Somewhere between pride and despair lies acceptance. I could only hear the sound of wind whistling past my ears as I stepped delicately around the airy corner; about 1500 feet of nothingness separated me from the ground. The fact that I was actually able to stand on the sloping, sandy ledge beneath my feet seemed to defy what I’d come to learn about physics. ‘Here goes literally everything‘ I thought for the 1,336th time since starting to climb “Cowboy Ridge that morning. I shifted my weight forward to test the only viable handhold that would grant me access to the ledge above. I tried to weight the hold gradually because I didn’t want to ricochet off into the void if it popped. I pulled back a handful of sand as the rock disintegrated in my hand.

My stomach churned as I imagined what would have happened had I not tested that handhold before weighting it. The route description had listed this as a 5.7–that’s quite moderate by most standards, and I expected to be in control. Instead I was choking down a lot of humble pie and panic. I had to force the feelings of fear back down into the pit of my stomach and keep moving. Some variation of this process repeated itself multiple times that day.

My diabetes played a small role in my worries but it was hardly visible on my radar, relative to other concerns. There were bigger fish to fry. Part of my goal in climbing Cowboy Ridge was to put the Ketogenic Diet to the test in a situation where I would not have the “luxury” of worrying about wildly fluctuating blood sugar. To be fair I had pre-tested this method in the days preceding the climb and I had a good idea that I was not biting off significantly more than I could chew.

I’ll quickly give you the data from the dietary experiment:

  • Carbs eaten 45g all of which was eaten in response to blood sugar decreasing (Breakfast was the only meal of the day, taken pre climb. I had a sausage, two eggs, macadamia nuts, coffee with heavy cream and almond butter. My BG was approximately 140 at the start of the approach.)
  • Water 1.5 liters
  • Hours of effort (car to car) 11.5
  • Blood glucose high 165
  • Blood glucose low 98
  • Snack breaks 3 (I ate when my blood sugar demanded it–basically whenever I saw a diagonal arrow down–I stopped to eat at the start of the route, middle of the route and at the start of the descent, eating about 15g of carbs each time. I wasn’t hungry otherwise.)
  • Elevation gained (and lost) 3200′
  • Pack weight 30 lbs
  • Round trip 8.8 miles (according to iPhone)
  • If I left out metrics that you’re curious about, please drop a comment below and I will do my best to include it!

Let’s leave the raw data behind for a moment now–because numbers often lie. I’m not going to suggest that they have no value–but I want to take this discussion of control back into a context where a tenth of a point on your A1C doesn’t matter, because you’re focused on maintaining points of contact with the rock looming above you. The reality is that some experiences in our life defy our control. I’d argue that most do–and that type 1 diabetes is no exception. When that realization hits– that you’re no longer in control–it feels like being punched in the gut. Since diagnosis, everyone and everything around you tells you that to be a good diabetic or compliant you must be in control. Suddenly it feels like you’ve been lied to a LOT or you’ve been given an impossible task.

The character of the climb illuminated that epiphany somewhere around hour 7 last weekend–too high on the route to go back down and without spare time to indulge my fear. I endured the emotional pummeling and kept moving. Climbing is the mirror where I can clearly meet my diabetes face to face. It was as if a distant truth I’d known in one part of my life was beginning to bloom and grow across the entire tapestry of my experience. Still, it was uncomfortable. I lost control up there! That’s not ok. Is it?

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I oscillated back and forth between infatuation with the forced surrender I’d experienced and horror at the manipulation of my will by forces beyond my control. I should have known better. Seeking control in the mountains is a lost cause from the outset. When you step foot into that world you simply don’t matter–and that’s ok. That’s reality. I think I need more of that in my life. Perhaps we all do.

This realization got me thinking about the difference between control and influence. I have gotten very attached to the idea of controlling things in my life that impact my diabetes. I like to think that I can control my blood sugar very well. The truth is, I get angry and react emotionally to a “bad” number because that control is as illusory within my own body as it is high up on a kitty-litter desert alpine ridge. Control is a lie that sets us up for unrealistic expectations and delusions of grandeur. Nature isn’t a place where we go to be more bad-ass than people who work and play indoors. It’s a place where our frailty is sure to be exposed and it’s a lot safer to know that–and accept it from the outset.

We absolutely have choices and those choices create influence–but that’s not control. That’s how I survived the climb and that’s how I brought my diabetes along for that ride. The point of all this is to gain greater confidence  separate from the fabrication of control. If you’re thinking ‘Yeah but this is all in your head. This is all semantics–it’s just relative to your perspective’ then you’ve grasped the most important point I have to offer. The war is fought and won in our minds–despite losing battles on the outside.

The greatest leverage you have against type 1 diabetes is between your ears. Use it.

Ok. So here’s where I’d like to hear from you; what are your feelings about control vs influence? I am always open to ideas, questions and comments! Speak up, your voice matters!

Our first meetup will be March 4-6 in Joshua Tree National Park CA. No cost, no frills. Just action…maybe just a few tasteful hashtags though. RSVP via email: steve@livingvertical.org