As I sat on the vinyl treatment table, my doctor announced that I had diabetes and handed me a colorful pamphlet. On the cover, a young model wearing middle-aged clothes smiled into the camera.
“Many diabetics live relatively normal lives,” the doctor said with a sincere look. Then he shifted his eyes and checked his watch. I wanted to ask what he meant by “normal.” Could a diabetic be a ski patroller? Or climb Mount Rainier?
Ever since I’d seen a photo of my father on Rainier’s summit, the hood of his blue down jacket framing his smile, I wanted to climb it, too. I wanted to feel as happy as he looked. A year later, I was ready to do it. Dad lent me his ice ax, the wood handle smooth from use. “Any words of wisdom?” I asked.
“At the summit, our guide pulled out a can of Rainier beer,” Dad said, licking his lips. “He took a few sips and poured out the rest. If I could do it again, I’d take a Rainier beer.”
As our Rainier climbing team rested on the glacier, illuminated by the rising sun, I worried about my blood sugar. It was too cold to use my glucometer, but I felt lethargic and thirsty, sure signs of hyperglycemia. I needed insulin, but I didn’t trust myself. Below me, the glacier dropped into a maze of crevasses, and if I set down my kit on the hard snow, it would surely slip away. I decided to wait; I could inject at the summit.
Each step became more difficult. My sluggish blood felt like 30-weight motor oil. My vision narrowed to the small space in front of my feet. I began silently counting down from 100. Ninety-nine, 98, 97, I chanted, telling myself that when I reached zero, I could look up. I’d reach the summit soon. There would be a flat spot, and I could take insulin.
For now, I didn’t have to think. Only move and count. Seventy-four, 73. I stared at my feet. My crampon straps made a criss-cross pattern across my boots. Fifty-eight, 57, 56. The cold metal buckles brimmed with ice. Thirty-five, 34. Each step I crunched into the snow left tiny marks. Twenty, 19, 18.
The rope went slack; we had stopped. Nine, eight, seven, six. I kept counting even as I sat down on the summit rocks. Four, three, two, one. I closed my eyes, wondering how long it would take to slip into a coma. Perhaps this was a coma.
Mechanically, I reached for my insulin kit. I fumbled with the needle, trying to remember my morning dose. In survival mode, I plunged the needle into the soft nipple of the vial. A tiny drop of liquid hung from the tip of the needle. With one hand, I pulled my jacket away, squeezed a Special K–sized piece of flesh, and dropped the needle into my skin.
Then I opened my backpack, extracted the can of Rainier, took a single sip, and passed it around.
Kim Kircher is a ski patroller and writer. She lives in Medina, Wash.