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Climbing for a cause


May 2015

Ruth Ann Ahnen and her two friends, Jane and Kathy, summited Mount Kilimanjaro in January.

When your list of physical achievements includes running a 50-mile race, completing the New York City Marathon and trekking to Everest Base Camp, the next logical question is ... what’s next? For 53-year-old Ruth Ann Ahnen of Delafield, her answer was steadfast — climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Joined by two of her equally active friends, Ahnen succeeded in early January, climbing from the mountain’s base to its summit in just four and a half days (an eight- or nine-day time frame is usually recommended). She describes the journey as "horribly beautiful" and says its difficulty level was far beyond anything her or her cohorts expected. Mount Kilimanjaro’s base sits at between 4,000 and 6,000 feet, and its highest summit, which Ahnen accessed via Gilman’s Point, measures more than 19,200 feet. "We spent the night at 15,400 feet, woke up at 4 a.m., had something to eat, and then made the final push to the summit," remembers Ahnen.

That "final push" required ascending more than 3 kilometers of steep switchback terrain, a feat that took almost 10 hours. Ahnen, a swim coach for both the Arrowhead High School and Lake Country swim teams, reached the top with a swim cap from each team in hand — a symbolic nod to her students. "I take them on my adventure with me," she says. "I want young people to feel empowered and to know they can do whatever they put their mind to."

Ahnen climbs to raise money for cystinosis research.

After a 15-minute pause at the summit, the group began their descent to base camp. "We’re all sitting there (at camp), and we’re like, ‘How the hell did we do that?’ Nobody told us it would be that hard!" says Ahnen. "The thing that got me up there was thinking about what I was doing this for." What Ahnen is referring to is her 24-year-old daughter, Katie, who was diagnosed with cystinosis at age 4. Each of Ahnen’s adventures includes a fundraising component, with proceeds benefiting the Cystinosis Research Foundation. Cystinosis is a rare genetic disorder, with only 2,000 known cases worldwide, so research funding is critical to finding a cure.

And for Ahnen, fundraising for cystinosis research by running a race or reaching the summit of a mountain is her way of showing her daughter how much she cares and how dedicated she is to eradicating the disease. "I’m the kind of person that goes out and does things. My husband is the one who sits by my daughter’s bedside. It’s a different dynamic," she says, adding that he donated his kidney to Katie seven years ago. "But to honor her and her life is to go do the stuff I do. To climb a mountain or to run 50 miles."

It’s clear that, for Ahnen, the physical task of climbing a mountain parallels life itself, too. "All of us have mountains," she says. "Maybe somebody’s mountain is not a disease or a physical mountain to climb, but to take that big job or go back to school. A summit is a very small place and you can’t stay there very long, so where we really grow is in the climb." So now that she’s summited Mount Kilimanjaro, what’s next for Ahnen? "I’ve always had it in my mind to do a 100-miler run," she says with a laugh. "Just to do it. We’ll see!"



This story ran in the May 2015 issue of: