Magazine for McKendree - Winter 2018

So, How Did You Spend Your Summer? They Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro

Aaron and Marilee Reuter
Somewhere in Tanzania near Mt. Kilimanjaro, someone is wearing a McKendree University and beanies left as gifts by Aaron and Marilee Reuter.

by Stephanie (Coartney) Dulaney ’10

What’s the best way to kick off your McKendree experience? Climbing the tallest mountain in Africa, of course! For first-year student Aaron Reuter, summiting Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro was the perfect way to discover his capabilities—and to improve the water quality of an entire African village.

A computational science major and ROTC student from O’Fallon, Ill., Aaron had never climbed a mountain before scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro last summer. Seven years of experience as a long-distance runner gave him a high level of physical endurance, yet, as all climbers know, the mountain demands something more from those who pursue its peak: motivation.

To participate in the Kilimanjaro climb, Aaron and his mom, Marilee, raised $6,000 for Life Water International, an organization that constructs wells and leads sanitation efforts in rural villages throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. Their 11-person team raised more than $90,000 to install a water well and provide a complete sanitation system for an Ethiopian village.

“Clean water is something most people take for granted,” Aaron explained. “No one thinks about where it comes from. There is a water crisis in third world countries, and what they do have, they can’t use because it’s unclean and leads to disease.”

The extreme charity event was a high priority for Aaron ever since he ran a marathon for clean water a few years ago. There he met a man running 100 marathons in 100 days for charity, who also happened to be organizing group climbs up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“I told Aaron, no, I’m not going to send you to Africa alone,” said Marilee. “I’m going with you.” What started out as a way to make a difference and bring awareness to a global issue became a uniquely personal mother-son experience as well.

About a month after Aaron graduated high school and just two days after Marilee retired from her job as a civilian worker for the Air Force, they boarded a plane for Africa. For both of them, the trip marked the start of a new, exciting phase in life. Like Aaron, Marilee trained for months before arriving, losing 30 pounds in the process. Nothing, however, could have prepared them for the altitude (19,341 feet to be exact), ever-changing terrain, and grandeur of their trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“My favorite part was the views,” Aaron said. “When I would get out of the tent in the morning, I would see the peak and know that we made it this far. The terrain kept changing as we climbed. We started out in rainforest, then it became more arid with few trees, and then it looked almost like the surface of the moon. It was spectacular to watch how all of it changed and think, ‘Wow, I made it through that.’”

Eighteen-year-old Aaron was the team’s youngest member. “The oldest was 79, and she made me look slow!”

Eighteen-year-old Aaron was the team’s youngest member. “The oldest was 79, and she made me look slow!” he said. As the only hikers without prior experience, the Reuters often found it difficult to keep up with the others. On day two, Marilee considered quitting, although she had no idea how to tell her son. “As we were gaining altitude and doing a lot of physical exertion, my heart kept racing, and I was out of breath,” she said. “Then our guide took my daypack for a while, and I got much calmer. On day three, I was more prepared for what I would feel, which only lasted about 20 minutes this time, and I pushed through it.”

While Aaron and Marilee struggled to maintain a fast pace behind the more experienced hikers, they were amazed to find the group’s 37 porters surpassing everyone. “Porters carried everything from our tents and food to our bags and their own things,” Aaron said. “They are more extreme than any Olympic athlete! They were climbing the mountain in $20 tennis shoes. Some had hiking boots that people gave them, but others were doing it in flip flops.”

One of hardest moments of the trip happened on day six: summit day. In order to make it to the top by sunrise, the group had to start climbing at 3 a.m. in the chilly darkness of subzero temperatures. At 17,000 feet, Aaron began showing signs of hypothermia. “My hands were numb, and I couldn’t hold onto my trekking poles anymore,” he said. “All I could feel was pain. I had to sit down because you kind of feel like a slug when you’re going into hypothermia. My mom recognized the signs and had to yell at me to snap me out of it. She said she wasn’t going to let me quit.” Everyone on the team stopped to help, and after receiving extra heat packs, Aaron was able to complete the climb.

Bull elephantPassing enormous glaciers and standing inside the crater of an inactive volcano, they finally reached “the rooftop of Africa.” Their time at the summit was less than an hour, but Marilee says it’s a memory they will always have. In their photo taken at the top, they chose to sport McKendree gear for a reason much deeper than simply school spirit.

“I wanted Aaron to identify with his university, to make it personal for him and give him something to commit to,” Marilee said. “I wanted to make the climb part of his university experience. I went through college piecemeal, but I wanted him to have something that tied it all together.”

Traditionally, climbers of Mt. Kilimanjaro leave behind items for their Tanzanian porters to keep as gifts. “I left a pair of rainproof pants and a McKendree beanie that worked fantastic up there,” Aaron said. “I thought someone else would have a better use for it. I can always go buy another one. Our guide chose a few porters who needed them the most, and each picked a couple items. When I saw one of the porters take my things, I had to go give him a big hug. He was smiling like crazy and said, ‘Thank you so much!’ Tears were definitely shed.”

It only took seven days to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro, but for Marilee and Aaron, their bond as mother-son partners on the journey will never be the same. Aaron hopes to continue his mission work and global advocacy during his next four years at McKendree. As he learned from the summit, “When you’re at the top, you realize you’re not the biggest thing in the world. There’s a lot more out there that’s bigger than you.”


A bull elephant sighting from the bus window calls for a selfie.