Delco woman, 64, climbs to top of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Parkinson’s research

MIDDLETOWN — Back in the 1980s, when Mariann Rybarczyk took a safari tour in Kenya, she heard about the glaciers atop Mount Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania. As they viewed the majestic mountain, the guide told the tourists that someday the glaciers on top would likely be gone.

The Middletown Township resident made a mental note to place a return trip on her bucket list, hoping to someday see the glaciers in person before they disappeared.

This past summer, over three decades later, she not only got her wish up close and in person by climbing to the top of Africa’s highest peak, but the once-in-a-lifetime experience is enabling her to donate $10,000 to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a cause close to her heart.

Rybarczyk’s return trip to Africa came through an unexpected chain of events. Rybarczyk, as a member of the Cardinal O’Hara High School Class of 1972, remembers when the boys in her school rode their bikes to the shore.

“I always thought it looked cool,” she shared, “but the girls never rode. It was always a guy thing. So when I discovered the opportunity to ride to the shore as an adult, I took it!”

Always enjoying bike riding, the fit mother of two adult sons took part in the Bike MS: City to Shore Ride from Cherry Hill to Ocean City, N.J., from 2006 to 2010. The ride benefited The National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

When her brother-in-law, Jim Spahr, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 46, Rybarczyk decided to change the fundraising focus of her rides.

In 2011, Rybarczyk and her husband, Dan, began participating in the New England Parkinson’s Ride, which took bikers on a scenic 50-mile route through Maine to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Following his DBS (deep brain stimulation) surgery in the spring of 2013, Spahr, a resident of Strasburg, Pa., regained his ability to balance on a bike and rode 10 miles on the Rybarczyks’s team and has ridden every year since then. In 2017, he found his balance at issue again but didn’t let that stop him. He switched to a recumbent tricycle and rode again this summer.

Altogether, the Rybarczyks’s team raised over $10,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation through their bike rides. They affectionately named their team “B+” to reference their “be positive” mantra.

The nonprofit Michael J. Fox Foundation’s single, urgent goal is to eliminate Parkinson’s disease. Donations fund an aggressive agenda aimed at developing improved therapies and a cure for those living with Parkinson’s disease.

Twice, Rybarczyk and Spahr met Michael J. Fox in person at the annual dinner where top fundraisers are honored. She said she continues to be inspired by him and the foundation that he founded.

Although the bike riding had become an annual tradition for her family, Rybarczyk was ready to step up her fundraising goals.

She applied to be a part of a mountain climbing group that annually climbs to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Each year, thousands of Team Fox members worldwide turn their passions and interests into unique fundraising events and athletic feats to raise funds for Parkinson’s research. Team Fox accepts up to 10 people who want to challenge themselves to a “physical, mental and spiritual experience” to conquer the highest freestanding mountain at 19,341 feet, all to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

To her delight, she was accepted for the eight-day adventure and ready to begin the journey of a lifetime, spurred on by the knowledge that she was helping her brother-in-law, as well as countless others with Parkinson’s.  

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects one in 100 people over age 60. While the average age at onset is 60, people have been diagnosed as young as 18. Recent research indicates that at least 1 million people in the United States and more than 5 million worldwide have Parkinson’s disease.  Parkinson’s is the second most common neurological disorder. In the United States, approximately 60,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year alone. There is no known cure.

After acceptance, Team Fox requires mountain climbers to commit to raising $10,000 for the Michael  J. Fox Foundation. Their actual trip and expenses traveling to Africa are  paid for by an anonymous donor. Team Fox participants were required to raise $3,000 for the foundation by three months prior to the intercontinental trip, which Rybarczyk did, and then the remaining monies must be raised three months following the trip. The local climber has raised 55 percent of her goal with $5,295 thus far. She must raise the balance to turn in by a Nov. 19 deadline.

Prior to making the climb, Rybarczyk posed for a photo with her teammates in Kilimanjaro National Park, holding a Team Fox for Parkinson’s Research banner of a quote by Michael J. Fox that reads, “Cures aren’t going to fall from the sky. We have to climb up and get them.”

The banner summed up their mission, she said.

Although Rybarczyk had done some mountain climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as a young college student, she knew that was over 40 years ago and she needed to prepare for the trek up 19,341 feet to the peak of the highest mountain in Africa.

Mount Kilimanjaro, with its three volcanic cones, is a dormant volcano. The mountain is part of the Kilimanjaro National Park and is a major climbing destination. The mountain has been the subject of many scientific studies because of its shrinking glaciers and disappearing ice fields.

“Physically, before going, I felt strong enough,” Rybarczyk shared. “I’ve always been in relatively good shape, but I thought I would probably get altitude sick.”

To prepare for the eight-day climb up the mountain, Rybarczyk and her husband took local hikes in places like French Creek State Park. They also rode their bikes in places that had hilly terrain. Although she doesn’t usually go to the gym, she made it a point for several months before the climb to go five to six times a week to Rocky Run YMCA for a half-hour of strenuous cardio.

“Few things can actually prepare for the altitude change,” she said. “My oxygen level was only at 40 percent when we got near the top. I was really having difficulty breathing and could barely change my shirt or tie my shoes.”

Rybarczyk said that only one participant out of her group of eight did not make it to the top and had to be escorted off at 6,000 feet, due to her low oxygen level. Rybarczyk, herself, was at Stella Point, about 440 feet from the summit on Mount Kilimanjaro called Uhuru Peak. She was getting so short on oxygen that she didn’t feel as if she could make it the rest of the way.

