You might wonder if climbing to the 50 highest points in the United States in as many days is manageable by even the most experienced athletes in perfect health. But throw type 1 diabetes into the mix, along with falling off a mountain cliff and being airlifted to a hospital, all while raising thousands of dollars for diabetes programs... and you've got the makings of a truly remarkable adventure, all for a great cause.
That's the experience Michael Shelver and Patrick Mertes had over Summer 2019, when this duo set out to do what no one else with type 1 diabetes has done before: traveling 16,000 miles to hike, run, walk and ski through 315 miles of trails, and climbing up to the 50 highest points across America in as many days. Also known as Project 50-in-50.
The goal was to raise funds for the North Carolina-based non-profit Diabetes Family Connection that runs recreation-based programs focused on building confidence, optimism, and support for families affected by diabetes. The other aim of Michael and Patrick's wild adventure was to show kids, adults, and families impacted by T1D everywhere that the condition doesn’t have to slow them down, or hold them back from accomplishing dreams.
The two kept track of their journey on Instagram, making a whole community experience out of it that has gotten international media attention and is leading up to another big yet-to-be-unveiled adventure for 2020.
So far they've raised about $28,000 through sponsorships from Dexcom, Tandem Diabetes, Companion Medical, Clif Bar & Company, The North Face and other orgs, along with a crowdsourcing campaign that remains ongoing till the end of February 2020.
"Not only was there a lot of personal growth that occurred organically from the challenge and exhaustion of pulling off something as monumental as this, but there was a tangible experience where we felt the power of the type 1 diabetes community," Patrick says. "It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us."
Diabetes adventurers unite
Both men hail from California, but Patrick now resides in North Carolina, where he works for the Diabetes Family Connection that they're fundraising for. Michael still lives in California and works for the Diabetes Youth Families (DYF) nonprofit based in Concord, CA.
They were both diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as kids, and they share a devotion to sports and outdoor activities.
Patrick was diagnosed in 1997 at 5 years old with classic symptoms. Because his grandfather had lived with T1D after being diagnosed as an adult in his 40s, the family immediately recognized what was happening. Michael was diagnosed at 10 years old in 2004 when, as an active swimmer, he saw the symptoms and weight-loss. He even saw sugar crystals on his bed because there was so much excess glucose in his urine, he tells us.
The pair met in 2015 through DYF in California. Giving back to the community by supporting diabetes camps had been big parts of both their lives, and they had both served as summer counselors and later worked full-time.
“We went on this backpacking trip together and really realized that we have a lot of the same interests and passionate about the same things with outdoor pursuits,” Patrick says. “That’s initially how we hit it off, and ever since we’ve been getting into different adventures.”
Michael says the idea for a huge fundraising trip sprung from him hiking a 200+ mile trail a number of years back, which Patrick had completed in 2018. They started talking about pushing the limits on what they could physically and mentally do – especially with T1D, something that could revolve around that theme.
“We were looking for something that could help a lot of people in the Diabetes Community get involved. We feel that getting involved with diabetes or being active really helps with confidence as well as diabetes management," Michael says.
Around that same time at the end of 2018, professional endurance athlete Colin O’Brady from Oregon completed the 13,000-mile cross country “50 high points” of climbing to the highest points in all 50 states. Both Patrick and Michael thought that would be something they could do. It would be an exciting challenge, as no one with type 1 diabetes had ever done it.
So Project 50-in-50 was born.
The pair spent months planning and set up a “mobile command headquarters” van that they’d drive across the country in, putting in 17,000 miles over the course of the summer.
Their adventure began in late June at the highest peak in America: Summit of Denali in Alaska, which is 20,310 feet high. From there, they traveled the country over the next 49 days, and on August 18 at just about 8 p.m., they finished the adventure at Guadalupe Peak in North Texas. They actually involved a lot of other people along the way.
“A lot of the high points are hikes that are relatively non-technical, or hikes that almost anyone can do,” Patrick said. “We wanted to do the 50 high points while also inviting people to hike along.”
Handling insulin and food on frozen summits
They recount that first summit on Denali in Alaska, when the pair saw temps around -25F way up on the summit (it could've dipped to -40F, they say). So they each wrapped their insulin inside a sock and then placed it inside an insulated flask -- not only for padding, but to keep it with them inside their sleeping bags to avoid freezing. They also wore multiple layers of clothing, keeping their Tandem t:slim X2 insulin pumps inside their inner jackets to make sure they stayed warm and protect the tubing from being exposed to the freezing cold air.
Of course, altitude changes can throw a monkey wrench into diabetes management. Patrick says extreme altitude will cause your body to release cortisol, resulting in rises in blood sugar. But the strenuous physical activity of heavy hiking and climbing can counter the blood glucose spikes and balance it all out.
They also noted that eating was a challenge because of the lack of consistency and little sleep. Often they would "live off snacks" -- granola bars, beef jerkey, trail mix, and cheese sticks -- while out on the long stretches. Then later they'd fill up with hot food when stopping at gas stations to fill up the travel van, or would purchase quick heat-up meals. Before longer extensive climbs, they'd load up on carbs because of all the calories they'd burn with the exercise. Patrick also lives with celiac disease, so planning to have gluten-free foods on hand (and having others in the D-Community bring them food along the path) was all part of the experience.
