For three days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, myself and a group climbed ice and snow, gaining experience in technical mountaineering, ice climbing, and the maintenance of diabetes in sub-freezing and extremely physically demanding conditions.
We chose Mooney Mountain Guides, LLC. as our guiding service, and were accompanied and instructed by the fluent and brilliant Art Mooney for all three days. His superb guiding was comprehensive, challenging but not complex, and his companionship and support were invaluable. Further, he had reasonable prices, as opposed to such unmentionable guide megacorps that dominate the region.
Art, besides being an unfathomably skilled climber and guide, was a hoot and a half to be around. His charm and warmth won all of us over, and my entire group still sings his praises high as the skies. We're all immeasurably infatuated with him, as we find his skill and abilities awesome and inspiring. I can't thank him enough for providing our humble group with such a wonderful experience; it would not have been nearly so magical without him.
The name’s Mooney. Art Mooney.
On the first day, we were introduced to ice climbing, using basic top-roping systems, identical to what we use in the rock gym. Eric and I were able to belay immediately, as we had experience, and Art instructed our other partner, Luc, on proper belay technique. I allowed Luc to learn to belay for the first time on me!
This was my first time ice climbing, something I've been dreaming about since the beginning of the year. While that may not seem like a long time, it's felt like a vacuous eternity, filled only with insubstantial dreamings; frequent trips to the library to read books with ice climbing adventures, watching ice climbing videos on youtube, and sharing excitement with my friends.
Drawing upon my experience on the rock wall at home, I was able to meet the technical challenges without difficulty. For most people, the most challenging part of any type of climbing is the terror that can come with entrusting your safety and body weight to the seemingly nonexistent support above you (your rope). You notice it when you fall, of course, but a good belayer doesn't hold you like a baby-Johnny-Jump-Up.
It can be quite terrifying, and I've seen many new climbers lose themselves to the fear of the fall. Luckily for me, I was unabashedly unafraid of falling! The excitement of the moment, my enthusiastic vigor, and my pounding adrenaline washed away any fear of being up high. I was very focused, and I felt completely in my element; literally, cancer is a water sign!
This allowed me to focus on my technique and enabled me to fully enjoy the experience, which is a frame of mind that I've been working hard on establishing for many years. I would hate to be up there, knowing that when I get down, I'm going to wish I had've paid more attention to the scenery or the sheer joy of it.
Have you ever done something that was so challenging that you forgot to enjoy it, and when you were done, wished you had experienced it differently? This was a mental trap I was determined to avoid. For the most part over the course of my trip, I was successful in maintaining this.
Where this became difficult, however, was day 2. On our second day, we climbed Mt Washington. Usually, the weather conditions for a winter climb on this mountain are formidable beyond anything, anywhere nearby. Just today, the weather at the summit is severe; 124 mph maximum wind gusts and one degree above zero at its coldest. It's like being on Mars! Understandably, Mt Washington is nicknamed the, "home of the World's Worst Weather."
Despite MW's intimidating reputation, we were fortunate enough to enjoy a truly spectacular and mild day on the mountain, allowing us to make the summit! Winds peaked at 20 mph and temperatures hovered around freezing! One couldn't ask for prettier weather.
Admittedly, with more severe conditions, I would not have made the summit. My blood sugar ranged from 39 to 584, setting a personal record for my widest range in a single day. The initial approach after embarking from the trailhead was grueling, and in combination, I had taken too much basal insulin (which covers my hormones, a 2x day injection cycle). Stacking too many insulin shots on top of each other and the physical strain on my cold, sleep-deprived body (5 hours) caused my sugar to plummet into the danger zone.
My blood sugar is 39, if you were wondering why I look like a dead person.
On our first rest break after an hour of approach, my blood sugar read 39. I was shocked and utterly terrified to discover this, as I had no inking whatsoever that my blood sugar was so low. At most, I felt a little bit "off," or that something wasn't right. It was as if I couldn't put my finger on it, but it certainly wasn't as glaringly obvious as such a low number would be on any other day.
On the mountain, my heart rate and hormones were matched exactly between hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia, and physical stress. Meaning, I couldn't tell the difference between the three. In conjunction with one or the other, they can mislead me to believe that I am fine. This is very dangerous, and I learned to set a regular and frequent schedule for checking my sugar. I should check it once every 30 minutes to understand its direction, in order to prevent such lows again. Had I checked my sugar 30 minutes into our approach, I might have prevented such a low.
Lesson learned and duly noted. yet, my sugar continued to lay low. I corrected my sugar based on the ration I've kept since my diagnosis; 17g of carbs to raise it every 30 mg/dl it is below 130. In fact, I overate! I probably had enough sugar to propel my reading into the 300's. Astonishingly, this was not the case. A short time later, my blood sugar was still under 100, which made me uncomfortable, as there is increased hypoglycemic risk. I ate a bit and moved on.
As we approached the summit around 5,500', I began to experience agony. I felt as if I were going to have a heart attack. My heart pounded out of my chest, I couldn't gasp enough air, and every move was dire pain and nearly impossible. The remaining path to the summit, only a few hundred feet of trail, felt like another mountain in itself.
