Diabetes Forecast

A Mom-Daughter Team Tackles Mount Everest

By Lindsey Wahowiak , , ,

Christine Nolan (left) and her mom, Terry, at the South Base Camp of Mount Everest.

At 14 years old, Christine Nolan thought she had faced the biggest obstacle in her life when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. But a few years later, she took on a new challenge of immense proportions: She climbed to the South Base Camp of Mount Everest.

It's a "base camp" 17,598 feet above sea level in Nepal. After acclimating to the altitude, it takes two weeks of strenuous hiking to reach. The nights can get freezing cold and grow colder the higher you climb. Add to that the challenge of managing blood glucose levels, the pressure of keeping insulin from freezing, and the risk of foot injury, and you've got a recipe for one of the toughest tasks for any athlete. And the potential stress of doing this all with your mom, as a teenager? That's a feat, for sure.

Christine, 18, of Easton, Md., took time out from her freshman year at Manhattan College to tell Diabetes Forecast about her journey. Her mother, Terry Nolan, spoke with us as well.

It's Cold Up There

Headed to high altitudes and low temperatures? Find a list of meters that work in colder climates in the 2013 Consumer Guide.

The Plan

Christine: It was my mom's idea.

Terry: I couldn't find anyone to go with me. People kept saying, "No, it's crazy." Little did I know that Christine had been watching all of this. She said, "Take me!"

Christine: I do a lot of hiking and camping. [Climbing Mount Everest] has been on my bucket list.

Terry: We spoke with her endocrinologist and he said, "She can do it if you both train for it." He met with us four to six times between September [2011] and when we left in March [2012] to continually go over with us what her responsibilities would be with managing her diabetes at high altitudes, and what I as backup would need to do for her in case she needed help.

Christine: For training, I did a lot of swimming. I also went and did my own workouts at the YMCA. I don't really train for things as well as I probably should. My mom worried about me because she trained really, really hard and I didn't. But I have the will, and I did exercise a lot.

Getting to the Mountain

Christine: We climbed the mountain [beginning in late March]. I missed two weeks of school, and then it was spring break. It was a lot of work getting up the mountain. We spent a few days in Kathmandu [Nepal's capital], and then we started our hike, seven hours the first day. After the first day I was like, "Oh, my gosh, what did I do?" It took us about 2 1/2 weeks because you have to get acclimated.

It's crazy high. I didn't expect it to be that much. It was like nine hours every day, hiking. Namche Hill—that was the hardest day of my life. It is literally straight up for three hours.

Terry: Of the 16 [people in our group], six of us were called trekkers—only going as far as the base camp. The other 10 on our team were summiters. Seven of the 10 summited on May 16, 2012. Everybody was really good about looking out for everyone else.

The Diabetes Care

Christine: My doctor made a plan before the trip. We kept my blood sugar between 150 and 250 mg/dl because I was doing so much exercise every day. I wouldn't really dose [much with insulin] because I was getting so much exercise.

Terry: The entire time on the mountain she was in the 150-to-250 range. She used the OmniPod pump system. Every three days she would have to change her pump site. We both carried dual supplies of everything. At the higher altitude, if the insulin had frozen, it could not be used. One vial became foggy. Christine slept with her insulin [to keep it warm enough in her sleeping bag].

Christine: I didn't have problems with the elevation, but we did have problems with the temperature. The meter would say "move to a warmer temperature," but that wasn't really an option. So I moved closer to the fire and tried [to test] again. We had Skittles and Reese's Pieces that we brought over [for treating lows]. We actually ended up giving away all the candy to the kids in the town. We didn't really need it.

Terry: We ate a heavy-carb, heavy-fat diet, because you can't keep weight on you [while hiking]. We had dal, a lentil stew; fried rice … and momos—fried dumplings, stuffed with either vegetables or yak meat. At about 11,000 feet, Christine and I stopped eating the meat because we saw it carried up the mountain on the backs of porters … uncovered, uncured, and unrefrigerated. Spam and Pringles potato chips are a huge thing on the mountain. You have to drink about 200 ounces-plus of liquid a day, and since it's very challenging to drink that much water, you have either soup or some sort of broth at every meal, plus you have tea or some kind of sugar-lemon water, like Tang.

The Sherpa guides were phenomenal. I told them right up front, "Christine has type 1 diabetes. It's not something you need to do anything with, but it's something I'll be helping her with."

Christine: We were really lucky though because we had a good guide. He latched on to us in the beginning, and he really got us up the mountain. He understood a little bit about diabetes, which is really cool.

The Struggles

Christine: I really didn't know what I signed up for. But I had no problems. My mom wanted to turn around at 14,000 feet, and I wouldn't let her.

Terry: It got to the point where you just stopped asking because you knew it was going to be a mountain, it was going to be steep, it was going to hurt. Every day you had to get up and dig deep. Your legs feel like they weigh a ton, and it literally feels like you're picking your leg up and moving it forward. It's not propelling you.

When we were on the mountain at about 16,000 feet, I developed AMS—acute mountain sickness. You're feeling really lousy, headache, no appetite, can't sleep, blisters can't heal. Christine basically took over. She became our great encourager. In the tent, in the blizzard, she's nursing me to health. I would not have made it to base camp without her. She motored right up with no problems. She managed her diabetes in shocking conditions.

Getting to Base Camp

Christine: We spent like an hour [at base camp]. We participated in the puja ceremony, a well-wishing for the summiters, and then we went back down and stayed at a lower altitude that night.

My mom and me, we just started crying because four years before, even three years before, we never expected to be there. If you had seen how sick I was in the hospital! I had never seen my mom cry except that time. It was kind of cool to go from the bad to the good.

Terry: I will cherish it as one of the greatest experiences of my life. We were attached at the hip for three weeks. It was really, really phenomenal: the sights, the sounds, the accomplishment, the challenges that we overcame. Every single day there was something, but we did it together as a team. Neither of us lost the support of the other.

The lesson for Christine is there is no obstacle now, at all, that [she] cannot overcome. Yes, she'll find hardship, but she knows what she's capable of accomplishing and she did it. I was just in awe of her.



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