I laid in bed and rolled over to look at my phone–I was awake before my alarm. I tried closing my eyes and going back to sleep, but it was no use. I found no rest, only a highlight reel of my time and failed attempts on my project. There was only one thing on my “to-do” list today. No sense putting it off further.
Day 365: I got up and shuffled to the bathroom to try and re-stick my CGM (continuous glucose monitor) sensor to my arm. This device was my talisman against blood sugar crises. It had become almost a nervous tic, where I would compulsively look at the trend graph, drunk on the power of almost real-time visualization of my blood sugar. Now, it was peeling off and barely attached, dangling by the sensor wire. I had one spare sensor with me but I didn’t want to try and go through the startup process of re-insertion and wait 3 hours for the new sensor to begin reading. Three hours would be too late.
I cursed my fitful sleeping as the culprit in the detachment of my sensor, convinced that worrying about this route would be my ruin on every possible level of both climbing and diabetes. I gingerly applied liquid adhesive and successfully glued the sensor to my fingers rather than my arm as I had intended. A spirited bout of micro-grappling occurred as I attempted to extricate my fingers from their sticky predicament without completely tearing out the sensor, whose only means of attachment to my person was a tiny wire embedded a half-inch deep in my arm.
Just like that, it was over. I looked at the sensor, dangling from my fingertips, the tiny wire kinked and misshapen. My only viable option was to “fly blind” and go without it–I thought about having a tantrum and whining about how unfair diabetes is, but the truth was that I had been climbing in dicier situations for over a decade with no CGM and had been no worse for it. I would just have to do this the old fashioned way.
I couldnt help but think about the correlation between my predicament and that of Jean Claude Van Damme’s character in Bloodsport who had to fight his nemesis after being temporarily blinded by a handful of sand to the eyes. A bit self aggrandizing perhaps, but we all need inspiration I suppose…
I ate my standard climbing breakfast–one Clifbar Builder Bar and a cup of coffee while fidgeting around and watching video of me climbing my route from two days prior with Jason. I felt good about the crux and now I was studying the upper moves, looking for the best spots to rest and the most efficient sequences that would allow me to keep from flaming out and falling.
As we drove to meet Jason I tried to make peace with myself about whatever the outcome of the day would be. I promised myself not to be upset if I failed to send because the fact that I had been climbing for 365 days consecutively was the real victory. I kept repeating that line over and over to myself hoping that I had really bought it…
Waiting was torture. Driving in, hiking up to the route–I just wanted to be done with it. We arrived at the climbing area to find it buzzing with people. I selected a route to warm up on and tried to focus. Jason and I didn’t talk much–I think everyone knew that I was pretty clenched at the thought of what on the line.
The weather was warmer than all of the other days we had been there so I clung to that as a good sign. I knew that I had one opportunity to send. All of my previous attempts told me that if I pumped out on the first go, I would be too weak to have any chance of linking all the moves together. I pushed myself a little harder on the warm up to make sure I was completely ready–I had one shot, one “Hail Mary” that would be the icing on the cake to validate the year I had spent climbing, the living out of a car, the vagrant lifestyle, the upheaval, the instability and on and on.
Finally it was time. Jason and I exchanged a few words and as he went to set up at the base of the route, I took a few minutes to myself. I checked my blood sugar. 109. The sun was shining and the temperature was perfect. Jason had lifted my spirits the day before by raising the bar and sending hard. Stefanie and Nick were scrambling into their positions from which they would shoot this route–for the last time. I felt free from outside pressures.
I wasn’t worried about disappointing Jason. I knew he was behind me all the way, and I knew that he understood what I was going through on so many levels as someone who fully understands the intersection between climbing and diabetes. I knew that most people wouldn’t care if I sent my project or not–the 365 days was the main event from the outside perspective. But I wanted this. I wanted this for myself. I took on this project to push my limits, and 5.12a was my limit. I wanted to send this 5.12b. This was my route, my time, my struggle–and it would become my burden if I failed yet again…
I walked over to the route. I tied in and briefly confirmed my gear setup with Jason. “You can do this” he said. “Just climb”. I popped in my headphones, and put Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin on repeat. The moves up to the first ledge and the first bolt were easy. I clipped in and stood on the ledge as I had so many times before.
