I’d been up devils tower before; twice. The first time in 2009 was a long day, but at that time, I was new to climbing and setting a tedious pace was to be expected. Just prior to Project 365 in 2011 I summitted the tower for a second time with a good friend during a casual morning of climbing. It was encouraging to see tangible progress in my climbing. But that was two years ago.

My first trip up Devils Tower in 2009.
My first trip up Devils Tower in 2009.

This past week I was shooting for my third time up, this time with Martin and Stefanie and nothing felt right. I was tired. My sugar was constantly dropping and I felt panic whispering in my ear. To make things worse, a lightning storm blew in out of nowhere. It was a culmination of all the scenarios that had individually lurked in the dark corners of my mind. We made a difficult decision to bail off and as the wind started to shriek and the lightning crackled in the ever-closing distance, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that “a little lightning” could easily turn a fun afternoon into a body recovery mission.

No big deal--just "a little lightning"!
No big deal–just “a little lightning”!

Back on the ground I realized that we made the right decision. This was risk management. Anticipating and reacting. The fact that the wrong decision exists in conjunction with the right one makes for close calls, but the awareness and attention to detail will always separate the two.

Martin and I discussing route finding and various scenarios we could encounter--and ways to escape in emergencies.
Martin and I discussing route finding and various scenarios we could encounter–and ways to escape in emergencies.

But this was only the beginning of risk management for me. Martin and I agreed to take a rest day (a luxury after Project 365!) and during that time I decided to make some alterations to my insulin regimen to hopefully straighten out my lows that I had experienced earlier. They say you should never make changes on race day, but I was never a good runner–so I decided to try decreasing my basal insulin so that I would have “room” to take some fast acting insulin and smooth out post-mealtime highs.

After a rest day off, I was ready enough to try things out on the wall on our final day at Devils Tower. That night as I was trying to get to sleep though, I had a very fast moving hypo episode that came out of nowhere. I didn’t even feel it coming, which is unheard of for me-fortunately my CGM alerted me and I started pounding candy which allowed me to put the brakes on it. I had only taken a tiny amount of insulin to correct a high from earlier in the evening. I hadn’t experienced that sort of super rapid hypo in many many years–and the last time that had happened, I was able to look back and deconstruct the various things I had done wrong–and learn from it. This time though, I had no idea what I had done wrong.

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Not all the biggest challenges take place in the vertical world. In diabetes, risk management continues long after the ropes are coiled.

It was like my entire diabetes playbook had been thrown out the window. I was rendered a complete beginner, a victim of whatever diabetes decided to do to me. How had I let this happen? I  was supposed to wake up the next morning and summit, and now…it seemed like the very idea of climbing was asking for trouble. Suddenly all of my rhetoric about being empowered turned to sand in my mouth. I was helpless, pinned down and a victim. Despair quickly followed the fear and I went to sleep hoping that I would wake up and it would all just be a dream.

Nope.

I woke up in the morning and I realized I had a decision to make. I realized that just like the fast moving lightning storm from earlier in the week, I had come close to another bad outcome, but I had acted and been able to change the result. I wasn’t a victim just because I had a bad low. I was tired and pissed off, but the reality was that I had been able to respond and deal with the challenges that had been thrown at me. I had been tested in big ways–ways that I had thought about and worried about for years, but never really experienced. Suddenly I felt strong. The challenge was still there, but I was able to face it because I knew I could do it. Better yet, I wasn’t alone–Martin was bringing his diabetes up Devils Tower too, and together we had a lot of resources to face challenges.

Martin and I negotiating the approach to our route, (Soler 5.9) via 4th class slabs on the southeast shoulder of Devils Tower
Martin and I negotiating the approach to our route, (Soler 5.9) via 4th class slabs on the southeast shoulder of Devils Tower

That morning when I met Martin and told him about the previous nights ordeal, he smiled and said “Right, well you have to expect that if you’re trying a new regimen, there will be some bumps along the way!”

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He was totally right–and I had not cut myself any slack or left room for that learning curve. So I skewed toward the high side that morning as Martin and I set out on our final summit attempt. My blood sugars were hovering right around 300 for much of the morning. Ordinarily I would be really unhappy with those readings but I felt good and I just kept drinking water and focusing on the climbing.

staying focused!
staying focused!

And the climbing…well that part was superb.

 

look closely...this is the beginning of the first pitch from the ground...zoomed in a bit.
look closely…this is the beginning of the first pitch from the ground…zoomed in a bit.
Not letting diabetes keep us down!
Not letting diabetes keep us down!

Martin and I moved quickly and efficiently. Knowing that Martin knew exactly what I was dealing with made me feel much more confident and willing to push myself. We had been tested together, as a team and come out of the ordeals stronger.

Beautiful pitches of cracks that go on and on...and on.
Beautiful pitches of cracks that go on and on…and on.
Martin at the belay.
Martin at the belay.
Martin climbing pitch 2, laying it back!
Martin climbing pitch 2, laying it back!

We summited shortly after noon on a harder route than we had tried the first day! We were the first recorded team of Type 1 climbers to summit Devils Tower together via this route (Soler)–to the best of our knowledge–and that of Google.

The final 4th class route to the summit.
The final 4th class route to the summit.
The solitary, nondescript summit of Devils Tower--under the boots of Team LivingVertical!
The solitary, nondescript summit of Devils Tower–under the boots of Team LivingVertical!

 

When we returned to the ground, the trip was basically over.

The summit is only halfway. To be fair, achieving the summit is optional. Getting back to the ground is not.
The summit is only halfway. To be fair, achieving the summit is optional. Getting back to the ground is not.
Our descent from slightly farther away...
Our descent from slightly farther away…
There were a lot of people who were excited to see and hear about our take on diabetes empowerment!
There were a lot of people who were excited to see and hear about our take on diabetes empowerment!

 

Tools for diabetes risk management.
Tools for diabetes risk management.

Time to go back home and get back to work. Website renovations, the documentary, training for Kilimanjaro, SweetestSummit camp all while figuring out how we are going to pay the bills–but this was another life changing, eye-opener.   Sending summits as part of a T1D Team…there’s nothing like it. Sure, there is the individual accomplishment, but that pales in comparison to the bond of the rope and the partnership we can share in embracing challenge–in and out of the vertical world as people with diabetes!

Team LV 1-diabetes 0.
Team LV 1-diabetes 0.

Special thanks to Stefanie for taking the climbing photos for us while we were on the wall! Frank Sanders of Devils Tower lodge provided us with a free place to camp, and Hans and Lilo Fuhrer– Martins parents– provided us with post-climbing refreshment, entertainment, and stories of their decades in the mountains! We couldn’t have done it without you all–thank you!