Getting closer... From left to right, Terry Mooney; my guide’s wife, Eric, me, and Luc.
I could see it through the crystal skies, misrepresenting itself through the clarity as if close enough to touch. But it was a mirage; a hallucinatory vision to trip my reality. The summit was a couple thousand steps from where I stood, an inexorable distance. Every breath, every step, every time I decided to keep moving, I died, re-birthed, died and re-birthed again, crying hard behind my ski goggles. It was a sick quest for a prideful purpose; to be many things - a diabetic, a girl, a teenager - and still a successful summiteer. It was my salvation, my only choice, and also my hell.
Determined to sleep in the bed that I'd made, and resolved to enjoy the fruits of such a decision, I continued on and found myself at the summit, in a fatigued state of disarray and exhaustion. I was certain I'd never make it down, feeling as if I'd been drained completely.
My guide began to show serious concern, and my partner Eric, an EMT, recognized something inauspicious in me. My sugar read 71, but I felt like it should have been in the negative. My hormones undoubtedly influenced my emotional state, and I was terrified. This fear was involuntarily fed to my group, and very quickly, I felt that the situation was more charged than was conducive to my recovery.
My guide immediately took hold of my care, and kept talking to me, asking me questions, finding me food, forcing me to chew, and he offered me his own hot chocolate. I felt safe, though I knew, logically, that I was out of danger. Art's command of my recovery allowed me to focus on keeping a steady, calmed rate of breathing and just chewing and swallowing. With Art and Eric taking turns getting me food, warming it, and literally feeding me, I didn't have to expend any unnecessary energy.
The team on top! Moments before I checked my blood sugar.
After a few pregnant moments of tense recovery, I began to come into myself again. Even though my sugar was in a normal range, I didn't feel any change in my emotional experience of making the summit. Being there, where I dreamed myself to over and over again, was meaningless until it was coupled with the reality of making it down again. With the demand of the descent looming over me, I couldn't enjoy it at the top. I was only concerned with getting back to the car so that I could feel relief that I'd done what I said I'd do.
Just enough energy to make a raspberry.
Though we'd made it to the top, my journey was far from over. After descending to a hut located just above treeline, I felt that my blood sugar was amiss again. A complaint of lightheadedness brought my group to another tense standstill as I checked my sugar.
What joy! Praise the Heavens! I'd never felt so happy to see such a high reading: my blood sugar was 584. This relieved me of any fears I had about another low reading, which I was both expecting and dreading. I was in the clear; out of danger! I had finally escaped the imprisoning terror of being too close to a loss of consciousness.
When I read my glucometer, I felt washed over with air, like I could finally breathe again. Physically, I noticed an immediate difference. The peace of mind provided me with an entirely new frame to position myself in, in order to bound down the mountain with both joy and relief. The rest of the descent was marvelous, and I was able to go over everything in my head, internalizing and extracting hard-fought lessons.
“That’s one big trunk.”
When we made it to my car, I stripped off my gear and reclined in my trunk, blissfully exhausted and marinating in achievement. I'd done it! Now I was excited.
We went home and celebrated, now free of the dangers of the mountain and my own uncertainty.
Compared to our MW climb, our last day of play in the picturesque White Mountains was a day of relaxation and reflection. This is not to say, however, that it was easy! We climbed a 700-foot multi-pitch ice route that is a staple for local climbers: Willey's Slide.
Proudly, we practiced various self-arrest techniques, glissading, and I even invented a technique of my own: when descending a soft snow slope with fairly deep powder drifts, one can glissade exercising control in order to expend less energy. I call it the Eldridge technique. Look for it in the next edition of Freedom of the Hills: The Mountaineering Bible.
The ice climb was magnificent, and I felt both alive and at peace. I'd found the freedom and solace that only the Great Outdoors can provide. Finally, I felt like a real mountaineer! There I was, short-roped in with my group, alongside a North Face athlete and avid climbers. I was really living, the way I'd dreamed since I was a child - out there, in the Great White North, where the air is pure and the Earth virginal, and where I could stand in the humbling shadow of real wilderness.
This was the day I enjoyed the most, and I relished every moment. Art showed concern over my quieter moments, which were very out of character from the previous days of bubbly enthusiasm. Yet, my sugar was fine - I was simply at peace.
Anchored with massive ice screws, I hung off the ice slope, resting my body and mind, and regenerating my spirit. The great fall beneath me, and the long climb above me, centered me between the moments I left behind and the future I could look forward to, and for a time, I reflected on these in great joy. For the first time, I began to taste the addictive ambrosia that lures the climber's soul, enticing it to mountains, over crevasses, and through cold and fear.
There, I found what American mystic Joseph Campbell called "my bliss." And it is there, in the great beyond, that I hope to return soon.
Thanks to Art Mooney for the laughs and the photographs.
To view more photos, visit my public facebook album!
For more information on Art Mooney and his awesome guiding service, visit his website.
To view the current summit conditions on Mount Washington, and to view a live webcam of the mountain, visit their homepage.