The Tale of the Trek
The following article originally appeared in Summer 2014 edition of the Arête (formerly the ACMG News) (Volume 41), on p.27. A copy of the article can be found here: The Tale of the Trek
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.
Together, they’ve climbed and travelled all over the world. Sixty years later, they are still climbing together and have made over 70 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
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.”
Martin adds, raising his bushy white eyebrows: “We’re just two old fools trying to be young.” Martin has two prosthetic hips.
After a team photo, a trip to the outhouse and lathering on sunscreen, I lead the team up the dusty trail of the Rongai route and look over my shoulder frequently as they take their first steps on Kilimanjaro. Pole, Pole. Slowly, slowly. I can feel the energy of the person behind me, almost stepping on my heels, willing me to go faster. Martin grins, “You know if Esther and I were hiking on our own, we would be going much faster.” They must get used to this pace or they will be more susceptible to altitude sickness higher up.
That night, in the dining tent, while feasting on chicken, a heap of roast potatoes and other carbs that are good for acclimatization, I coach the team about how to stay warm at night. Esther and Martin negotiate the tent guy lines in the dark to get to the outhouse. Most chores take longer for them to do.
The next morning we see the summit cone of Kilimanjaro in all its splendor. We hike for almost ten hours to an elevation that is much higher than Mount Baker. Esther and Martin walk together, help each other to get snacks and water at rest stops and keenly tell stories of their past adventures to their teammates. It is 7 p.m. and dark when we reach our second camp, Kikelewa Cave, at 3,675 metres. At dinner, several people eat much smaller portions, a sign of the altitude sickness. Esther says, “There’s too much food. I don’t eat this much. I don’t want to get fat.” Before they head to their tents, I warn them about periodic breathing. When asleep at altitude, a person can have very irregular breathing
and then actually stop breathing for several seconds. This is not abnormal above 3,000 metres.
After our second night on the mountain, Esther and Martin stand dutifully in front of the video camera. “My name is Esther Kafer and I feel great. The porters are very helpful and call me Bibi because that means Grandma and they call Martin Babu because that means Grandpa.”
“My name is Martin Kafer and I had a lousy sleep but I’m going on anyway.” The team has agreed to video and photograph Esther and Martin at each camp and to document the trip in a specific logbook because Esther and Martin have applied to the Guinness Book Of World Records to be the oldest man and woman to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.
In five hours, we gain a ridge and descend slightly to Mawenzi Tarn at 4,302 metres, the only “lake” on the mountain. Mount Mawenzi towers above at 5,200 metres and fingers the sky with its jagged black rock. Martin falls back and steadies his digital SLR camera with his long, bony fingers to take several shots. His breath comes in short puffs from the exertion of taking photos. “Beautiful,” he says.
During the acclimatization day, we luxuriate in not having to pack up, have tea in bed, as usual, and hike pole pole up the North Corrie to a ridge of lava extending thousands of metres to the plains of Kenya. We are higher than Mount Rainier.
That afternoon, the team does a summit dress rehearsal. Burdened by layers of synthetic clothing, down and Gore-tex, they sweat in the sun and amble around the dusty basin like sumo wrestlers. On their chests, underneath several layers, bulge camelbacks of water rigged to stay in place so they won’t freeze on the cold and dark summit night. I adjust some systems. Esther is dubious about the camelback.
“I don’t drink very much. When we first began climbing in Switzerland, we weren’t allowed to drink until we got to the top, so my body got used to it. And I prefer to drink from a water bottle.” She makes a face at the camelback. I tell her that everyone I’ve taken to the summit has not had the energy to take out a water bottle and drink from it. The water must be easy to access and insulated so it doesn’t freeze.
Martin appears in puffy down. He has had frostbite on his hands and feet before so I am careful to check his gear for the third time. I comment on their long down jackets with ample hoods made of a telltale rust coloured nylon used in outdoor gear in the ‘60s.
“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. How hard will it be? I don’t know. It varies from person to person.
