Ascent for Alzheimer's: The soul and spirit of teamwork
On Saturday, May 16, lifelong hiker and devotee of the North Shore Mountains Sandy Riley joined the 2015 Ascent for Alzheimer’s team on their first official training hike up the Lions, with long-standing Ascent guide Sue Oakey-Baker. “You couldn’t have a better, more skilled guide,” says Sandy. “This was the first time Sue led all eight team members, some arriving from as far away as Alberta.” She adds, “And sometimes, Ascent alumni – like me – are invited along so the team can hear about their experiences.”
An integral purpose of the hike is “to get the team dynamics right,” she says. In this year’s team, there are people who know each other well to begin with: a mother-daughter pair, a married couple, and two cousins. Sandy says that the important thing is that team members recognize differences and help each other. “One person might feel better in the moment than another. So the person in front will extend their hand and help the next one up.” She has noticed “good humour and lots of laughs in the group. They are thoughtful, generous souls.”
The training hike began in Lions Bay at the Binkert Trail, with each team member wearing all of the gear required for their trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, and carrying their own camelback hydration system and personal snacks. Sue led the group and set the pace while Sandy took up the rear as sweeper to keep everyone together. “The main thing was to keep the team close so they could get to know each other,” says Sandy. “Sue set a relatively slow pace, which was as fast as the slowest person.”
The group had to contend with overcast skies, fog and windblown forest debris. “Trees were strewn across the trails like matchsticks,” Sandy says. “Team members had to clamber over trees or take off their packs and crawl underneath. Other places were very steep and rocky, so we were hanging on to branches.” The team helped each together along the way, lending a hand whenever needed and sharing stories. But for much of the hike they were focused on getting over the rugged and varied terrain.
The group took several short breaks on the hike up, just enough time to catch their breath and refuel with light snacks. After about four hours, the group reached the first lookout. “Normally, you come over the ridge, and see the Lions,” says Sandy. “But low-hanging clouds hid the usual panoramic view.”
Having reached the peak of the day’s hike, the group had lunch while Sue led a team meeting, reviewing the progress everyone had made to date with their training, fitness levels and getting the vaccines needed for the trip. They also checked how their gear was holding up, from their packs to their boots. “There is no bad weather, just bad gear,” says Sandy, repeating an expression common among hikers and climbers. “Emphasis is always on safety.”
“As we were sitting having lunch, the skies cleared a few times, so we caught glimpses of the Lions and the valley below,” says Sandy. “It reminded us of the journey of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – sometimes we have that clarity and sometimes that mist comes in again.”
The team’s descent took about four hours, including one short break. “It was quite challenging,” says Sandy. “But it’s all about pace. And Sue has that down, brilliantly. She keeps an eye on everybody.” Though exhausted at the end of their nine-hour journey, the team went to a local café in Lions Bay, where they recapped the day’s hike and Sue gave additional instructions about the upcoming ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro and fielded outstanding questions from the team.
People apply to the Ascent for Alzheimer’s team to make a difference, Sandy says. “That’s what makes it so powerful.” Though hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro may be on an individual’s bucket list, what drives the Ascent team is “generosity of the human spirit, which is evident in all members of the team.” She adds, “That’s part of what forms an invisible thread that stretches between each person. That support is pretty special.”
Sandy urges team members to take their time on Mt. Kilimanjaro. “A lot of people put their head down, focus on getting to the top, but it will go by in a flash,” she says. “After all their preparations, everything they’ve worked so hard for and over such a long period, I’d say take your time. It’s about the journey. Enjoy the moment on the mountain.”