My love for the outdoors originates in the mountains. My dad was a climber and mountaineer and my mum is also a mountaineer and avid hiker. Together they started dragging us up mountains from the age of 3. Due to their persistence and lack of choice, by the time we reached adolescence we had developed a profound appreciation for being in the mountains. My first serious mountain was Kilimanjaro, which I climbed at the age of 15. It was absolutely fantastic and I was lucky in that it was a relatively painless experience for me as I didn’t suffer from any altitude sickness. A year later I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. So it goes.
Since my diagnosis, I have carried on hiking and mountaineering, including ice climbing in Alaska, trekking in the Indian Himalayas and climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
When I think about it, climbing mountains is one of those funny human pursuits. It doesn’t provide an immediate thrill like surfing and for a lot of people, it probably doesn’t seem like a particularly ‘fun’ sport, which is fair because climbing up mountains is generally bloody hard work and even down right miserable if the weather is against you. But it is undeniably one of my favourite things to do. Why? Because for me, there is no greater or more immediate sense of satisfaction than reaching the summit of a mountain and overcoming the physical challenge that it takes to get there. Furthermore, there is something fascinating and truly profound about being up high, above everything and looking down to see the world below reduced to a tiny speck. It literally puts things into perspective. What’s more, there is something verging on the spiritual about being in the mountains. Maybe that’s because I’m tied to the mountains through my father, but to me, they will always be one of the most beautiful places in the world. When you are in the mountains, it feels like you are surrounded by a spirit or force, call it what you will, much greater than yourself and I find that reassuring, profound and humbling.
The other great thing about hiking and mountaineering is that it allows you to see and explore terrain that is otherwise unreachable by any other form of transport: you will discover landscapes, vegetation, animals and views you have never encountered before. Furthermore, anyone can do it! You don’t have to build up a special skill set or muscle group like surfing, it’s just the basic two step that you use to walk to the supermarket or park, except…uphill. And yes, while you might be a bit out of shape, as long as it doesn’t involve technical equipment or actual climbing, it simply takes the right pace and the mental willpower to get up. Last of all, you don’t need any expensive equipment to play, just a few layers to keep warm, a good raincoat and a pair of boots and your good to go. What’s not to love?
what to consider when mountaneering with diabetes?
- If you are going to be in sub-zero temperatures, which is almost certain if you are at high altitudes, you must be careful to make sure your insulin does not freeze. Keep your insulin close to your body at all times e.g. a trouser pocket. Whilst you might be concerned about the insulin getting warm, if you leave the insulin too far from your body heat, or in your backpack, it will freeze and this will completely spoil the insulin. This includes while you are sleeping which is when temperatures will be at their lowest.
- Your blood sugar meter will also be affected by cold temperatures. It may flash an error symbol or a battery symbol. The lithium batteries that are used in most meters are sensitive and 9/10 it is simply the case that the battery is too cold. If your meter is not working properly, take out the battery and put it in your armpit for a few minutes until it has had the chance to warm up slightly. If it’s still not working, let it warm up for slightly longer. Always bring spare batteries.
- Make sure you take plenty of snacks and hypo supplies with you. For rapid acting hypo relief, glucose tablets and powergel packs are the best option as they are lightweight. Avoid weighty cans or bottles. You will also want to take an ample supply of cereal bars or other carb based snacks such as cliff bars to back up the rapid acting sugar. Nut based trail mix may not be adequate. Make sure to snack on a fairly regular basis as hiking and climbing burns a lot of sugar and will continue to do so while you sleep…
- …As such you will almost definitely need to bring your slow release insulin down by a couple of units for the duration of your expedition/hike. You may even find that you need to continue to lower your dosage over the course of the trip. You will probably notice that the sugar burning effects of the exercise continue to last for a few days after the trip, until you enter a sedentary period and then you may need to increase your insulin back to it’s original level. Check your blood sugar levels regularly, certainly before you go to bed and when you wake up, and always keep sugar on hand.
* Be hypo aware. When you are cold and worn out during/after a long day of hiking, it can be easy to overlook or confuse this with hypo symptoms. Be vigilant and snack if you are uncertain.