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 6 of 10

"Esther made these," says Martin. "We got very cold once, on an expedition. We had to bivy. When we got home, she made these down jackets and our sleeping bags." He smiles at his wife.

"How long ago was that?" I sense the answer.

"1965." Martin's memory kicks in immediately.

"No way! They're older than me!" We all have a chuckle at their 47-year-old gear, but it seems in good shape apart from a few patches.

The group wants to know what summit night will be like. It will take 13 hours to go to the summit and back to high camp. We begin to hike at night so that we will be on the summit close to sunrise. Otherwise the clouds rise up quickly from the plains and obscure the view. It has also been said that if you could see the way, you might not go. It could be anywhere between minus 4 and minus 30 Celsius. It could be windy or it could be calm. It could snow. If the sky is clear we could see a full moon. The forecast changes quickly. Kilimanjaro is so big and so alone that it makes its own weather. How hard will it be? I don't know. It varies from person to person.

They have done everything right. They have trained, they have the proper equipment, they have ascended at a slow and steady rate without overexerting in order to acclimatize, they have taken Diamox (a diuretic that speeds acclimatization), they have eaten a diet high in carbs, they have kept hydrated. But there is no guarantee that they will make the summit.

And you can do everything right to prevent Alzheimer's and still get it.

The next day we cross the barren saddle in six and a half hours and arrive at our high camp, Kibo Hut, at 4,714 metres, nestled at the base of the grey volcanic cone, which is Kibo. I point out the scree path that zigzags its way up the side of the mountain, getting steeper as it gets higher, until it reaches the crater rim. At 11 p.m. we will begin our push to the summit.

We spend the late afternoon packing daypacks for the summit. I circulate to answer questions. "Don't forget your sunglasses and sunscreen. They'll be the last thing on your mind at 11 tonight." Memory lapses can affect emotions and cause anxiety. The air is thin and the pressure of making the summit nears. Tolerance wanes and fear slips in. "You are the worst tent-mate I've ever had!" One spouse says to another. "You're good at your job at home but you are useless here." The couples vent their anxieties. When you love someone you have to learn to forgive because they will hurt you. Facing the adversity together ultimately makes their relationship stronger. But what would happen if the mood changes were constant and permanent and abusive? What if your partner was getting Alzheimer's? What if your partner forgot who you were?

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