Scaling Seven Summits for Diabetes
For Taylor Adams ’11, it really is about the journey and not the destination. “It” for Adams came on May 23 when he conquered Mount Everest and joined an elite club of climbers with type 1 diabetes who have summited Earth’s tallest mountain.
But achieving that goal was not nearly the most exciting part of Adams’ Everest adventure. “There were probably a hundred other times during the trip that I remember much more thinking how gorgeous this is and how special it is to be here,” he says.
With Everest under his belt, Adams has just one more peak to reach before he’s mastered the Seven Summits — the highest peaks of all seven continents. He plans to check Mount Kosciuszko in Australia off his list this winter. According to his GoFundMe page, where Adams raises money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, he aims to become only the third person with type 1 diabetes to climb all seven summits and the second to do so while using an insulin pump.
It’s a great message to be able to demonstrate that if you really want something and are willing to put in the time and effort, in most cases whatever disability you do have does not preclude your ability to attain that dream.
Adams has come a long way since he began climbing with the Outing Club while a student at Hamilton. “It was my junior year,” he recalls. “We went to Ecuador over winter vacation and climbed two of the big volcanoes there, Cotopaxi and Cayambe, and I sort of fell in love with the sport.”
But climbing the world’s highest peaks is not the nonstop adventure it’s sometimes made out to be. Compared to the drama of feature films depicting climbing disasters and newsreels of queues of climbers huddling together below the summit, Adams described a more mundane experience: “One of the biggest things people don’t understand is that climbing a mountain like Everest … 90 percent of the time it’s a lot of sitting around.”
In fact, of the two months he spent in Nepal acclimatizing for his ascent, the actual climb to the summit took only eight days. But all the initial sitting around actually serves a vital purpose — preparing the body for the physical demands of high altitude. “You’re playing hours of cards a day and acclimatizing and making red blood cells so you can at least marginally breathe,” he says.
The air pressure at the top of Everest is roughly a third of that at sea level, so each breath brings in substantially less oxygen. Adams recalls experiencing a hypoxic state induced by climbing near 30,000 feet. “You have so little oxygen that even wearing an oxygen mask, you’re not in your right mind when you’re up there,” he says. “It’s sort of like being drunk, sort of like being asleep, sort of like not having slept for 48 hours, maybe all of those combined.”
Adams lives in Salt Lake City, where he works as a nurse in the pediatric and pediatric cardiac ICUs at Primary Children’s Hospital. His schedule of working three 12 plus-hour shifts a week allows him four days a week for training. Adams’ medical background also serves him well in preparation for climbs. Before he left for Everest, he took classes on the respiratory system and worked on a project focused on altitude sickness. Yet despite his research, and frequent exercises at altitude, he still remembers feeling ill as he acclimatized at 17,600 feet upon reaching the base camp. “You are constantly coughing, the air is so dry up there, it just does a number on your lungs. You lose all the muscle in your body. I went there so strong … and it just destroys your body,” he says.
Adams’ preparation was made even trickier given his diabetes. He brought an extra insulin pump, pens, and a handful of syringes in case some froze or broke. He packed extra glucometers and about three times the insulin he would need, leaving some in Kathmandu, some in base camp, some with his guides, and carrying some. “On summit day I was actually wearing two insulin pumps,” he says. “One of them was on ‘suspend’ so that if the one actually delivering insulin to me malfunctioned, I would be able to start the other one with the push of a button, hopefully in a short enough time that my fingers wouldn’t get frostbite or the insulin freeze in the -30 degree temperatures.”
Nearing the completion of his Seven Summits challenge, Adams says he needs to find some new goals. He plans “to do a lot of climbing in the Wasatch Mountains” of Utah where he hopes to “complete climbing all of the 30 peaks over 11,000 feet.” But Adams is still aiming higher. “I would love to return to Nepal and climb Ama Dablam,” he says.
Climbing mountains is already a consequential endeavor, but doing so with diabetes is another challenge altogether — one that for Adams extends beyond personal accomplishment. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to be put in a position where I can be a role model to other people with health challenges,” he says. “[In my job] I encounter such children on a daily basis. It’s a great message to be able to demonstrate that if you really want something and are willing to put in the time and effort, in most cases whatever disability you do have does not preclude your ability to attain that dream.”