When Martin and Esther Kafer, both in their mid-80s, scale Africa's tallest peak in September, they will again be charting new territory.
Although thousands of hikers have reached the top of the 5,800-metre volcano since the first recorded ascent in 1889, the Kafers will be the oldest. He's the oldest man, she's the oldest woman, and together, they are the oldest married couple.
Age is relevant to their story since it's the oldage onset of dementia that is ravaging Martin's older sister Etta Kafer-Boothroyd, who turns 87 in July. A former McGill University professor and geneticist who also worked at Simon Fraser University, she now lives in Port Moody with aroundthe-clock care.
"It is getting tougher for her," said Martin, 85, who noted dementia is confusing for the patient but especially difficult for the friends and family who look on as the person they know disappears. "She's not doing very well and it's getting worse quickly. It's difficult to see her go down from a vibrant person to nothing."
The Mount Kilimanjaro expedition is an annual fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Society of B.C. The Kafers started training for the climb in April with nearly a dozen younger hikers and will each raise $10,000 and fund their own trip to Tanzania.
Mountaineering pioneers and partners in life, the Kafers have ascended an estimated 500 mountains around the world. They recorded the first known ascents of more than 70 peaks in this province, leaving traces of themselves and their friends as they named the rugged blank spaces of the map. They are mountaineering legends and are, literally, trailblazers.
The Swiss-born alpinists met in the early '50s and sharing a life-long passion has been one reason for their successful marriage, he said.
On their honeymoon in the Alps in 1953, she saved his life when a frozen ledge crumbled beneath his feet. "It was on a very steep side. We were on top of an ice ridge and the snow broke out and away I went. She had a good stance and had me on the rope and she stooped me with about 2,000 feet below me," he said.
"That was just part of mountaineering. I would have done the same for her. I climbed back up with her help and away we went."
A few days later they climbed to the craggy top of the Matterhorn.
That trip was one of their first with a new nylon rope, an engagement gift they gave to themselves to replace hemp equipment. "Forget rings, we needed rope," said Martin. "She paid half and I paid half and that was it."
Within the year, the Kafers immigrated to Canada. They settled in Vancouver and by 1959 joined the B.C. Mountaineering Club. Fifteen years later Esther, a mother of two, became the club's first female president. He worked at UBC and for the City of Vancouver as an engineer while she was a bookkeeper for a travel agency. Volunteering for a search and rescue outfit meant they occasionally, unexpectedly left work to rush to the North Shore for emergencies.
In 1962 she was the first woman to reach the peak of Mt. Waddington, the highest in B.C.'s Coastal Mountain Range.
That's where they left the rope, their nylon engagement present. "We put it in a crevasse, a big hole. We were way up on the mountain when we abandoned it," said Martin.
The Kafers made the ascent with friends, Jim Craig and Paul Binkert, members of the B.C. Mountaineering Club, both who have since died.
"We were a party of four. We went to unexplored mountain country. A lot of the country between here and the Alaska border and along the border-none of it had ever been climbed then. There were hundreds of mountains, some are little and some are not so little and we did quite a lot of them."
Together they are honorary members of the B.C. Mountaineering Club and in 2007 were recognized with a B.C. Community Achievement Award for 50 years of outdoor leadership.
They will hike Kilimanjaro at a slow pace that suits their advanced years, but the more relaxed schedule will be an advantage in warding off altitude sickness.
They hike up to three times a week and ski in winter. Studies suggest exercise may help prevent dementia in some adults and Martin advocates fitness for lifelong health.
"There are two very important things: one, being in physically good shape and two, being in socially good shape. That means you have friends and friends you can do things with." Especially if that friend is one you call your wife for more than 55 years.
For more information or to make a donation, visit alzheimerbc.org.
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