Updated: October 22, 2011 at 12:00 am
PIKES PEAK • This is what passes for warm at 14,115 feet in October.
The wind howls, fingers go numb and the glaring sun provides little relief. The early-season snow has hardened to treacherous ice.
From somewhere below us, a text message arrives: “If I’m almost at the International Space Station, why is my pack so heavy?”
Soon, Greg Cummings comes ambling up Barr Trail to the summit, looking no worse for wear after 13 miles and 7,500 feet of climbing. At 54, he seems to have more breath in the thin air than those of us who came up on the Cog Railway.
It’s Oct. 15 and Cummings has just accomplished his goal of climbing 1.3 million vertical feet — the distance it would take to reach the space station in orbit nearly 250 miles above Earth — in less than a year.
It’s a lofty goal for someone in normal health. But for someone like Cummings, who suffers from type 1 diabetes?
“It’s a little nuts. It’s just a little crazy,” said his daughter, Danielle, as we wait for Cummings to reach the top. “But it’s also amazing. I don’t know anyone else who would even think about doing something like this.”
• • •
Cummings is a numbers kind of guy.
Here are a few from the past 30 years of his life:
24: The age at which he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
2: How many inches in height he lost when he crushed his spine during a diabetic seizure.
150,000: The estimated number of times he has injected himself with insulin or pricked his finger to test his blood sugar.
“It was devastating,” Cummings said of his diagnosis in 1982. A mountain climber and backpacker — he had climbed Alaska’s Mount McKinley and hiked the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada — Cummings went into a deep funk.
Type 1 diabetics are unable to produce insulin to break down sugar. Previously known as juvenile diabetes, it is fatal without regular insulin injections and even then can lead to severe health problems. “It’s something you have to live with every day of your life going forward. There’s no getting around it, no cure. It’s a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week illness,” he said.
It took Cummings years to figure out a diet and exercise regime to keep him healthy, and to figure out this wasn’t a disease that would beat him.
Thanks to the development of the insulin pump, which feeds his body a steady supply through a needle in his abdomen and eliminates the need for painful injections, Cummings felt comfortable ranging farther from home, telephones and ambulance crews.
He started hiking Pikes Peak regularly and in 2006 accomplished a personal goal of reaching the top each month for a year.
But Cummings was just getting started.
• • •
Here are some numbers from the past year of Cummings’ life:
3,600: The number of feet he had to average each calendar day to meet the goal.
530: The number of times he walked up the Manitou Incline.
34: The number of times he summited Pikes Peak.
His mission began about a year ago as he contemplated exercise schemes to stay fit. He considered 100,000 vertical feet in a year, then 250,000.
Then he decided the sky — and the space station above it — would be the limit.
“It’s international cooperation, and that’s such a cool thing. That’s who we should be on Earth, able to get along and do things together,” he said.
This would be climbing on a scale he had never attempted.
“He said, ‘I wonder if I could make it to the elevation of the space station,’ and I said, ‘Go for it,’” said his wife, Alison.
“I think it’s amazing that he can do this as a diabetic and do it as many times as he has.”
Even with the insulin pump, there would be risks. The symptoms of acute mountain sickness, which some climbers get in the low-oxygen atmosphere of Colorado’s highest peaks, are similar to those of low-blood glucose, so he checks his blood sugar several times on each climb.
If it dropped too low, he could get confused, walk off the trail and not be seen again. Regardless, any help he might need would be a long time coming.
But there were no problems, and his time on the final climb says it all: 5 hours and 40 minutes from Manitou Springs to the summit, through deep snow. That’s better than many healthier and younger hikers manage when the peak is dry.
• • •
According to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million Americans live with diabetes, but only 5 percent have type 1. Experts don’t know what causes it.
But Cummings hopes his story can inspire everyone with diabetes and the millions more overweight Americans who are at risk for diabetes. He is planning a website where diabetes sufferers can record their climbing times and learn about the importance of diet and exercise.
“You have to realize that you can go on with life and you can actually do some pretty cool things, difficult things. It’s not like you always have to choose the easy way out. There are ways of handling your illness that can enable you to do a lot of things you never thought to do,” he said.
• • •
After a while on the summit, it’s time for us to catch our train down.
Cummings poses for photos with his wife and daughters, Danielle and Christi. He won’t be joining us. The rules of his mission state he must walk down on his own.
HIs family, while they worry about him being out on the mountain alone, have been behind him every step of the way.
“This is him being able to pursue the life that he always wanted, in his own backyard. This is like giving him something back that was taken away from him,” Danielle said. “Yeah, he’s not climbing Everest, but he’s doing the best he can within his limitations.”
Watching Cummings descend into the snow alone while we sit in the warmth of the train, it’s hard to imagine him having any limitations at all.
Contact R. Scott Rappold: 476-1605
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