Trying to design a daily routine or decipher the ins and outs of blood sugar control to keep numbers in zone is immeasurably difficult, and I won’t claim that I’ve figured it out. In my everyday life, I have good days and bad days when it comes to my BG levels, and I feel I am in a constant battle for more good days. While it hasn’t made this management any easier, outside of work and school I love pursuing adventure sports that push me out of my comfort zone; and learning to govern this disease and adapt my normal management procedures to fit into the constraints of sports like backcountry skiing, spelunking, and paragliding has been immensely gratifying. Paragliding has become a particularly obsessive passion of mine, and offers some unique challenges to diabetes management.
After taking lessons and getting my paragliding license, I started flying at some of the smaller hills around Bozeman to perfect my launches and landings. This meant a lot of short hikes and vigilant monitoring of blood sugars as launching and landing any aircraft takes finesse, correct timing, and mental capacity that would be hindered by lows. This motivated me to look into CGMs, and I started using a Dexcom which has been an unbelievably helpful tool in management in and out of sports. After a couple hundred flights off the training hills (150-250 vertical feet) and “the M” (900 vertical feet), I was pushing for longer flights. I remember flying Mt Baldy in the Bridger mountain range with two friends, a 4,500ft peak that took two and a half hours of hiking, two glucose treatments to stop dropping BGs, and finally a 20-minute flight. This was the first time I truly got to feel like I was in the air with other people as my friends Jerad and Eric and I were near each other enough that we could holler back and forth. I learned the hard way on this flight that temperature drops about 3.3˚F per 1,000ft which adds to the cold of the constant wind imposed by moving through the air, all resulting in excruciating pain in my hands as they started to thaw about 5 minutes after landing!
My flights became much longer as my group of paragliding friends and I found conditions for lift. We started in ridge lift at Point of the Mountain near Salt Lake Utah. Ridge lift is caused by wind hitting a hillside and moving vertically up and over the hill; under a paragliding wing, we can climb higher up into the sky in this vertical airflow. Here my flights changed immediately from minutes in duration to 2 or 3 hours in the air, thousands of feet above where we launched, taking in incredible views of the expansive Wasatch mountain range and the city below. I found more sites to soar in ridge lift, including one of my favorites in Montana that has brought me up a few thousand feet above paradise valley, watching the sunset cast orange and pink light onto the Absaroka mountains as I make my approach for landing.
Blood sugar management posed a new challenge due to the duration of these flights.
Luckily, flying does not require much physical exertion, but the hike up to launch can certainly be enough to lower BGs over the following hours. I managed my numbers by keeping my Dexcom on my flightdeck (a flat surface positioned somewhat in my lap that has a mounting surface for flight instruments (and CGMs!)) and treating lows with glucose tabs and only treating highs with insulin if my BG was above 300 (and then only half of what my correction factor on my pump would suggest). I liked glucose tabs because they act fast, but after almost dropping one treatment, I have been experimenting with a small Camelback-water-bladder that I fill with Gatorade so that I can treat without worrying about dropping anything.
After experiencing some longer flights, I wanted to move to the next challenge in free-flight: thermals. A thermal is a column of rising warm air caused by uneven heating on the ground. Winter was fast approaching, which meant there was one place to go to learn how to use thermals: Valle de Bravo (Valley of the Brave) in Mexico. Upon arrival at launch I found nearly 100 other pilots from around the world setting up and taking flight and I learned to turn and climb in a thermal by following the leaders in the sport. After reaching a sufficient height (usually at the base of the clouds, 5-6 thousand feet above the valleys) we could start to journey away from the launch area, crossing mountain passes and valleys, searching for more thermals to stay up near the clouds along the way. I quickly found that the rush and reward of passing through clouds, looking down to gain a unique perspective of mountainous jungles of ponderosa pine, and staying in the air for hours as I tried to make my way to the next town, came with the hazard of not finding another thermal and sinking out in very unfamiliar territory. One flight found me landing in a small farming village where I didn’t have more than a vague idea of where I was, didn’t know enough Spanish to explain where I wanted to go, and taxis seemed few and far between. I was glad to have packed a lot of extra fast acting sugars, and eventually a cab driver stopped, pointed at me, and exclaimed “Paraglider!” with a smile before he offered to take me back to the town where most pilots stay, and where I met back up with my group.
In this sport where plans are never followable due to reliance on unreliable weather, getting lost is a frequent inevitability, and mental focus and stamina are pushed usually a bit beyond their limits, I’m glad to say that I haven’t felt that Type1 diabetes is holding me back. I approach each flight with the mentality that I will need to treat lows, highs, my pump could fail, and I could be lost, and I prepare with enough supplies to make sure I won’t run into danger in flight, or on the ground after an unplanned landing. I’ve found that staying prepared and diligently monitoring BGs has allowed me to manage a number of extreme sports without fear of diabetes complications. I’m now teaching beginner paragliding lessons as a licensed instructor, researching flexible wing mechanics in a PhD program at Montana State University, and preparing for a paragliding competition in central Canada where I’ll be setting my sights on long distance flights along the western border of Banff National Park (wish me luck, eh?). I’ll end my little monologue with the best piece of advice I’ve ever received: ‘Whenever you are faced with an opportunity to try something that makes you nervous – be it a career move, a ski trip, a trading card game competition, anything – don’t let that fear stop you. Take a deep breath, don’t panic, and send it.’