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 7 of 10

At 10 p.m., my alarm rings. The team is due in the dining tent at 10:30 p.m. for tea. There are the usual delays. "I can't find my gloves." "My zipper is stuck." "I need to go to the bathroom." I find Esther and Martin in their tent trying to get on all of their layers. "It takes so long and we don't want to keep people waiting," Martin worries. Esther helps him to put his gloves on and I put on their water systems and zip up their jackets. Finally, standing bunched together in the tent like overstuffed Michelin men, pregnant with camelbacks, wrapped up in down, fleece and Gore-tex, I give my parting words.

"You have all done well preparing for tonight. But remember that altitude sickness plays no favourites. Try to take each step as it comes. Your job tonight is to ask for help when you need it. Offer help when you can. And try your best. I will look out for you, as will the boys. And finally, a wise mountaineer once said, 'the summit is optional, descent is not.' Let's have a great hike."

It is 11:30 p.m. when we trudge single file out of the rocky camp, headlights bobbing. The African crew spreads out along the line and chatters in Swahili to each other but our team is quiet. People concentrate on the pair of boots in front of them. A full moon has elbowed its way through the dense cloud and I turn off my headlamp. I am grateful that there is no wind. The temperature is tolerable at minus 10. We are lucky.

The night becomes a blur, the air gets colder and thinner. I watch the team to see who sways when we stop to rest. Martin has not slept well for several nights. After three and a half hours of plodding, we huddle in Hans Meyer Cave at 5,259 metres, half way to the crater rim. I make the rounds, shining my lamp indirectly at each person to see if their eyes are clear and focused on me. I ask them questions to hear how they articulate. I make sure their breathing recovers within a few minutes of stopping. I offer them water, hard candies and dried ginger. Some take Ibuprofen or Tylenol for a headache. Others take Gravol or ginger for nausea. Some slump against each other on the frozen rocky ground like exhausted rag dolls. Some wear an expression of despair and helplessness. What must it be like, in the late stages of Alzheimer's, to lose the ability to speak, move, eat and use the bathroom independently? Martin says of his sister, "she is reduced to incoherent words, carefully tending to her doll. A life reduced to a pitiful minimum." Everyone is coherent and able to walk on his own, albeit in a zombie-like trance. We continue.

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