They say there are two types of people in this world; Those who go around obstacles and those who just go right over them.
Bill Bicksler definitely fits into the second category.
Not one to let anything stand in his way, Bicksler has battled his diabetes from some of the most scenic vantage points in the world, such as the top of the highest mountain in the Alps, the Grand Teton, Mt. Rainier and, most recently, the summit of Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.
Bicksler, 47, says he has always been involved in sports, and, when he was diagnosed with type I diabetes 15 years ago, he decided that wasn’t going to stop him. In fact he had an optimistic attitude about the changes he was going to have to make.
“I decided that the disease, while certainly serious, didn’t have to incapacitate me. Indeed, everything I read said that exercise was good, and, when I looked closer at the diet that was prescribed, it seemed like a diet that everybody should be on,” he says in an article he wrote shortly after returning from McKinley.
As part of the healthy changes he was incorporating into his life, Bicksler agreed in 1991 to accompany some of his friends as they scaled Mt. Rainier in Washington. After a five-day seminar about mountain climbing, Bicksler ascended the mountain, and was hooked.
From that moment on he said he dreamed of summiting McKinley, or, as it is known in the mountain-climbing world, Denali, which can be translated to “The High One.”
He spent the next summer in Europe, where he conquered Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, and became comfortable with his ability to control his diabetes at high altitudes.
On non-climbing days, Bicksler usually takes four injections a day (8 NPH and 5 units Novolin regular at breakfast, 5 regular at lunch, 12 regular at dinner and 10 NPH at bedtime). When he is on the mountain he cuts that back by about a third to compensate for differences in altitude and eating habits.
The dream of conquering McKin-ley began to merge with reality in the fall of 1993, when Bicksler set the wheels in motion for his climb to the top of North America.
As things began to fall into place, the danger of actually making the climb started to loom large in front of him.
“When I finished reading (the information packet) I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, let alone get a doctor to sign off on it,” he wrote. “The letter described the intense cold, acute altitude sickness, pulmonary and cerebral edema, the heavy loads, living for weeks in cramped tents, sleeplessness, well, you get the picture.”
“Never underestimate the importance of a good relationship with your doctor,” he insisted. “Not only did Dr. Bode sign the letter, he encouraged me to contact some companies that might have an interest in helping put me on top of North America”
So, with the OK from his doctor, the sponsorship of Novo Nordisk, and months of intensive training, on May 16th he was off to Alaska in search of his dream.
Starting at an elevation of 7,000 feet, Bicksler and his nine companions began the slow ascent to the summit at 20,320 feet.
To combat the 50 mile per hour winds and -20 degree weather Bicksler kept his insulin in a fleece pouch around his neck and his blood glucose meter in his pocket, close to his body, to prevent it from freezing. He also had spare insulin stored in a matching pouch around the neck of one of the guides on the expedition.
On the trek the climbers ate mostly things which could be easily reconstituted. Breakfast, for example might consist of oatmeal, cereal, or Pop Tarts and cocoa or tea. Then, after a day of climbing and snacking on granola bars or nuts, they would eat a high carbohydrate dinner such as macaroni and rice.
Not only the odd food situation, but also the physiological effects of high altitude played a role in Bicksler’s journey.
Under high altitude conditions a person’s blood viscosity changes, the lungs change and the way your body uses oxygen changes as well. Though he monitored his blood glucose three times a day and was taking multiple daily injections, under these conditions Bicksler said that insulin dosage was a constant experiment.
The experiment marred the excitement of the summit for Bicksler. On the final day of the ascent Bicksler’s blood glucose meter would not work; perhaps it was the cold or the altitude, but when he reached the summit he did not feel well.
“The only thing I thought to do was take an injection of 7 units regular insulin. If my BG was low, I would know it soon enough and I could take some glucose tablets. If indeed it was high then the insulin would work to bring it back down.” Though he admits this may sound like strange thinking, he reached his goal and is here to tell about it, unlike the four climbers who lost their lives to the mountain while he was there.
Only about half of the people who attempt to climb Mt. McKinley make it to the top. Bicksler notes that this number is not even making a special category for people who suffer from a chronic disease, and concludes that “the barriers we have are ones that we create for ourselves.”