“I have a fear of heights,” confesses Taylor Adams, the first mountaineer with type 1 diabetes to have scaled the seven tallest peaks – including Mount Everest – in seven continents, while using an insulin pump. “I believe that ideally the human body is not meant to be out there at high elevation with or without diabetes.”
Buried under an avalanche of modesty and honesty, the grit of this 33-year-old pediatric-ICU-nurse-turned-diabetes-advocate from Salt Lake City, Utah, to not let diabetes prevent him from pursuing his passion shines bright. This was the same message he shouted out to the world in May 2019 when he conquered Everest and stood taller than every single human being on the planet.
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“I wanted to do it as someone climbing Mt Everest with diabetes rather than a diabetic climbing Mt Everest,” says Adams. “There is a subtle difference here which is very important to me.” It requires a lot of training and precautions to condition the body and mind for such expeditions, he says.
Happiest Health caught up online with Adams from his residence in Salt Lake City, where he is recuperating from ribs and collarbone injuries sustained in a freak biking mishap. If it was not for this unfortunate accident, he would have been in Nepal climbing the Ama Dablam mountain this month.
The Taylor Adams Story
Adams was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 11. “My parents were always supportive of me being an outdoorsy kid despite my condition,” he says. “Probably because they had no inkling that I would be going all the way to climb Mt Everest later on.”
As a kid, Adams was more into camping, and it was a while before felt the call of the mountains. He then started training and conditioning his body to ensure he was both healthy and worthy of the heights.
“Luckily, I live right at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, so I can do most of my training right in my backyard and don’t need to be inside a gym,” he says.
It was a trip to the Cotopaxi and Cayambe volcanic peaks in Ecuador during his college days that gave him the assurance that he could scale greater heights. “The best way to train for climbing a mountain is to climb a different mountain,” he says.
Managing diabetes at high altitudes
Adams headed to Mt Denali, the tallest peak in North America, in the summer of 2011 after his college graduation. “It was the last summer before I started working,” he says. “I wanted to do something cool. At that point in time the seven-summit plan [the tallest peaks in seven continents] was not on the cards.”
Denali in Alaska may not be as tall as Mt Everest but, Adams says, it is tougher because of the terrain, lack of facilities and proximity to the North Pole. “Unlike at Everest, where we could hire local support crew, the climbers have to bear their own baggage here,” says Adams.
Taylor Adams at the seven summits
Within nine years of scaling Mt Denali (6,190m) in July 2011, Adams conquered:
- Mount Aconcagua (6,961m, Argentina, South America, 2015)
- Mount Elbrus (5,642m, western Russia, Europe, 2016)
- Mount Vinson (4,892m, Antarctica, 2017)
- Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m, Tanzania, Africa, 2017)
- Mount Everest (8,848m, Nepal, Asia, 2019)
- Mount Kosciuszko (2,228m, Australia (mainland), 2020).
The high-altitude diabetes activist
The idea to scale all seven summits and become a diabetes activist emerged in 2016 after Adams asked his hospital manager’s permission for a couple of weeks leave of absence from work to head out to Mt Elbrus.
“I also used to get to interact with the parents of kids diagnosed with diabetes at work,” he says. “I realised then that by doing the seven summits I could spread diabetes awareness and also raise money for the [New York-based] Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund.”
Does high altitude affect the glucometer?
Adams will never forget May 2019, when he braved the elements and reached the summit of Mt Everest along with his 13-member team. He had packed an additional insulin pump, an extra supply of insulin vials, a glucometer and syringes as his main diabetes stock. Freezing of the insulin vials and malfunctioning of the diabetes-management gadgets were among his biggest concerns. He had worn the additional insulin pump on him during the last leg up to the summit just so he could switch to it in case the one he was using malfunctioned due to the harsh conditions.
Despite having multiple strategies to keep the insulin vials warm, Adams’ initial challenge was to protect them from the intense heat of the sun. “The temperature swings on Everest are very extreme,” he says. “When you get a little higher on the mountain, there’s so little atmosphere that the sunlight is crazy intense and the ultraviolet rays keep bouncing off the snow and ice everywhere.” As a result, the climbers’ tents become like a greenhouse and Adams often had to keep the vials under a pile of snow to keep them cold in the sun.
“I also had to stash them in my sleeping bag or my pockets so my body heat could keep them warm whenever the sun was not out,” he says. “As we went higher beyond Camp 2, even with the intense sunlight, the temperatures were constantly low.”
Before Adams, three other type 1 diabetics had scaled Everest. He is the second one to climb Everest with an insulin pump.
Candy, protein bars to the rescue at Everest
Adams says another concern was to match food intake and insulin dosage to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood glucose).
“It’s a very strenuous climb, and the body needs lots of energy to push forward,” he says. “I used to have mostly candy and energy bars during the day since they’re easy to digest and have lots of sugar for energy.”
Altitude sickness induced by hypoxia (lack of oxygen) leads to nausea and appetite loss, which could have serious consequences for diabetics. Loss of appetite is mainly the body trying to convey that there is a shortage of oxygen for vital bodily functions, including digestion.
“Protein and fat-rich food do not get digested easily when there’s a shortage of oxygen in the body,” Adams says.
He says that 2019 was a bad year, if not the worst, at Mt Everest since there were multiple mishaps that claimed at least 11 lives.
“Every year there is a two-week window to climb up to the top of Everest, just before the monsoon hits the Himalayas,” he says. “But in 2019 everyone was forced to climb at the same time as this two-week period narrowed down to two or three days because of strong jet streams at the peak.”
Covid-19 pandemic at seventh summit in Australia
A couple of months later Adams was out with his mountaineering gear in Australia and officially finished his seven-summit mission at the top of Mount Kosciuszko in early 2020.
“It was actually a great excuse to finally go to Australia,” he says. “It was also the closest I got to not reaching the top because of the Covid pandemic.”
He was fortunate enough to return to the US in one of the last airplanes that flew out of Australia before international air travel was suspended to curb the spread of the virus.
Climbing and surviving seven summits
Two of Adam’s most vulnerable moments during the entire seven-summit climb were mental (and not physical) and not during the actual climb.
While he was in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, heading to Denali in a bus, a trip guide handed him a photocopy of a scientific study that claimed glucometers don’t work at high altitudes. “I was really taken aback and had to tell him that I hope my glucometer works better than what’s written in this scientific article,” he says. “And it actually worked. In fact, I never had any major issues with my glucometer during any climbs, including at the Everest.”
The second tough moment – when Adam developed serious doubts about being able to endure the elements at the summit — was when he was lying in his tent with breathing difficulties at about 2,000 metres from Mt Everest. “I was like how will I climb higher if I can’t breathe lying down in my tent,” he says.
Flying higher than Mount Everest
Adams keeps himself fit with a lot of biking, running and hiking.
Heights seem to have become an inseparable factor in Adams’ life: he has also started working as a flight nurse along with his ICU work at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. He now accompanies critically ill people while they are being airlifted in air ambulances from remote hospitals to the city.
“Hopefully I will be soon in Nepal at the top of Ama Dablam peak,” he says before signing off.
Type 1 diabetes need not be a limitation in life, but it has to be managed well. Like Adams himself says, proper training and preparation are a must for people with this condition before they take part in strenuous physical activities. Always consult your doctor before embarking on such trips. Blood sugar variations at high altitudes could lead to serious health complications.