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 Project “Diabetes-8000”

The first stage: The ascent of Mt. McKinley

On Thursday, 9 May 2002, I was finally able to board a plane at Findel airport in Luxembourg to start my journey to Anchorage, Alaska. It would take me 27 hours and stops in Amsterdam and Minneapolis to get there. During the flights I had to inject small doses of insulin on a regular basis in order to compensate for the time difference of ten hours. In the meantime I felt how the anxieties and nervousness of the previous weeks slowly disappeared.

Having arrived in Alaska I was struggling with two problems: jet lag and the long, almost endless summer days typical of the far north at that time of the year.

During the two days I spent in Anchorage I met the other members of the expedition and our guides. The team was made up of several nationalities with people coming from England, Australia, Venezuela, America, Singapore, and Luxembourg, while the ages of the team members varied from 25 to 69 years.

Let me briefly present the three guides:

-         Chris Kerric, 32, expedition leader from Tacoma, Washington, with the experience of 4 ascents in 6 attempts on Mt. McKinley;

-         Ryan Campbell, 32, from Juneau, Alaska, third time on Mt. McKinley;

-         Andy Wise, 27, from Conway, Washington, first time on Mt. McKinley.

After we got to know each other, and after I had explained to the group what the symptoms of a life-threatening drop in blood sugar levels were, we meticulously checked our equipment and material. Denali does not allow you to take any chances.

On the following morning we packed our equipment on the trailer of a huge van – 4 tents, one kitchen tent, food for 26 days, 10 pairs of snow boots, ropes, and the personal material of the ten team members. We left Anchorage, a soulless and dull city, and headed for Talkeetna, the entrance to Denali National Park. There we had to register our expedition with the Park Rangers Service, who also told us about the very strict cleanliness regulations on Denali. After the expedition we would have to take back all our garbage and waste by plane. There were toilets in the base camp and camp 4, as for the rest of the way, we would have to use a portable toilet (actually a bucket with some kind of a seat) equipped with biologically disposable bags. Once full, the bags could be dropped in specially marked, very deep crevasses.

It took us three flights with one-engine planes to get the group and our equipment to the base camp on the south-easterly arm of the huge Kahiltna glacier. The flight was extremely spectacular and it could only be described in hyperbole. We then put up our first camp at a height of 2295m. It consisted of two three-man tents, two twin tents, and one kitchen tent, which was rather comfortable, given the extreme conditions. The kitchen tent was also the only place that provided us with a small source of heat and warm meals – when the cookers were on, of course. I shared a tent with Shani Tan from Singapore.

The strategy that our team, Mountain Trip Three, applied, was “double carriage.” We moved camps in two stages. On the first day we would transport food and material that would only be used at a later point to the next camp, or to a kind of depot that we arranged just short of the next camp. There we would bury everything that we had brought up in backpacks and on  sleds in the snow. On the second day we would put down the old camp and carry the rest of the material to the next. This strategy had two advantages: the loads we had to carry never exceeded 25 to 35 kg, and by going up to a certain height and down again to the initial camp, we acclimatised very well.

Regulating my blood sugar level proved to be less difficult. I injected my low acting insulin –Basalinsulin - every night before I crept into my cosy sleeping bag. Depending on the difficulty level of the following day’s stage I injected about a third or half of the normal dose. While on Mt. McKinley I used normal insulin only once, during the descent. Every morning and evening we had a warm meal, while I almost exclusively relied on sugar during the day. This sugar came in the form of chocolate bars and sweets, and I used it all up by the time we arrived in the places in which we spent the night through the sheer physical effort that I put into climbing and carrying my load.

Up to camp 4, the so-called Medical Camp at 4320m, we were able to stick to our schedule. In that camp I also met Martine Farenzena a luxemburgish lady climber, who had reached the peak in an amazing 7 days. However, in camp four our problems began. After successfully getting past Ski Hill, Motocycle Hill and Windy Corner, we found ourselves in front of Headwall, a steep ice wall, which had to be mastered with the help of fixed ropes with which it was fitted out.