“I was thinking of turning around,” Rybarczyk shared, “but then I thought of my brother-in-law Jim, who has been my inspiration. I thought of his strength and how he perseveres and never complains. I thought of all of those with Parkinson’s who, most likely, always feel like quitting. They don’t have that option. So I vowed that there was no way I was quitting. I continued to put one foot in front of the other until we arrived at the top. We were more than just a group trying to make it to the top of that mountain. We all had a purpose. There was no way that I could not pick myself up and continue the climb.”

When Rybarczyk reached the very top, she cried.

“Standing on that highest peak in Africa was very, very emotional,” Rybarczyk explained. “I said, ‘I did this for you, Jim, and for all those who suffer from Parkinson’s and those who will come after you.’”

Her Team Fox group consisted of two 53-year-old men who had Parkinson’s, who, she said, “were an inspiration to the group.” The group members came from Utah, Florida, California and Massachusetts, and all of them had a personal connection to a friend or family member who had Parkinson’s.

She says, proudly, that she was the oldest among them. The porters who accompanied the group affectionately called Rybarczyk, 64, “BiBi,” meaning “grandmom” in their native Swahili.

Rybarczyk’s Team Fox group was assigned 34 porters to accompany them up and down the mountain, transporting their personal items and equipment. Every day, the porters would set up a makeshift kitchen and porta-potty for the climbers, cook their meals and help in other ways so that they could concentrate on enjoying the climb. Tents were also provided.

“The porters on our trip were just wonderful,” Rybarczyk said. “Since they were used to going up and down that mountain because they lived locally, they would actually run. Most were male, but there were some females. They were lean, strong and healthy and didn’t appear to have an ounce of fat on them. They mostly carried our baggage, sleeping bags and other equipment on their heads, and they made our journey a lot of fun. They would break out in dancing and singing that was native to their country and encourage us all to join in. We really enjoyed them. They were awesome!”

Before the climb began, the climbers had to empty everything out of their individual backpacks and duffel bags for the guides to take inventory and see if they had brought everything on a list that they were previously given. The participants were allowed to bring 30 pounds of clothing and personal items, such as camera equipment, binoculars and toiletries. They had to lay everything on a table for inspection to ensure that they had enough socks and other warm clothing and rain gear for the journey.

“The guides wanted to be sure that we were properly prepared for the climb and ready for all weather elements,” Rybarczyk explained. “They knew how cold it would get up there.”

Rybarczyk said climbers were unable to get a shower or wash their hair during the entire eight days, but they were given a basin of hot water, heated by the porters with propane, to wash, in the best way that they could, each morning. The porters also cooked each meal.

“The food was fantastic,” Rybarczyk stated. “Most of it was high-energy food, and we were always encouraged to eat a large breakfast. Every day we would have homemade soup, starchy vegetables and we enjoyed a variety of other foods, like crepes, egg dishes, porridge and even roasted chicken! Our porters were good cooks. The portable mess tents had lights, so we would usually all eat together. We were also instructed to drink at least three liter bottles of water each day.”

Rybarczyk said the group hiked for about seven hours every day. The climbers never used any safety equipment, even when the terrain got rugged. They were free going up and free going down, she stated. When they reached the summit, the winds were 15 miles per hour and the conditions were so cold that their water bottles froze. Although she did not bring a cellphone, most of the other hikers did. Every once in a while, they would come upon a spot in the mountain when they would get cellular reception. She said it was humorous because she knew there was reception when she would observe a group huddled in the same spot, all on their smartphones.

Rybarczek, a self-proclaimed lifelong outdoors woman, said, “The whole experience was just beautiful. The stars are amazingly clear up there. We camped above the clouds, and the magnificent scenery and natural beauty of everywhere we went was absolutely breathtaking.”

Semi-retired from a career in health care management and administration, Rybarczyk works part-time at Assisi House, the retirement convent for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in Aston Township. She said the religious sisters prayed for her during her journey. An active member of the community, Rybarczek volunteers with Habitat For Humanity, locally and internationally. Her volunteerism has taken her to India twice and Thailand, and she even worked on a project with former President Jimmy Carter.

Asked if she would ever want to do the memorable mountain climb again, Rybarczyk was quick with an answer.

“No, I crossed it off my bucket list,” she answered with a smile. “I will continue to fundraise for the Michal J. Fox Foundation because it’s such a wonderful cause, but I will fundraise in other ways. My son, Alex, who is an adventurer like me, wants to go in the future. I hid two pieces of sea glass at the top summit for him to find some day if he goes.”

Rybarczyk explained that she is not the type of person who has to prove herself or always win, but at 7:15 a.m. on Aug. 17 when she reached the peak of her destination,  she absolutely felt a mixture of exhilaration and triumph.

“I didn’t go and do this to prove something to myself,”  Rybarczyk said. “I did it because I want to bring awareness to Parkinson’s disease and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. My sister (Judy)’s husband is a farmer, a strong guy. He has been battling Parkinson’s now for 23 years. Despite all he has gone through, he is one of the most positive people that I know. When I got to that summit at the top, I said aloud, ‘This one’s for you, Jim.’”

To make a donation to Rybarczyk’s fundraising page, go to fundraise.michaeljfox.org/climb-mt-kilimanjaro-2018 and click on “Mariann Rybarczyk.”

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