Climber with Diabetes Scales Tallest Peaks

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Will Cross, who has diabetes, talks about climbing Mount Everest while also managing his disease.

Will Cross manages his diabetes even when he literally is on top of the world.

Cross was the first American with diabetes to reach the summit of Mount Everest, a feat he accomplished on May 23, 2006. Cross has climbed the highest peak on every continent. As an expedition leader, he's also walked to both the North and South poles, refusing to be boxed in by diabetes.

He visited HealthPoint Fitness in Cape on Monday, December 7, to recount his adventures and encourage others with diabetes to manage their disease and not let it control their lives. Janet Stewart, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator at Southeast Missouri Hospital's Diabetes Center, says Cross is a great role model for people with diabetes. "He's a perfect example that diabetes, when properly managed, does not limit your life," she notes.

The 40-year-old Cross was diagnosed with diabetes in 1976. Back then, diabetes management wasn't as sophisticated as it is now. "Insulin was not predictable. This was really the dark ages of diabetes management."

Over the years, major improvements have been made in the administration of insulin and in monitoring blood sugar levels.

Climbing mountain peaks is challenging even for those without diabetes. But Cross had to deal not only with the normal rigors of scaling the world's tallest peaks but also how to keep his blood sugar level at a healthy level and keep his supply of insulin from freezing in sub-zero temperatures.

Scaling Mount Everest is a daunting task. "It takes two weeks to get to base camp," he explains. There are no roads. "Everything that goes to base camp is hauled on somebody's back," the Pittsburgh, PA, resident notes.

The journey involves traveling over huge pieces of ice, some the size of hospitals, and moving at three feet a day.

Cross says he doesn't climb alone. "I'm always with a teammate." To deal with his diabetes, he must drink more fluids than other mountain climbers. He has to keep his blood sugar levels in check while also eating a fat-rich diet to provide the energy needed to survive the physical rigors of mountain climbing.

Cross scaled Mount Everest on his third try, reaching the 29,035 foot summit. He failed to reach the summit in 2004 and 2005 because of a lack of enough oxygen tanks and bad weather, respectively.

At such altitudes, there's 30 percent less oxygen. Climbers have to breathe from oxygen tanks, he explains.

From the 26,000 foot elevation to the summit is a 10-hour climb. "You really can't speak. You are exhausted," he explains. The last part of the journey includes walking across a narrow ridge no wider than a door with a 29,000 foot drop on either side, Cross says.

The last 40 feet, the climber has to haul himself up with ropes. Cross reached the summit at 5 a.m. "I was able to watch the sunrise," he recalls.

"You can see the curvature of the Earth," he says. The distance is unfathomable."

Once back down the mountain, Cross says he was overcome with a "flood of joy."

While he has successfully managed his diabetes, Cross says his body takes a little longer to recover than other climbers. His toes, for example, remain numb for two months after a climb.

Despite the hardships, Cross remains passionate about mountain climbing. "I was in Tibet about a month ago and I can't wait to go back in the spring," he says.

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