They climbed to honor fallen firefighters and Judy Ruggles, who died of cancer.
One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand. Step.
Putting one foot in front of the other, slow and steady, a quartet of Eagan residents hiked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro last month.
At the summit, the Rev. Bruce Ruggles unfurled flags in honor of those who spurred their ascent: one for fallen firefighters and one for the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance.
"Getting there was very emotional," said Ruggles, chaplain for the Eagan Fire Department, who climbed the African mountain with his daughter, Robyn, her fiancée and her future sister-in-law. "When we made it to the summit, Robyn and I just hugged."
Their heart-wrenching journey began more than two years ago when Judy Ruggles -- wife of Bruce and mother of Randon, Eric and Robyn -- was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Before she died just 4 1/2 months later, in September 2010, the family set out to make as many special memories as they could.
Some were goofy, like the walk around the block wearing funny hats. Others were more poignant, like the video of Judy blessing the rings for Randon's wedding. And that's continued ever since.
Bruce Ruggles, 51, a Methodist minister who works as a chaplain for Presbyterian Homes, joined the Fire Department to get involved in the community. There was a family road trip last year. Then, with the help of an inheritance from relatives who loved to travel, Mount Kilimanjaro.
It had long been 22-year-old Robyn Ruggles' dream trip.
"We lost my mom and we had to deal with our grief, and it was a really hard thing," she said. "At the same time, we could feel her encouraging us up this mountain and cheering us when we made it to the top."
Before they left for Tanzania, Bruce Ruggles approached the Fire Department and asked whether he could borrow the flag carried by the department honor guard in memory of firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
Climbing for others
In addition to Ruggles, there were other connections to the fire department. Robyn's fiancée, Tom Ringberg, and his sister, Margaret Ringberg, are grandchildren of former Eagan Fire Chief Ted Ringberg.
"It was really neat," said current Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott. "For him to think of fallen firefighters just shows the kind of person Bruce is."
Along with the firefighter flag, Bruce Ruggles tucked a banner from the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance in his day pack, which he carried all the way to the summit.
"That was really important to me," he said. "I was climbing on behalf of people affected by ovarian cancer and [on behalf of] firefighters."
The three younger hikers sported teal laces in their boots throughout the hike, and Bruce Ruggles threaded them through his tennis shoes -- part of the Cancer Alliance's "Tie it Teal" campaign to raise awareness for ovarian cancer.
"We were really hoping to reach all corners of the state. We never expected we'd also be reaching Mount Kilimanjaro," said Kathleen Gavin, the Cancer Alliance's executive director. "We were really thrilled."
Altogether, it took five days to get up the 19,341-foot mountain on a path through such varied ecosystems that Bruce Ruggles described it as "hiking from the rain forest to the South Pole."
A challenge arises
A guide and a team of porters helped them along the way, carrying supplies and setting up camp, watching for signs of altitude sickness and urging them on toward the peak.
As Robyn Ruggles' gluten allergy flared, making it hard for her to keep food down, her dad kept handing her his canteen and thinking, "Why does this have to be so hard for her? Why did she have to lose her mom?"
"I prayed for strength for her," he said.
When they finally reached the top, perhaps as a proper welcome for a group of Minnesotans, it was gusty with blowing snow.
They snapped some photos, waved the flags they had carried so far, and started the two-day trip back down.
"You have to realize you can't stay there," Robyn Ruggles said. "You always have to remember that life is a journey. It's not just about reaching the top. It's about spending time with the people that you're climbing with."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286