at you for even trying, read this book. Let them laugh.

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