I took several deep breaths and lost myself in the rhythm of the music. I slowed my thinking, and I was suddenly pulling down on the starting holds. I didn’t feel the holds or think about how tiny they were. I knew the moves, so I just flowed through them, not stopping to think. At the second bolt, I nailed the clip flawlessly and instead of thinking about the next series of moves, I made the next moves. I stopped thinking about falling or climbing and allowed my mind to grip pure nothingness, where there was neither success nor failure and certainly no diabetes. Without fear I executed each move with clarity. This is a state I have only experienced in rare situations while climbing unroped, where my mind must be airtight or else…
I reached a tenuous position above the second bolt. I had to clip here, but I was fully extended and in a very delicate position. I concentrated on not over-gripping the hold with my right hand while I let go with my left to hand to clip–and reinsert my headphones which had popped out! I reached out with the toe of my left foot to find a tiny nubbin to help me balance during this movement. I felt my arm beginning to strain and I knew that I had to move decisively and not linger.
Then my foot popped off the tiny hold.
When your weight is balanced on dime-edged ridges on an overhanging wall, even passing gas will feel like the earths magnetic poles reversing. I felt my balance shift, and I instantly pulled hard with my right hand to recover my balance. I dangled by one hand for a moment, made the clip and reigned in my wayward foot. I felt strangely unfazed for having almost fallen; I felt strong and in control, having caught myself. I knew that I had to keep moving and not allow my conscious mind to find its voice or all would be lost. I was not home free yet. I climbed quickly higher, where it was still steep but at least there were larger holds. I clipped the fourth bolt from good holds and paused for a brief rest.
I had seen my adversary, my own fear and self doubt–and had harnessed it and executed rather than succumbing as I had in times past. The final 45 feet went by smoothly and I didn’t even hesitate or doubt the outcome. The hardest part was behind me. Minutes later I clipped the anchors and asked Jason to lower me.
I couldn’t believe that I had done it. My hardest route ever, on the final day of Project 365, with a T1 partner. I gave Jason a hug when I was finally on the ground–we said very little, but I knew that he knew and I knew…this was a special moment. It was special for us and what we had shared over only a few days climbing together–but it was also special because of what it meant for all of us with diabetes.
As Jason climbed the route, I thought about what this day meant. I thought about the impact of a team of T1 climbers and the energy and inspiration we fed off of each other.
I realized that while this was my hardest send in my life, this was nowhere near my limit. I had visualized failure for so long that I had conditioned myself to that end. Seeing a fellow T1 sending hard the day before helped me see myself doing the same thing. I watched Jason climbing the route and I thought to myself, THIS is what it’s all about, not about my hardest lead or about how many days I climbed.
And that was the point of all of this from the outset. I wanted to show others with diabetes that we can do incredible things and that we have a choice about living within the limitations of diabetes. I wanted shout down social conventions and ignorance that portrays type 1 diabetes as an illness or some inherent weakness.
I wanted to gently but firmly stand up in opposition to the woe-is-me mentality that I see frequently expressed across the internet by others in the diabetes community who don’t feel like they are able to overcome or that their only hope for a healthy life is beyond their control, pinned on medical breakthroughs and government regulatory bodies. I choose not to argue with viewpoints that I disagree with–I would rather DO something that shows otherwise–and let people choose for themselves. In the course of Project 365 I discovered that there are many others who share this vision, and many more who have been willing to listen to a different perspective. The more of us who stand up against the myths and limitations of what diabetes means–that is hope for RIGHT NOW.
As we all hiked back to the cars and the sun set on the final day, Jason summed up the day perfectly: “Two type 1s in the desert, perfect temperatures, sending hard routes together? It REALLY doesn’t get much better than this!”
I had my health, my wife and friends with me (many of them in spirit) and the hardest climb of my climbing career was in the bag. We had made our point. I felt so thankful for all the support from everyone over the year and the hard work work from friends like Nick who gave their time, space and energy to the cause. It felt good. Stefanie hugged me and said “So how do you feel? Are you ready to relax and enjoy this accomplishment?”
“Well, it’s definitely a good start” I said.
(author’s note– I am unable to retreat from living relentlessly in the real world, so my being overjoyed is basically what you see here despite my apparent lack of jubilation. I am not miserable by any means, I’m just wound pretty tightly.)