Climbing two mountains at once 

Whistler’s Sue Oakey has just returned from a land of giants.

The svelte mountain guide spent 10 days at the end of last month leading a team of weekend hikers up one of the world’s highest peaks – Nepal’s Gokyo Ri – to fund-raise for the Alzheimer Society of B.C.

"The mountains are just huge," she said, wonder still reflected in her voice.

This is Oakey’s second climb this year for the society. In August she led another team of Lower Mainland climbers up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

"(Climbing a mountain) is a good metaphor for the struggle that people go through when they go through a disease or they are caring for someone who is suffering from a disease," said Oakey, whose grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

"The daily courage of facing the unknown and getting up every morning and saying ‘I really don’t know how it is going to go today but I will try my best’ is the same on the mountain as it is for those dealing with Alzheimer’s or any disease."

It is estimated that almost 30,000 people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease in B.C. Up to 300,000 suffer from some form of dementia (decline in mental functioning) in Canada.

The Nepal climb has already raised $90,000 and more money is expected. In the last year the Ascent for Alzheimer’s campaign has raised $230,000. The money is used for medical research. Each of the climbers agrees to raise $10,000 in pledges and must pay their own way.

They all have different reasons for taking part in the trek. Some have loved ones who have been touched by the disease, others are looking for adventure. And adventure they find. From unfamiliar food to the midnight treks to the tented outhouse through a yak field there are endless escapades to survive.

There is also hard work. Oakey recalls walking back during a long day’s hike to join a member of the climb trailing a few minutes behind.

As they walked into camp the climber talked and talked, said Oakey. When he finally got to sit down she asked him how he was doing.

"He burst into tears and he said, ‘(that day) was so hard and I’m so tired,’" she said.

But his overriding concern, said Oakey, was for all the people who were counting on him to make it.

"These trips are quite emotional and spiritual because they really exemplify the human spirit," she said.

"These people really push past their boundaries."

All are united in their quest for the summit.

But reaching that pinnacle can be a rocky road. Some can be hit with altitude sickness, which kills climbers every year.

Oakey, who has been guiding for the Alzheimer Society since 1998, hasn’t lost a climber. But some have become ill, and a few have had to give up the summit goal to survive.

"Sometimes I feel that they are the ones who are the messengers," said Oakey.

"They come back with a bigger story than the rest and we can learn more from them."

What we can learn, said Oakey, is that we cannot always control our lives.

"Altitude plays no favorites so you don’t know if you are going to get sick," she said caressing a ring of gold that hangs like a talisman on a chain around her neck.

"Life isn’t always fair and you get what you get and that is symbolized on the mountain."

Life’s hard lessons are no stranger to Oakey, Her husband Jim Haberl, the original guide for the "Ascent for Alzheimer’s" program, was killed in an avalanche in April 1999 in Alaska.

It is his wedding band that hangs near her heart.

Oakey never thought of abandoning their commitment to the Alzheimer’s climbs after her husband’s death. In fact the climbs have helped her heal.

"The first year on the climb it felt like he was walking inside of me and holding me up, and progressively now I feel like he walks beside me now or even a bit above me," she said.

"I felt him in Nepal this year.

"We were at about 15,000 feet and I was up on this ridge. I had gone up to explore and I was coming down this ridge – and the mountains are spectacular, they are just huge.

"I was walking and walking and walking and I almost felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground. After a while I just felt so light I had this image of flying.

"I was flying up this valley and I was flying with Jim and we were kind of intertwined, and we were racing up this valley and peaks were flying past, and lakes and air, and he was laughing and his face was right there," said Oakey, her smile as wide and bright as a watermelon wedge.

"His consistent message to me is life is a gift, so you’d best keep going."

Any one interested in giving to the Alzheimer Society can phone 1-800-667-3742.

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