Whistler mountain guide Sue Oakey-Baker has been to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania before.
In fact she has been to the summit 13 times with the B.C. Alzheimer’s Society and is heading back in September, leading the Ascent for Alzheimer’s fundraising expedition again.
“My position with them has been really interesting,” Oakey-Baker said. “I have been hired as a guide but it has also been a healing journey for me going to Kilimanjaro year-after-year with the team… we have a close relationship now.”
The first year of the expedition in 1998 she assisted her husband Jim Haberl and again the following year they returned with a high-profile group that included Gordon Campbell and his wife. However, in the spring of 1999 Haberl was killed in an avalanche in Alaska.
Oakey-Baker decided to continue guiding the annual trip, taking a few years off to have her son Sam with her husband Joe. In total to date the Ascent for Alzheimer’s has raised $2.5 million and she said it is a critical to the society’s annual campaign efforts.
“It is a really important fundraiser because it raises a lot of awareness for the society,” said the 46-year-old owner of North Star Adventures guiding company. “It simulates, in a sense, the journey that people take – those caring for people with Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s is a really difficult disease, mostly for the caregivers – it is really hard to watch someone slip away from you.”
Oakey-Baker said the climb is an emotional journey as those on it subject themselves to discomfort of being at a high altitude, with no showers or personal comforts. Each of the 12 people on the climb also has to raise $10,000.
“People really relate to that and it is inspiring.”
This year Ascent for Alzheimer’s has two members that it is hoped will put the expedition into the Guinness Book of World Records.
When Martin and Esther Kafer, who are 85 and 84 years old, reach the summit at 5,900 metres above sea level of the highest mountain on the continent of Africa they may be the oldest couple in recorded history to do so.
The Kafers have been mountaineering for their entire lives and reached the summits of many significant peaks including the 7,000 metre high Anco Huma in Bolivia.
A friend had been on a previous Ascent for Alzheimer’s trip and encouraged Martin to take part this year as his life has been affected by the disease. His sister Etta, he said, is deep in dementia and it inspired him to raise awareness for the cause.
“Alzheimer’s is awful to watch,” he said. “My sister went from fairly normal three years ago and she is barely a person now, she doesn’t know who she is or where she is.
“I call it a monster and I think it is (a disease) that will overtake a lot of people.”
It was not long after that commitment that Esther signed on as well.
“Martin was doing reasonably well collecting money and I would have liked to go as well because we do all our climbing together,” she said.
The Kafers have been visiting Whistler as well since long before there was a village. They ski here regularly every winter season and were volunteers for Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol beginning in 1971.
“We have done a lot of skiing and mountaineering in the area,” Martin said adding: “We have no problem with the technicality of the trip.
“We have done a lot of hiking in the Coast region of B.C. and have done first ascents.”
The couple say they are not anxious about the trip or the world record attempt and are steadfastly following Oakey-Baker’s training regimen to prepare and have been given the go-ahead from their doctors.
“It catches people’s attention and that is really what fundraising for charity is about,” Martin said. “Whatever we can do we will help to get more interest and research into this.”
Oakey-Baker said the Kafers’ story has been inspiring and motivational for the whole team. In addition to training for a year leading up to the Sept. 24 trip on the mountain there will be a large group of porters and African guides, with an assistant guide assigned specifically to Martin and Esther.
They will also carry emergency oxygen as a precaution. Oakey-Baker said the route being taken is not technical and the weather does not prevent descent in the event somebody begins showing signs of altitude sickness.
“I think I am always geared towards minimizing the risk and the risk on a venture like this is altitude sickness as well as all of the things that come with travelling in the developing world,” she said adding it is vitally important to recognize the symptoms as soon as possible. “Altitude sickness doesn’t play favourites.
“You can do everything right and follow all the rules and you can still get altitude sickness… going up that mountain reminds us that people who get diseases don’t feel in control of what is going on.”
Go to http://www.alzheimerbc.org/Get-Involved/Ascent-for-Alzheimers.aspx to donate or find out more information.