By: Mary Milewski
Will Cross has taken diabetes to new heights—literally.The Pittsburgh-based expeditioner and former high school principalbecame the first person with diabetes to reach the South Summit of MountEverest, with a successful summit on May 31.
Cross doesn’t quit; it took two attempts for him to complete hisclimb to the top. An expedition last year ended just 1,500 feetbelow the peak, partly because his partner lost vision in one eyefrom retinal hemorrhaging, and partly because of problems withan oxygen cylinder.
Started Dreaming at an Early Age
Cross remembers staying up all night watching the 1976 Olympicsand wondering if it would be possible for him someday toaccomplish great things with diabetes.
“I was told very bluntly that I would have to take insulininjections for the rest of my life,” says Cross. “That alone was overwhelming, and I didn’t even know about the constant jugglewith blood glucose testing, diet, exercise and injections.”
His interest in expeditioning started with an Outward Boundexperience in England when Cross was just 15.
“From there I continued to climb and do bigger trips each year,”Cross says. “Eventually I applied for a position with OperationRaleigh, but I was denied due to my diabetes. So, I wrote to PrinceCharles, who gave me permission to participate.”
It was that experience that taught the adventurer valuable lessons ofbeing in the wild and managing his diabetes effectively.
Preparing for the Climb
Believe it or not, Cross says, training for the expedition wasnot as in depth as some people might imagine.
“I do exercise daily—mostly long, slow, distance rowing andbiking, the step machine, skiing machine and maybe two days a week of acore weight-lifting routine,” he says. “Most of the work starts when you get to the mountain.”
Cross usually takes a few weeks to pack for an expedition.
When packing diabetes supplies, Crossalways brings twice as much as he thinkshe will actually need. It’s the same withemergency carbohydrates, he says.
“If I think I’ll need two PowerBars, I’ll take four. There are always surprises on the mountain; if the weather changes or ateammate needs help, you get stalled. Allof these surprises affect my blood glucoseone way or the other.”
Packing twice as much as you think youneed for diabetes management is thestrategy Cross recommends for any travelwith diabetes.
“I lay out gear, then look at it and makechanges,” he says. But even with a greatdeal of planning, inevitably there’s a last-minuterush. “My children and my wifeare very helpful throughout the entireprocess,” says the 38-year-old father of six.
Low Blood Glucose on a River of Ice
Cross’ most challenging experiencewith a low blood glucose level at a badtime occurred as the team was crossingthe Khumba Ice Fall, a river of ice withice blocks the size of houses and hotelscrashing into each other and evenspreading apart and forming crevasses.
“You’ve got to keep moving through soyou don’t get crushed,” Cross says. “When I go low, I have to keep my wits about me,because as a climber, you don’t want tofall in a hole. You also want to watch outfor what happens to your body and head,which is spinning. Knowing my bodyhelped me get through a rapid low there.”
Cross treated the low at the ice fall bytaking in as much carbohydrate in gel formas possible. “I forced myself to go forwardand to keep motivated.”
The First With Diabetes to the South Summit
It was that kind of focus and perseverance that helpedCross reach the South Summit of Everest.
“I was surprised to reach the summit,” Cross says. “I was so focused on every two feet in front of me, that when I got to the summit, I was surprised to be there. I felt goodand strong.”
The climb felt best when he returned to the base of the mountain, he says. “I can’t let my guard down untilI finally get to base camp and take my gear off. That’swhen joy seeps in. It’s tremendous satisfaction long afteryou’ve finally reached where you wanted to go.”
As far as future expeditions go, Cross says he would liketo go to Russia as well as Greenland and South GeorgiaIsland. “I’d also like to go to the North Pole from Canada.”
Living his dreams is a matter of following good diabetesmanagement—and it can be that way for others withdiabetes as well, the adventurer says. “Diabetes doesn’thave to stop you from pursuing what you want to do. Youcan lead a full, rewarding life if you carefully manage thedisease. People should pursue their dreams,” he says. “It’s really that simple.”
Diabetes Management on the Mountain
The Everest expedition tended to be fairly predictable and regularoverall, Cross says, in terms of his daily regimen.
“On a climbing day, I’d be up around 4 a.m. and have breakfast after testing inside the tents,” Cross says. “I’d use NovoLog insulin pens inside the tent and carry them throughout the day inside my climbing suit so they wouldn’t freeze.”
The team climbed from 6 a.m. to midafternoon, when Cross wouldgo inside the tent, hydrate by drinking fluids and test his bloodglucose. Climbers then tried to get as much sleep as possible beforerepeating the climbing ritual the next day.
Cross used between 40 and 60 units of insulin each day on themountain. And, depending on the altitude, he would wear an insulinpump to the base camp or use an insulin pen alone on climbing days.
In addition to adjusting his insulin delivery method based onaltitude, his climbing schedule also required changes in diet toincrease protein intake.
“Altitude tends to eat your muscle faster,” he says. Fiber and protein, plus sport nutrition bars and energy gels, are an easy way to get needed fuels. “I’d also try to drink plenty of water.”
The climbers’ diet consisted of regular foods that included a lot of rice, curries, biscuits and chicken. The altitude had significant effects on Cross’ body, he said.
“I need more hydration than most climbers, because I’m trying to flush out any excess blood glucose. I eat a lot of energy bars to keep my blood glucose where I want it. My body reacts to altitude as if it is sick, so it goes into overdrive. My blood glucose tends to run high, and that’s where the insulin pen is very helpful.”
In the two weeks it took to get to the base camp, Cross spent timedoing as much blood glucose testing and monitoring of his diabetesas possible with about six tests daily.
“This helped me get a picture of how my blood glucose would reactas I climbed higher and higher on the mountain,” he says. After thestart of the trip, I test about four times daily.
Cross credits modern advances in diabetes management tools, suchas predictable types of insulins, insulin pens and pumps, whichenable him to participate in expeditions that would have beenimpossible years ago for a person with diabetes.
Watching for Low Blood Glucose Levels
Cross says his body’s sensitivity to low blood glucose levels is key.
“My body senses very quickly when my blood glucose is dropping,” he says. “I address it quickly so I don’t lose that sensitivity.”
Keeping “honey stingers,” energy gels and other fast-acting carbohydrates in easy reach allows Cross to correct any hypoglycemia by moving more slowly than the rest of the teamwithout dropping out of the climb.
Cross manages his blood glucose levels with the specific aim ofmaintaining his ability to feel fluctuations.
“I keep my hemoglobin A1C in the high 6s to low 7s,” he says. “The risk to me of keeping them lower is losing my sensitivity to the lows. I’ve got to know when I’m going low and when I’m going high. I’m certainly not recommending people do this, but it’s what allows me to do these kinds of expeditions.”
Managing his type 1 since he was 9 years old helped Will Cross to develop the “can do” outlook and perseverance he needed to climb. In addition to Mt. Everest, Cross has climbed
- Mt. Blanc
- The Matterhorn
- Grand Teton
He has also participated in expeditions toPatagonia, Mountains of the Moon, theSahara Desert and India’s Thar Desert.These adventures are part of his largergoal (called the “NovoLog Peaks and PolesChallenge”): to become the first personwith diabetes and the first American withor without diabetes to reach the tallestpeaks on each of the seven continentsand trek to the North and South Poles. Hehas already claimed the title of the firstdiabetic to reach the South Pole.