Besties, Basecamp & Best Effort
8 years of living with diabetes...Cinco de Mayo 1998 I reached the summit of Mount Rainier with several good friends via the Disappointment Cleaver route. We came from across the US to converge for an alpine experience before several days of rock climbing in Smith Rocks, just outside of Bend, Oregon.
We sorted gear on a deck in the days previous, going over the climb's equipment and details. We drove from Seattle to the mountain and began once at the trailhead, packs on our back. Most of the day later, we arrived at Camp Muir, right around 10,000 ft in elevation. We spent time practicing glissading and going over our route for the summit. Our timeline allowed an extra day here to get prepared.
Though an incredible experience once all said and done, this climb was a shit-show from a diabetes perspective. Many of my concerns and decisions at the time were a result of a lack of experience. I didn't have people in my life who did this type of activity living with diabetes. I had dealt with the cold before, but altitude, back to back days of physical activity in the cold, lack of appetite, and all the other things that surface when you climb a technical route up a volcano was new.
We had experienced rock climbers on our team, all had mountaineering basics down, and one had summited the mountain before. His expertise was what made the activity possible for this group of friends. Each of them understood my diabetes and the unexplored nature of this activity for me. The timing of our departure for the summit imposed a challenge for my diabetes management. My long-acting insulin I took at bedtime, and when I woke up would need to be adjusted. I was not used to eating breakfast at midnight and then beginning a 6-hour climb. I made the best decisions I could with the experiences I held. We departed for the summit by headlamp at about 1 am.
From basecamp, the terrain increased in both steepness and severity. Crevasse fall, objective hazard, avalanche conditions, and high altitude all were factors for our team. Climbing skills and honest self-evaluation were essential for a safe ascent... and then there is diabetes.
It was beautiful, watching the sunrise that morning from an exposed perspective, above everything surrounding us. I was so tired. I had low blood sugar after low blood sugar on the ascent. Lemon-lime PowerGels was what I carried for low blood sugars. I quickly learned carrying the packets in my sports bra helped keep the viscosity syrup-like, easy to consume rapidly. We navigated the snowbridges and ladders across crevasses and step-by-step crossed the long traverse. Roped to each other, communication and trust was a given. We swiftly passed through the treacherous zones of The Icebox and Bowling Alley. In just a few weeks after our summit in 1998, on June 12, a dozen climbers would get swept away by an avalanche on this route, and a heroic rescue would save many lives, one wouldn't make it.
Mountaineering begs for surrender to Mother Nature. Respect, an awareness of your environment, and the willingness to keep going as the air becomes thinner and conditions less comfortable are all part of the sport. What many quickly forget is you still have to get down.
The snow was softening quickly and becoming hazardous as large clumps stuck to the bottom of my crampons. Using the ice ax's shaft to knock the snow off was becoming annoying but a great trade-off from losing footing into the glacier's depth.
As we descended, I just wanted to be done, warm, and risk for my life to be zero. Many diabetes management decisions I made that day did not serve me optimally. My body was dually exhausted from the climb and diabetes, and I have never had another lemon-lime PowerGel since.
I gave my best effort that day, and I felt self-compassion. This lesson will never cease to serve me in my life. For that, I sit in appreciation.