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.”
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.
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. We continue. The trail gets steeper.
Martin lags and sits down to rest, head hung low and cheeks sunken. “I am so tired.” The boys begin to chant in deep melodic voices, “Babu, Babu, Babu.” We help him to his feet and he continues. A bit further on Esther stops. I crunch over close to her and ask how she is doing.
“Not very well,” she says. “I’m losing my balance.”
“Are you dizzy?” I ask
“Yes, a bit.”
Dizziness can be a symptom of acute mountain sickness. Esther is coherent and still walking steadily. She takes 125 mg of Diamox.
“Let’s reassess in 20 minutes.” I tell her and continue at a slower pace, although it hardly seems possible. She does not falter again.
Our line labours on connected by an invisible cord. The energy is heavy like a chain gang.
“The sun will be up soon, we can do it.” I call into the night. This is when I feel teary. I look at these people, hunched over, plodding, suffering for a common good. And then it happens. A yellowy glow rises behind us slowly lighting up the entire horizon. “Look guys, the sun is coming. Feel its energy. Draw it inside of you. We can do this.” Joseph gives us the gift of his tenor voice and sings the Tanzanian version of “Hallelujah.” We are so high that we can see the curvature of the Earth. People do not pick up the pace, but they do raise their heads. The snow crystals on the rocks shine. At 6:45 a.m., after more than seven hours of hiking, we top out onto the crater rim, Gillman’s Point, a rocky ledge that holds a dozen people and drops off a hundred feet to the inside of the crater which is 2.5 kilometres wide, with ice 40-metres thick in places.
I hug everyone and say, “Congratulations.”
When I get to Esther, she says, “I didn’t do very well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was so slow.”
All I can do is laugh. “OK everyone, remember this is not the top. We’ll have a quick drink, put on sunglasses and sunscreen and then keep going to the top.” We are at 5,719 metres and I point around the crater rim to antlike objects, people at Uhuru Peak, the summit. It is only 176 metres higher and a few kilometres but will take us over two hours. We are at extreme altitude.
The views of Mawenzi, the four jumbled glaciers of the crater, the sun illuminating a blanket of cloud below us are spiritual. We are in the heavens.
“I don’t think I can take another step. I have to rest.” Martin is exhausted from the walking, the lack of sleep and the altitude. But he keeps going. Later, I ask Martin and Esther how they kept going.
“You always get to a point in the mountains when you are tired and don’t think you can go on, but from experience you know your body can do it.”
At 9:30 a.m., the whole 2012 Ascent team stands together in front of the green sign that says, “Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak.” There are hugs and tears. Our moment of triumph.
Esther and Martin sit side by side in front of the sign and perform their most important monologue in front of the video camera.
“My name is Esther Kafer and I am so happy that I made it to the top of Africa.”
“My name is Martin Kafer and I am happy to have done the same as my dear wife, to whom I have been married for 59-and-a-half years and this is one of our peak experiences together.” He smiles and then I help him up.
We descend and, incredibly, after 12 hours of hiking at altitude, Martin and Esther run down the scree. Martin doesn’t think it is so surprising. “Our bodies, having done thousands of steps in the mountains, remember how to do it.”
For the next two days, we descend on the most popular Marangu route, a well-worn road surrounded by lush palm tree-like groundsel, giant lobelia, golden grasses and heather trees. Groups pass by us going the other way, on their way up the mountain. When they ask Esther and Martin if they made it to the summit, Esther says proudly with a smile, “Yes, I did and I’m 84.”
“And I did too and I am 85,” beams Martin.
“Are you happy you did it?” I ask.
“Oh yes. It had a very special purpose and we met so many great people.” Esther smiles.
“Yes, and engaging in a cause gives you that extra bit of satisfaction that makes it more than just climbing another mountain.” Martin’s blue eyes shine.
“Would you do it again?”
“No!” they say in unison.
“Esther wants to go rafting in the Northwest Territories or Alaska. So that will be our next adventure,” says Martin.