They both talk about their use of the Dexcom CGM and Tandem t:slim X2 with Basal-IQ as being keys to their success in managing diabetes while out there climbing the highest points in America. Patrick says, straight up: "Honestly, this trip wouldn't have been possible without the technology and especially G6, because our schedules varied so much and we never really got into a rhythm."
Falling off a mountain (but not due to diabetes)
Of course there was gorgeous scenery to enjoy. And many off-script surprises to deal with -- from diabetes challenges when schedules changed to unexpected weather events. But the biggest surprise came for Michael in late July in Montana.
"It was one of the most memorable and most traumatic experiences of my life," he recounts.
They were at Granite Peak, one of the more well-known and difficult high points to climb in the country. They had a complicated time because they'd arrived at 4 a.m. to start out on the trailhead, but it was closed so they headed down a detour trail. That was supposed to extend their journey from 24-mile to a 30-mile round trip day. They were both confident in their fitness levels that they could do it.
But it turned out the path was much longer than that, because the map they'd been using was off-scale. Just getting to the base of the mountain was 31 miles, before they even started climbing. There was also more snow on the ground than they'd planned for. They started climbing on the backside of the mountain, and it took about 3-4 hours.
Eventually, they made it to the summit, about 12,900 feet up, by around 11 p.m. They knew it was too dark to begin the ascent, so they quickly arranged an unplanned sleepover for the night -- actually, they sat on their backpacks wrapped in blankets and shivered till dawn.
In the morning, they started climbing down, repelling to the base of the mountain. At one point, Michael's footing slipped and he couldn't catch himself immediately. That was the first scare. The snow was both soft and icy, and at first Patrick slipped and fell about 25 feet before hitting a group of rocks and stopping.
That's when Michael fell.
He fell about 150 yards, all the while trying to use his tools to stop the fall, but the conditions of the snow and steepness didn't allow that.
"I ended up hitting this big rock patch at 20 miles per hour, with enough force to do a somersault in mid-air and hit another group of rocks, and finally ended up on my back," Michael says, noting that he was concerned about a spinal injury. He had a lot of pain in his leg and couldn't move it.
Fortunately, Patrick is trained as an EMT and Michael had wilderness first-aid experience, so they assessed the situation and decided to push the panic button on their mountain gear and call for help. Michael ended up being helicoptered off the mountain via a Life Flight. Coincidentally, the EMT on the helicopter turned out to also be living with type 1 diabetes!
Michael was in the hospital for 4 days. He had not suffered any major bone breaks or muscle tears, but had massive bruising and had to walk on crutches, so he flew back to California to recover. Patrick continued on the journey alone until Michael could re-join him in Colorado. From there, Michael was still able to climb 44 of the 50 highest points -- and he plans to eventually finish those he missed on his own at some point.
Both recognize that severity of that near-death experience, but at the same time they're grateful that it wasn't connected to diabetes in any way.
"The question we get the most is along the lines of what diabetes challenges did you face on this expedition, because many think that the biggest issues we'd face would be related to living with type 1," Patrick says.
"Truthfully, it wasn't. I'm not going to say we didn't have diabetes challenges or that our blood sugars were perfect, because they weren't. But the events we had related to diabetes were far secondary to the real risks of mountaineering. The logistics of type 1 management probably took the least amount of our bandwidth. That's testament to the technology we have today, and it's one of the messages we're trying to promote: That we have the tools in our tool belts now, that if available, can allow (people with diabetes) to climb 50 mountains in 50 days. Really, the sky is the limit."
Diabetes community on the road
Along the way, they met people in the Diabetes Community at almost every turn. There were kids and adults with T1D who came out to share stories and bring the pair food and other items, and D-parents and others who they would otherwise probably never had a chance to know. Many enjoyed comparing pumps and other D-devices.
On one journey, they even met another T1D who was part of a bachelor party mountain adventure. Many also followed along through their vibrant social media coverage, as well as in the Beyond Type 1 community's online updates on the pair's adventure.
"People from across the world were reaching out to us expressing their support," Patrick says. "That is something so unique to the D-community, that overwhelming sense of empathy and community that really happens because we're all facing life with this challenge. I still have a hard time putting into words the energy and sense of fulfillment provided from pulling off a project like this, but also doing it with the greater community as a whole involved."
So, what's next?
The two have plans for 2020, they say. But they're not quite ready yet to divulge what exactly is on the horizon, so to speak. We hope to hear more from them soon via social media.
Whether or not you aspire to climb mountains yourself, this ambitious mountaineering adventure should be meaningful to everyone with T1D. Don't forget, there was a time (and still is, for many) when people are afraid or uncertain of what their lives will entail when a diabetes diagnosis comes into the picture. Undertakings like this one show that there really are no limits -- even the most monumental adventures can be achieved with diabetes on board.