A Diabetic Mountain Climber's Uphill Battle

By Bill Radford
The Gazette
Sunday, May 7, 2006

The summit of Colorado's Pikes Peak was tantalizingly close, 15 to 20 vertical feet away.

Greg Cummings had started up the mountain in darkness, just before 5 a.m. It was late March, and Barr Trail was icy and snow-packed. At timberline, he had put on snowshoes and begun the arduous trek up the snow slopes to the summit.

And now it was within reach. It was cold and windy, but he felt strong. He felt good. He could easily finish those final few feet and stand alone on the summit once again.

But then what? This adventure had begun the previous March, with the goal of climbing to the top of Pikes Peak each month for 12 months straight. He had achieved that goal with his last hike, on Feb. 4. It was a day with special meaning for him, and it was to have been the final chapter in what he realized was a risky venture.

But here he was again. And the summit was calling him.

And as he gazed up, he had a decision to make.

Long ago, mountaineering had been a big part of Cummings's life.

In 1978, he traveled to Nepal and hiked to the base camp of Mount Everest, planning to return one day to climb to the top. A year later, he climbed solo to the summit of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the Western Hemisphere's highest peak. And a year after that, he climbed to the top of Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America.

There were other great mountains to climb. But in early 1982, at age 24, he was given a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. His days of adventure, it seemed, were over.

"The stuff I did was kind of pushing the outside of the envelope too much anyway, and then to carry this burden of diabetes on your back and try to do the same thing just didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense," he said.

His wife, Alison, saw him as a once-soaring eagle caged by his disease. The two, who had been married seven months when his illness was diagnosed, have two teenage daughters.

"I was angry about the disease for a very long, long time because it changed all of us," Alison Cummings said. "It just changes everything."

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body fails to produce insulin, which the body's cells use to take in the sugar they need. To prevent devastating complications such as blindness and heart disease, diabetics fight to keep blood-sugar levels within normal ranges through frequent monitoring and insulin injections or an insulin pump.

So Cummings monitored his blood-sugar levels throughout the day, taking into account such factors as diet and exercise -- steps that would be mirrored years later in the American Diabetes Association guidelines. He calls himself the human pincushion, sticking a finger with a lancet six to eight times daily to check his blood sugar and injecting himself with insulin several times a day.

But even the most dedicated can face problems. One night Cummings injected too much insulin and suffered a massive seizure. He has slipped many times into hypoglycemia, a state of low blood sugar that can lead the person to pass out.

"The problem with diabetes is it is a 24/7 disease," Cummings said. "You never can truly just disregard it."

Cummings turned 49 in April. He has lived with diabetes for half his life. Near the end of 2004, he began searching for something other than his daily workouts to help keep him motivated and in shape.

The answer was in Colorado Springs' back yard. He had hiked to Pikes Peak's 14,115-foot summit many times, particularly in his younger days, but never in winter. The idea of a winter trek evolved into the goal of a dozen, consecutive monthly hikes.

Half of the hikes were ascents only; the other half were up and down. Each was completed within a day. He wasn't intent on going alone, but he couldn't think of anyone who would be willing or physically prepared to tackle the winter hikes. And after the first few climbs, he decided he wanted to go up alone, though a friend accompanied him a few times part of the way down.

A solo hike up the mountain in winter carries obvious risks. It's more risky, he said, when you're a diabetic. He had a cellphone, but it worked only in certain spots -- and it wouldn't be of help if he lapsed into unconsciousness from low blood sugar. Another problem: His blood-glucose monitor wasn't reliable above about 10,000 feet.

"I would question the sanity of another individual who was diabetic who did this alone," he said. "It is not the wisest thing to do."

The challenge of the first hike, on March 5, 2005, had Greg Cummings questioning his sanity.

"When I got back to the parking lot, I almost had to crawl across the parking lot to get to my vehicle. I was so exhausted. I was so spent. All I could think of was, 'You fool. I will never ever do this again, period.' "

But he did, 11 more times. Some were easier than others, but none was a snap.

Some hikes began in the middle of the night. A few were sun-splashed and uneventful. Many times, he battled numbing cold and fierce winds. One time he found himself watched by two big eyes he believes were those of a mountain lion.

"After he met the mountain lion, I thought he was mental for going back up there," his youngest daughter, Christi, 13, said. "I mean, that's scary."

But daughter Dani, 15, says she had no worries. "I knew that he would do great because he's my dad."

A longtime friend, Ann Kunkel, hiked down part of the way with him on his December and February treks. She joined him at Barr Camp the first time and about a mile up from the camp the second time.

The December hike was "a nice, casual hike down," she said. She kept the conversation going to keep Cummings awake and alert.

When she met Cummings on the trail in February, his gait was wobbly and he was snapping his knees back as he walked to keep from falling. "He really had me worried at that point," she said. But after he rested and ate at Barr Camp, "I knew we were going to be fine," she said.

The February hike, the end of his 12-month adventure, came on the date his disease had been diagnosed 24 years earlier. Soon after learning he had diabetes, he read that the average life expectancy of a Type 1 diabetic after diagnosis was 24 years. And yet here he was, hiking up a mountain.

He was proud of what he had accomplished -- and glad it was over.

Or so he thought.

As the end of March drew close, the itch began to gnaw at him.

"I started thinking, 'I've got this streak going. Why not continue it?' Sure enough, I talked myself into it."

He told his wife, who was not happy. "I think it came as somewhat of a shock to her," he said.

And that's how, on March 28, he found himself hiking up the mountain once again. Up the Manitou Incline. Then up Barr Trail to Barr Camp, and beyond to the A-frame at timberline.

"The more I went on, I started questioning my wisdom. When is this thing going to end? I thought it was over before, and now all of a sudden I'm just continuing this thing on."

He thought about his worried wife. He thought about what he risked every time he hiked up the mountain alone.

So he gazed at the summit. And he came to a decision.

He would go no farther.

Perhaps the itch would return. But there would be no streak to continue and so, perhaps, it would be easier to resist. For now, it was time to hike down the mountain. It was time to go home.

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