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

When I interviewed local mountaineers Martin and Esther Kafer for the 2012 annual fundraising hike up Mount Kilimanjaro for the Alzheimer Society of B.C., I did not question their years of experience in the mountains. For their engagement, they gifted each other a climbing rope. On their honeymoon in the Swiss Alps, Esther used the rope to save Martin's life when he lost his footing and fell over a ledge. Esther dug in and held on to the other end of the rope, stopping his fall. They've climbed and travelled all over the world including New Zealand, Turkey, India, Burma, Kenya, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Sixty years later, they are still climbing together and have made over 30 first ascents of the British Columbia mountains.

However, I did question the risk of having Martin and Esther on the team. After all, Martin is 85 years old and Esther is 84. Although Kilimanjaro is a non-technical hike that is accessible to many people of varying age and ability, at 5,895 metres, the summit is considered extreme altitude. People die there every year.

Each person wishing to join the Kilimanjaro Ascent For Alzheimer's fundraising team is interviewed. Successful candidates must be able to raise a minimum of $10,000 for the Alzheimer Society of BC, pay their own trip expenses of about $6,000, commit to a training schedule of three 90-minute workouts a week plus hikes on the weekend, and be a positive member of the team. Finally, they must get medical clearance from their physician.

In addition to the standard medical clearance, I requested the Kafers test their maximum achievable heart rate and their vital lung capacity as both decline with age and are important factors in dealing with lack of oxygen at altitude. Acute mountain sickness is less likely to occur the older one is. However, there is not sufficient research of people of advanced age going to very high or to extreme altitude. Apparently, not many octogenarians venture into thin air. Martin and Esther passed all medical tests. They were on the team, along with nine others.

Since 1998, I have guided more than 100 people, ages 16 to 70, to the summit of Kilimanjaro for the Ascent For Alzheimer's. The common ingredient of those people who participate is their story. Alzheimer's has touched almost all of them. Cathie, an occupational therapist, will hike for her mother and her grandmother. Katherine, an ophthalmologist, and Barbara, a lawyer, will hike for their fathers. Martin and Esther will hike for Martin's sister, a retired genetics professor.

For months the 2012 team trains, hiking on the North Shore and near Whistler. Esther and Martin are slower than others on the flat but faster than some going uphill and downhill. Esther, standing at no more than five feet tall, with hands on her hips, confides in her strong Swiss accent (even after living in Canada for 58 years), "people are always asking us how old we are and saying how inspirational we are. We're used to it. But you know, we're just hiking and we've been hiking all of our lives. It's no big deal! And I am so lucky that I have never had a serious illness."

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