No style of climbing embodies commitment and adventure more than ascending a previously unclimbed line, a “first ascent”. It also adds a level of challenge when type 1 diabetes is in the mix because it compounds the unknowns that are readily apparent even to the most self assured climber. We decided to venture into Wyoming’s Wind River Range in the summer of 2014 for two weeks to seek out just such a challenge against which to measure ourselves–and attempt to make history, as the first all-diabetic climbing team to put up a new route together.
By Steve Richert
When I first started climbing, I drove west from New York where I had spent most of my childhood. I wanted to see mountains–not just rocks–so armed with some unbridled enthusiasm and a small guidebook to the Wind River Range in Wyoming I set out to see what all the fuss was about. I had spent so much time imagining what real mountains looked like that I never even stopped to think about what they felt like–but that feeling of paralyzing grandeur is what has kept me coming back.
In 2013 I climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania as part of a diabetes awareness initiative. It was a big deal for me because I’d not been out of the country before, nor had I ever really climbed anything that noteworthy in popular culture. It left me wondering ‘what comes next?’
I wanted to show the world that diabetes is what WE make of it–that we are not helpless victims but skilled players in an adventurous game of risk. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care if people took notice–why else would anyone bother to lug around photo and video equipment. As much as I wanted to actually succeed in reaching people, I also knew that I’d never be able to afford (let alone care enough) to climb the major trade peaks (Everest etc). Besides–it’s been done before–many times over so I thought about what it was about climbing that really changed my life and what I could create from that in order to take a fresh path.
Ironically, the development of the Wind River Project was initially pretty self centered until it occurred to me that what I needed to do was bring together a team of fellow T1D climbers and make a little history by becoming the first such group to establish a new route. This is a challenging proposition in even the most moderate terrain–and our chosen objective was over 20 miles away from any town or comfort of civilization. Looking back, I was very fortunate to meet two partners who could pull their own weight (and then some!).
Climbing is often a secondary challenge–being comfortable and simply living in the backcountry often times takes more effort than getting on the rock. The Wind River Range dished out a liberal portion of fury within our first several days of hiking into the wilderness. Rain, wind and hail–seemingly out of nowhere would send us scurrying like rodents for the nearest shelter on a daily basis. Shelter was never quite warm or dry enough and drying clothing was a constant theme–as well as the Marmots (similar to a groundhog) who made a point to dine on any item of gear, food or clothing that was left on the ground.
This was where we had chosen to bring our diabetes. It frequently seemed like a terrible idea to me once we were in the thick of it. I had left behind my wife and newborn daughter and with each passing day I felt less and less sure of what I was doing and why. I had planned this expedition before a child was in my life. At the time I’d had no way of knowing what she would mean to me or what a crushing grasp her tiny chubby hands would exert around my heart as I lay in my tent, night after night listening to howling wind, splattering rain and looking at her picture that I kept with me on the “dry” side of the tent that was less prone to puddles.
To make things more…humbling…our first four days of hiking in, setting up camp and shuttling loads that would have made Atlas himself a bit reticent really served as a wakeup call for me. My fitness was lacking and it became apparent that climbing would be less my focus on this trip. It worked out for the best though, because I wound up with more time to shoot (and make use of the heavy camera gear that I had lugged out there). I got to put up a short, easy first ascent which was really fun for me–but I didn’t have to worry about slowing Matt and Blake down as they went to work scouting and eventually climbing a large, unclimbed dihedral on the Northwest flank of Fremont Peak in Titcomb Basin. Several days of backbreaking effort got them to their highpoint–about 1/3rd of the way up the wall without the requisite gear to make the summit–and to make it back down again.
After a seeming dead end that checked in around loose, alpine 5.12, Blake and Matt turned their attention to a smaller crag near camp where they put up a few “consolation prize” single pitch routes from 5.12-5.13. I type that with tongue in cheek because that level of difficulty in climbing is astonishing to me–especially when I was feeling so utterly depleted.
I can’t blame diabetes when my partners are crushing and they both have diabetes too. I suppose I should mention a bit about the medical end of this expedition–although there isn’t much to say really. Diabetes is risk management, just like climbing. It’s one more thing to add to the checklist and one more set of items to make sure you have with you–we ate a LOT of Clifbar Shot Bloks when blood glucose values would inevitably tank after meals. I know that I ran my sugar a little higher out there than I would in “normal life” because you always have the likelihood of burning it off before too long.
It’s strange how normal diabetes feels when you are with a group of other t1D climbers who understand all the nuances of your lifestyle–who can joke about storing insulin in a car under a puffy jacket while dirt-bagging, or can speculate about how climbing chalk affects blood sugar readings. Diabetes is a lot less scary when it’s not looming in your imagination but is actually called out into the light of day by others who “get it”. In the absence of my great personal climbing achievement, this turned out to be my greatest takeaway: inspiration. Matt and Blake weren’t “perfect diabetics”, but seeing how hard they went at it on the wall made me think ‘wow, I really have not been pushing myself–I can do more. I can do better.
After about two weeks, we decided that personal pressures were mounting on us and that it would be better to make one final assault on a route and then exit the wilderness. The first route that Matt and Blake started would have to wait–but before we checked out, we decided that a push for an all-free ascent of an existing line would still be a fair prize and a significant mark to make until we could comeback and complete our own line. A first free ascent means climbing the entire length of the route without any falls and without weighting any gear.
Matt Spohn and Blake McCord onsighted (that means with no prior knowledge or rehearsal) a first free ascent of the Western Dihedral on Fremont Peak at “moist 5.12b”, high and low blood sugars not withstanding. If you’re not a climber, that’s bloody hard–mentally and physically to knock that off in a day. If you’re not a diabetic, high and low blood sugars can literally feel like immanent death and the last place you want to deal with that is 1400 feet up a remote alpine wall–but when you have to–it can be done.
And me–well, I was privileged to put up my own little route and bear witness to what people with diabetes are capable of in the mountains. I also was so excited to hike out the following day that I hiked myself into the worst hypoglycemic state that I’ve ever been in–a total rookie error–due to my fixating on being able to call my wife and talk to the baby. Oddly enough, that was a huge victory for me. I dealt with the lowest of the low and I managed to deal (with help from Blake). Diabetes won’t ever go away so it’s up to us to make the most of it–not to let it hold us back and not to get complacent in managing it since it can cut you down when you least expect it.
In July 2014 a team of type 1 diabetic climbers ventured into Titcomb Basin–a glacial cirque ringed by monolithic giants, deep within the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Matt Spohn, Blake McCord and Steve Richert were searching for unclimbed routes in some of the most spectacular wilderness in North America. Their hope was to send an empowering message about life with diabetes as a team united by this shared struggle–but what they found among the mountains would push them further than they anticipated.
You can view the trailer below. The full film is coming soon.