The tale of the trek 

How octogenarians Martin and Esther Kafer climbed Kilimanjaro, set a world record and found both hope and despair

click to flip through (5) BY SUE OAKEY-BAKER

Page 4 of 10

The next morning we see the summit cone of Kilimanjaro in all its splendor. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world, exploding from the muted plains of Tanzania like an exquisite blemish. Vast volcanic craters, Shira and Mawenzi, flank the main massif, Kibo. Sparkling glaciers tumble from this broad cone Hemingway described as "wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white." The magic of ice and snow in a crackly brown land mesmerizes.

Today we hike for almost ten hours to an elevation that is much higher than Mount Baker. Esther and Martin walk together, help each other to get snacks and water at rest stops and keenly tell stories of their past adventures to their teammates. It is 7 p.m. and dark when we reach our second camp, Kikelewa Cave, at 3,675 metres, where chunky black volcanic rocks are strewn everywhere and water is scarce. At this altitude, about 35 per cent of people experience altitude symptoms. At dinner, several people eat much smaller portions, a sign of the altitude sickness. Esther says, "There's too much food. I don't eat this much. I don't want to get fat." Before they head to their tents, I warn them about periodic breathing. When asleep at altitude, a person can have very irregular breathing and then actually stop breathing for several seconds. This is not abnormal above 3,000 metres.

After our second night on the mountain, Esther and Martin stand dutifully in front of the video camera. "My name is Esther Kafer and I feel great. The porters are very helpful and call me Bibi because that means Grandma and they call Martin Babu because that means Grandpa."

"My name is Martin Kafer and I had a lousy sleep but I'm going on anyway." The team has agreed to video and photograph Esther and Martin at each camp and to document the trip in a specific logbook because Esther and Martin have applied to the Guinness Book Of World Records to be the oldest man and woman to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

In five hours, we gain a ridge and descend slightly to Mawenzi Tarn at 4,302 metres, the only "lake" on the mountain. Mount Mawenzi towers above at 5,200 metres and fingers the sky with its jagged black rock. Martin falls back and steadies his digital SLR camera with his long, bony fingers to take several shots. His breath comes in short puffs from the exertion of taking photos. "Beautiful," he says. I wait for him so that he does not go too quickly to catch up to the group. Over exertion is a good way to get altitude sickness. The body is not getting enough oxygen as it is. The air pressure at this altitude is approximately 60 per cent of that of sea level meaning that the body is breathing in less air and less oxygen. With time, the body adapts by breathing faster and by producing more red blood cells.

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