In Medical Camp, temperatures also dropped quite notably. Until here it was harder to deal with the intensity of the sun than with the cold. Every day I drank between 5 and seven litres. In the morning the temperature was around –25°C, so that the daily ritual of getting dressed, packing and putting on our climbing gear became an exhausting warming up activity. We then climbed Headwall in order to set up a depot at Washburn’s Tomb. The descent caused some problems for Shani because she was afraid of the steep wall. On the following day, which we wanted to use as a rest day, we were plagued by a windstorm, so that we had to spend seven hours in the beating wind and extreme cold to safeguard our camp against being blown off. In the evening the storm suddenly ceased from one moment to the next.

May 22nd became our “Black Wednesday.” We had planned to climb up to the  high camp but after we passed Headwall, the wind came up again and a continuation along the exposed West Buttress Route ridge would have been too perilous. While we were climbing back down we became stuck for some time because one of Shani’s crampons broke, so that she had to be lowered down on a rope. Ryan, who was exposed to the wind at the top of Headwall, suffered from severe frostbite on his lips. The descent was a real pain to me as well, because the strap on one of my climbing irons tore, and I had to climb down using just one crampon. When we got down at last, our camping places had already been taken by other climbers, so that we had to find new ones and, of course, we had to prepare them anew. We were all so exhausted that Chris decided to have another rest day the following day. Unfortunately, Ryan had to stop at this point because of frostbite, and Shani wanted to stop. She had decided to do so in the ice wall. Furthermore, her climbing iron could not be repaired. Luckily mine could be mended.

Two days after our odyssey in Headwall we got to the high camp at 5330m. Climbing up along the West Buttress Ridge was extremely spectacular. On one side I had a view far into the tundra, and on the other side I could see the huge Kahiltna Glacier meandering along Mt. Hunter and Mt. Foraker. We were the last group to reach the high camp because we were delayed in the fixed ropes by a South-Korean team. Again we had to prepare a place for our tents and this meant, for safety’s sake, shovelling snow and sawing ice blocks until midnight. The following day was a rest day.

On Sunday, 26th May, at 9 a.m., we started climbing the Denali Pass in two rope teams of four persons. Despite it being sunny, we had to fight an icy wind. Ramon Blanco almost got frostbitten hands when he took some pictures. But there was worse to come. At 4.15 p.m. we reached Football Field. It was a shock. On aerial pictures Football Field seems to gently extend up to, and even flow into the summit. But here we were, standing on a 5900m plateau, and the peak reaching up 300m into the sky. My first thought was, ‘Another two hours!’ I was morally drained, Dave was physically worn out. He showed the first serious signs of altitude sickness – he was absent-minded, and he had not even noticed that he was suffering from frostbite on both hands. Moreover, his water flask was frozen so that he was also dehydrated. Ramon Blanco was still up and running. The sun was shining, but the wind kept bothering us. At 5 p.m. we climbed towards the ridge that would lead us to the summit, but we had to pause quite frequently. My body told me that it did not want to continue, but I kept telling it to go on, pushing it along, step after tiresome step. 75 minutes later we arrived on a little plateau some 250m away from the summit. The piece of the ridge that lay ahead was by far the most dangerous part of the whole expedition. We put down our backpacks several metres below the summit. I started crying before I even reached the top at exactly 7 o’clock. I was unable to bathe in the view because I suddenly realised how the tensions that had been built up, and how the expectations and anxieties fell away. It was like dropping a huge load that I had been carrying on my shoulders – I MADE IT! Now I was overwhelmed by what I saw. I had breathtaking views of the Alaska Range and the Kahiltna Glacier. The landing strip where the whole excursion had started was just behind Mt. Frances. 

The descent was to become rather exciting and hazardous as a “White Out” took us by surprise while we were still standing on the summit in –35°C. Instead of just under two hours we needed 5 hours to find our way through the white void. I arrived at the camp at 11.45 p.m. First of all I had to check my blood sugar level – 30mg/dl, hypoglycemia! I ate some noodle soup, went to bed in a state of utter exhaustion, and did not even think about what I had achieved that day. 

During the following two days we climbed down to the base camp with all our equipment and waste, and on May 28th we flew back to a more civilised part of the world.

I know that I was on top of that mountain, but I am as yet unable to understand how I did it. I quite simply do not know where and how I got the mental and physical power to reach the summit. 

Yet, I do hope that I have been able to present a good example of what a diabetic is able to do.

I would also like to express my gratitude to all those who have supported me and those who have helped me realise this project “Diabetes 8000”, and I hope that they will continue to do so.

Patrick Hoss

Background on Project “Diabetes-8000”

Patrick at the Summit Of Denali!

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