At the end of August this year, 12 people, all living with type 1 diabetes, gathered from seven different countries with a common goal: to climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Led by the World Diabetes Tour, in partnership with Sanofi, the Type 1 Diabetes Kilimanjaro Expedition aimed to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes, providing hope and inspiration for people living with diabetes and those who support them. Rock climber Steve Richert, of LivingVertical and Project 365, was among the climbers and I’m pleased to share his story with you today.
After arriving in Tanzania around 3 a.m., Steve joined the other climbers at a resort and spent a couple of days recuperating from jet lag and getting to know the group. “This was my first time traveling outside of North America,” he said. “I traveled by myself to meet with the group of other climbers that I didn’t know. The interesting thing was the fact that we all had diabetes, and we all shared a very similar mindset about how we handle diabetes and how we view it in our lives. It really brought us together and unified us into a team which is something pretty amazing.”
Each climbing day started at 6 a.m. with a large breakfast prepared by the 48 porters who came along to assist during the expedition. “They made sure we stayed very well hydrated and that we were eating enough to keep our energy sufficiently up,” he said. “Then after breakfast, we typically hiked until around noon, broke for lunch, got back on the trail, hiked until 5 or 6 p.m. and then slept early, because once the sun goes down, light is gone. You’re pretty tired anyway. The first six days were spent just getting acclimatized to the elevation.”
As a rock climber for seven years, this trek was different from Steve’s usual climbing pursuits. At 19,341 feet above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. “All the climbing that I had done previously had not been at high altitudes,” he said. “There are a lot more opportunities for you to fall off the wagon mentally and emotionally speaking, because a lot of it is very mundane; you’re just walking. You’re not hanging off the edge of a cliff; you’re not constantly engaged. You really have to hold yourself on track mentally and stay focused. You just have to deal with the process and take it one day at a time.”
The terrain was also a marked difference for Steve. “Every day you’re going out of one ecosystem into another one as you gain altitude,” he explained. “We started off in rainforests, under the jungle canopy, and then went up through the heather, and then up into the moors, and then up into the alpine zone. The landscape changes and so does the climate. There was also always mud or dust to contend with which made life a little bit challenging. I wasn’t really able to come to a conclusion as to which one I prefer, but I learned how to handle both of them.”
After six days on the trail, the group prepared to reach the mountain’s summit. “On summit day we had to eat two meals close together and then went to bed early, at 5 p.m.,” he said. “That night I had a low that was really scary. I wound up having a high from the first meal, and then a low from the second. I didn’t even feel it; my blood sugar was dropping so fast, but I was wearing a CGM, and that alerted me that my sugar was falling. So I dealt with it like I would any major low blood sugar episode; it’s just the time and place of that episode which, mentally, rattled me.”
After some rest, the group awoke and started their ascent to the summit at midnight. “The goal was for everybody to summit around sunrise, but the group wound up splitting off,” he said. “Everybody had their own pace, and a variety of different things going on within their own bodies: highs from people, lows from people feeling the altitude, other people were just tired, some people had stomach issues. Some reached the summit around 6 a.m., and the rest of the group trickled in between 7 and 10 a.m. I summited around 7:30.”
Steve’s favorite memories are from after their trek back down the mountain, where they descended about 10,000 feet over the course of a day. “I think the best memories were after everything was done and we were all just hanging out after the fact,” he said. “Something that is moderately traumatic like the experience of climbing a mountain together really bonds everybody as a group. It gave everybody the further connection beyond the fact that we all have diabetes. We were able to reflect on everything and know that we had successfully made it down together; we got what we came for. It was really powerful.”
The expedition confirmed some core beliefs for Steve. “To me, diabetes doesn’t have to stop you from doing anything,” he said. “If anything, really, it can be a motivation for you to do more than you ever would have if you didn’t have this challenge in your life. I know that’s what it’s been for me. It’s one of the things that really meant the most to me about being part of the group. Even though we came literally from all over the world to be together, everybody had the same mentality that diabetes is a reason to try harder, and be healthier, more active, more motivated and more accountable.”
What a life-affirming experience and encouraging message! I applaud the determination and perseverance of Steve and his climbing companions. Many thanks to Steve for sharing his story.
All the best,
Disclosures: Steve Richert received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
The Type 1 Diabetes Kilimanjaro Expedition received sponsorship funds from Sanofi.