The peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, or Kibo, is seen from an aircraft in northeastern Tanzania
Credits: REUTERS/Nina Schwendemann
Michael Riddell set out to show dreams can come true and proved it by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in spite of his Type 1 diabetes.
Riddell, 46, joined the international expedition World Diabetes Tour in September 2013 and climbed 5,895 metres to the roof of Africa in Tanzania to demonstrate the sky is the limit even with a potentially deadly disease.
"We wanted to show that, with proper diabetes management, you can still dare to dream," said Riddell, a professor at York University's School of Kinesiology and Health Science.
"When you have T1D, you have to follow a strict regimen of controlling your blood glucose," he explained. "Imagine how rigorous we had to be as we scaled Kilimanjaro -- burning so many calories, breathing thinner air, being exposed to elevated (ultra violet rays) and the risk of altitude sickness."
A Kilimanjaro climbing organization said up to 1,000 people are evacuated every year from the mountain and an average of 10 people die annually on treks, with the main cause being altitude sickness. Three-quarters of climbers will experience some form of acute mountain sickness and the main four factors include high altitude, a fast rate of descent, exertion and dehydration.
"Every breath you take can be exhausting," said Riddell. "The biggest challenge for us was controlling our blood sugar. Low blood sugar is what we live in fear of."
During the climb, many experienced confusion, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea while battling frigid temperatures.
"Altitude sickness can be similar to low blood pressure so it was like a double-whammy. It can play havoc on your system," said Riddell, who spent two-and-a-half months strengthening his legs so he could carry a 30-kg backpack on the seven-day journey.
"My legs were so tired and my knees were killing me. I thought it was worse coming down," said Riddell, adding in hindsight he could have put in more time at the gym.
It was all worth it once the expedition reached the summit.
The group started its final climb to the summit in the middle of the night, so it would arrive in time for sunrise.
"There is the excitement of the climb. When you get up there it is spectacular. The view was beautiful.
You take your picture and then get the hell out of there (for safety reasons)," he said.
Kilimanjaro was Riddell's first climb, but he wants to do another in Chile with two fellow mountaineers from the Africa trip.
"There are higher (summits) than Kilimanjaro. My friends have tried and failed but they will try it again.
Anything above 5,000 metres is very challenging and people have frozen to death trying it," Riddell said.
This type of accomplishment "embodies the spirit" of living with diabetes and achieving goals, said Dr. Jan Hux, chief scientific advisor for the Canadian Diabetes Association.
"This incredible journey serves as an inspiration to people living with diabetes, especially for those newly diagnosed who may feel vulnerable or discouraged," Hux said.
"While a challenge such as this one may not be for everyone, the Canadian Diabetes Association reminds people that every effort towards living a healthy life with diabetes sends a message of hope to all of those who are fighting this disease," he added.
An estimated 2.7 million Canadians live with diabetes and 10% of those have Type 1 (insulin dependent).
T1D is a disease where the pancreas doesn't produce insulin, the hormone that helps the body control levels of sugar in the blood. The lack of insulin allows glucose to build up in the blood instead of being used for energy.
When Riddell was first diagnosed with T1D as a teen, he needed at least one insulin injection a day, but today he requires a shot at least at every meal.
The disease puts people at a high risk for major organ failure, blindness and death.
Riddell said T1D isn't a sickness like organ failure or cancer because a patient can get mentally prepared for the outcome
"What I wanted to do on the climb was to let anyone who has been newly diagnosed (with T1D) or someone who has a child (with T1D) that it isn't a normal life, but you can do anything with this condition. People who think their life is over are wrong," Riddell said.
"The fondest memory I have was to meet 12 other people with this disease and to accomplish what we did. The people I climbed with were so motivated,' said Riddell. "To test your abilities and do it with others with this disease was just spectacular."