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Kilimanjaro is in this 85-year-old's sights

Martin Kafer wants to be the oldest man to climb the fabled African mountain



The summit of the tallest mountain in Africa, Tanzania's Kilimanjaro, is Uhuru Peak, which means freedom. The name Kilimanjaro — a simplification of a previous name which was changed by the British — is itself a mystery: it might mean Mountain of Light, Mountain of Greatness or Mountain of Caravans.

What is certain is that it is often underestimated because it can be walked or hiked up and is not a technical climb. Many alpinists, however, consider Kilimanjaro very physically demanding, in part because of its oxygen-starved elevation.

Now Martin Kafer wants to become the oldest person in the world to climb the 5,900-metre mountain. He will be 85 when he makes his attempt this September as part of the 2012 Ascent for Alzheimer's team, which are fundraising for the Alzheimer Society of B.C. This is the 15th year of the fundraiser.

Kafer is a Vancouver resident with longstanding ties to Whistler and the Coast Mountains. He started climbing, aged nine, in Switzerland with this family, making 2012 his 76th year as an alpinist.

He and his 84-year-old wife Esther have been married almost 60 years, and for longer than that they've been literally climbing mountains together, with about 75 first ascents in the Coast Mountains, by his estimate.

Esther is the first Canadian woman to climb this region's highest peak, the 4,019-metre Mt. Waddington. Both have held the position of president of the BC Mountaineering Club and are now both honorary presidents.

The couple moved from Switzerland to British Columbia in 1954. They've been involved in the development of Whistler from its early years, particularly as ski patrollers from the 1960s onward.

"Our connection to Whistler is very strong. In 1971, we both joined the ski patrol — it was a volunteer patrol when Whistler was just Creekside, there wasn't much else. We were on it 11 years ... We've been skiing up on Whistler since '65 or '66," Kafer said.

This season, he and Esther spent 24 days on Whistler's slopes, he adds proudly.

Having retired 22 years ago as a senior electrical engineer at the University of British Columbia, Kaffer has been able to keep up with their mountaineering, too, in his later years. The pair has tackled peaks in Borneo, Egypt and Morocco, among others.

Conquering Kilimanjaro will take a seven-day "hike at high altitude", Kafer said, five days to the summit and two returning. It is no jaunt, even for an experienced alpinist.

Kafer said the Alzheimer's Society has sent a team to Kilimanjaro every year for the last 15. He is trying to raise over $10,000 on behalf of his 87-year-old sister, Etta, a former professor who has the disease and now needs round-the-clock care.

"My big motivation is my sister. She is very much affected by dementia. You look at this Alzheimer's monster and wonder if it's going to swallow you as well," he said. "Hopefully this will help the society in a material way, as well as symbolic."

Training with the other members of his 12-person expedition and their commercial guide, Sue Oakley of Whistler, started with a hike in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park in April. There is a proposed trip to Wedgemount Cabin, a mountaineering cabin he helped to build in the 1960s, this summer, which is located north of Whistler.

"It's a coincidence but we needed to go back," he said, laughing.

Kaffer said anyone wanting to make a donation or find out more about the expedition should check out

"The symbolic meaning is that the(team is) straining themselves to get to the top just like they're straining to help the Alzheimer's Society," he said.

"(My wife and I) thought we would do Kilimanjaro one time, but we had other interests so it never came off. Then we met a lady who is involved in the Alzheimer's Society on our regular trips up Grouse Mountain who suggested we combine the two."

Though wonderfully fit and active for his age, Kaffer has a few of what could be called the usual complaints for an 85 year old: "I have arthritis, two hip replacements, both of them are 'heavy' metal."

Despite this, he hopes to be standing atop Kilimanjaro on September 30.

Each member of the expedition is expected to raise a minimum $10,000 for the society, and pay their own costs to take part. To date about $130,000 has been raised for all participants, Kaffer said.

Originally he thought he and Esther might not be able to raise the same amount for her as well, which kept her from joining in with the expedition, but now she's hoping to take part.

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