For me, the best thing about our new life in the Alps was the fact that I could really experiment with dealing with my diabetic condition in a vertical frozen arena. Climbing a vertical wall of ice over 500m in height is exciting to say the least, especially when one considers that the ambient temperatures are around minus 15C or lower, and where the very balance of your life is dependant on 2cm long spikes of metal attached to your boots called crampons. But as a diabetic I then have to throw into the equation the disastrous possibility of running out of energy half way through the climb, deal with the fact that insulin once frozen becomes ineffective, and that blood sugar meters only operate above +5 C.
As a diabetic climber, winter is the season that poses the biggest problems for me- but the ice climbing in the Ecrins Massif is superb and with 500m. ice walls and some of the best mixed routes in Europe on your doorstep, there is no excuse! I have a specially designed bag by Lifesystems that hangs around my neck. This insulated bag contains my glucometer which I need to test my blood sugar as often as every 2 hours. The bag allows me to insert test strips (fiddly tiny strips of plastic 1 cm long by 4 mm wide) easily without ever taking the glucometer out of its bag.
A finger prick is all that is needed for a blood test but this can sometimes be a problem for me as I suffer from Reynaud’s disease. So I need really warm gloves so I can easily extract blood. When climbing extreme ice falls I can only operate with thin sensitive gloves in order to feel secure holding my ice axes which are not attached to my body and which are essential to survival when clinging to a vertical ice pillar. What I have found is that I always need to carry two pairs of gloves; a thin dexterous pair when leading and then a thick set of down mitts for belays. I also have Dupuytrens Condition and have bent fingers but let’s not go there! I just have the affected fingers cut open and straightened every 4 years or so (see below...)!
The insulin pens (two – one with slow acting insulin, the other with fast) I keep in another insulated bag again specifically designed by Lifesystems for such use. I keep this bag inside my Gore-Tex jacket. The pen case also contains a small supply of spare needles in case I break or drop one. I first used these LiFESYSTEMS pouches on a climbing trip to Cerro Torre in Patagonia with Kenton Cool in 2004. We never topped out on the Torre due to the inevitable Patagonian hoolies. But flying home at the end of the trip I felt really content that I had kept pace with KC pitch for pitch and had done my fair share throughout despite being a Diabetic and 12 years older. My diabetic kit had played a major part in my ability to survive in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet!
Other than the above the only other gear I have to take as a diabetic climber is a fast acting source of glucose in case I go hypo and my blood sugar drops too low. I am lucky in that my sensitivity to too high or too low blood sugar (BS) levels is pretty good. So usually I know during a climb if things are going wrong. This is not always the case. A few winters’ ago, whilst attempting a hard mixed ice and rock climb close called Blow Job (must be a French thing!) I felt decidedly weird. I tested and found I was 2.8MMols. A normal person at this level would already have been out for the count! It was just before the final crux pitch involving an overhanging stalactite, so I had to raise my BS pronto. I resorted to my old favourite – a couple of glucose tablets and then a white bread honey sandwich. I also told my climbing partner he had to wait for at least 5 minutes whilst my sugars were rising. Understanding partners are a key factor for any diabetic climber.
In conclusion, I would say that the answer as to whether or not I would be able to continue my fast pace lifestyle under a diabetic regime, is a resounding YES! Absolutely! One of the biggest single lessons I have learnt from 25 international expeditions is that 70% of a dream is committing to it. The rest is just organisation. Diabetes for me is only an excuse, and if I want something bad enough in today’s information rich world, then I reach out and grasp it. Through diabetic community groups and online forums like MAD (Mountains For Active Diabetics) I have met many people with diabetes at all levels including those who have major disabilities such as blindness and amputation. We all inspire and help each other. Just as the same as in the outdoor community. The secret, whatever you want to achieve in your life is coming to the challenge, and then to never stop asking for advice, don’t be afraid of trying and failing, and don’t be content with a reduced lifestyle. Go for what you want and make it happen, and don’t resort to a life time of excuses. It is always better to have tried than never to have tried at all.