Sue Oakey-Baker is a mountaineer, mother, writer, teacher and now world record setter.
On Oct. 3 the Whistler resident led Esther Kafer, 84, and her husband Martin, 85, to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, becoming the oldest known couple on record to ascend the highest mountain in Africa.
"On the fifth day we set out at 11:30 p.m. to summit the mountain, by the time we got to 4:30 a.m. everyone was experiencing a certain amount of fatigue, but both Esther and Martin pushed on. We reached the top of the mountain in the morning, the weather was incredible and the views were spectacular as always," said Oakey-Baker.
Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet high. The group of twelve hikers and 38 African supporters took five days to ascend the mountain and just two days to descend. Their achievement has yet to be verified by Guinness World Record officials, but along the way the Kafers and Oakey-Baker documented the trip with photos and video diaries, all required as part of the world record application package.
Oakey-Baker has been a mountain guide and trainer with the Alzheimer Society of B.C. for the past fourteen years and every year she guides a team up Mount Kilimanjaro.
"It's the same climb every year, but the people on each expedition are always different, that's what makes me want to continue to guide," said Oakey-Baker. "It's inspiring to watch people raise money, pay for their own flights, and go through a little bit of suffering for a common cause. This year the Kafers really touched me, their dedication to raising awareness for Alzheimer's is unwavering."
Scaling mountains is nothing new for the Kafers, so sticking to Oakey-Baker's three-day-a-week training plan proved to be second nature for the Vancouver couple. Ever since being married in 1953, they have made more than 30 first ascents of B.C. peaks and in 1962 Esther became the first Canadian woman to climb Mt. Waddington, B.C.'s highest peak.
Despite their experience, Martin Kafer insists they would not have been able to do the climb if it weren't for Oakey-Baker's guidance.
"During our training Sue put together some really well organized hikes, she really kept us in shape and helped us both physically and mentally prepare for our trek," said Martin. "During the climb Sue assigned an African support person to personally take care of our needs. The only real challenging part for me was all the flat walking. I have two metal hips and for some reason walking on flat ground aggravated them. Kilimanjaro was a tough hike, but we've certainly done tougher."
The Kafers and their ascent group have raised a total of $214,000 for the Alzheimer Society of B.C. to date. A local weekend hiking fundraiser in North Vancouver, the Mt. Kilimanjaro Grouse Grind for Alzheimer's, earned an additional $100,000.
As for Oakey-Baker, she is in the final stages of writing her book. Her first husband Jim Haberl used to mountaineer and completed two summits of Mount Kilimanjaro with Oakey-Baker. Tragically, in the spring of 1999 Haberl was killed in an avalanche in Alaska. Oakey-Baker's book is a love story that details how she overcame this major tragedy in her life through friends, mountaineering and other means. Her book will be published in September 2013.
Go to www.alzheimerbc.org/Get-Involved/Ascent-for-Alzheimers.aspx for more information about the Kafer's trek or to donate to the Alzheimers Society of B.C.