When faced with our own mortality we can give into fear and choose a cautious life or face the fear head on and make the most of the time we have. Steve Richert of Living Vertical chose the latter when diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Steve believes adventure can give us back our lives in a way drugs and medicine can’t. He spreads this message to others battling chronic illnesses through Living Vertical, an immersive chronicle of his life on the road and on the wall with type 1 diabetes. I caught up with Steve to learn more about his mission and how he conquers diabetes while climbing.
- Tell us about Living Vertical and Adventure RX. What inspired you to devote your life to pushing back against the stereotypes of chronic illness?
I started LivingVertical as a project to share the ways in which adventure changed my life–specifically climbing. The whole thing started when I saw a billboard aimed at raising money for research that really cast people with diabetes in a very poor light. I had been living with T1 for over 12 years at that point and I had never thought of myself that way. Having diabetes never entered my mind as a reason why I wouldn’t be able to do something. Realizing that the negative view of life with T1D is how an entire industry tells us we should see ourselves–and that so many people just accept that perspective got me thinking that I should use the tools I have to put out an alternative message.
I began my first climbing and film project called Project365–I climbed every single day for a year with no days off while traveling across the country and living out of my car. It was funded by my wife and I selling all of our stuff and living out of our 87 toyota wagon. I made a 50 minute documentary which I’d love for your readers to check out. That film was supported through crowdfunding and I am extremely proud to have created independent media about life with T1 that isn’t part of any company’s marketing. It’s all about inspiration. I’ve done a couple other films since then–we are going to release one this summer called the Wind River Project about an all type 1 climbing team exploring unclimbed terrain in the Wyoming backcountry.
The AdventureRx is a part of this–it’s really an evolution of the LivingVertical message of empowerment that is a little bit broader than my climbing projects. It’s an examination of the mindset that goes into handling challenges powerfully with a chronic illness.
- How do you believe adventure serves as a medicine?
We are constantly bombarded with marketing that tells us that we are only as good as the medicine we take or the mechanism we use to deliver it. No one talks about the fact that the best tools are worthless without the will to apply them and the mental fortitude to fall down over and over again as we learn to do so. Adventure is medicine for the mind. It trains us to expect mishaps and manage risk without feeling victimized by that inevitability.
More specifically, I don’t look at my diabetes as it’s own “thing”. It’s a part of my climbing. I love climbing so I gladly deprive myself and suffer for it. You can’t be a good climber if you’re not prepared for the suck factor. When you lump diabetes on that bill, it’s a lot easier to stay motivated about than when there’s no clear outcome attached to your management.
- How long have you been climbing and what is your greatest climbing accomplishment?
I’ve been climbing almost 10 years. I don’t really have any noteworthy accomplishments to hang my hat on other than climbing every single day with no days off for a year. That wasn’t anything superhuman, it was just stubbornness and time. My greatest accomplishment is not quitting, because I’m not a great athlete. I get out there and try and refuse to accept that as a reason to quit.
- At what age were you diagnosed with type 1 and do you think you would be doing the same thing if not for diabetes?
I was diagnosed at 16. I suspect that I would be doing the same things but I don’t know if I would have pursued climbing with the same intensity without diabetes because it was the realization that I could die at 16 that really motivated me to not waste my time. For context, I had a rough time when I was diagnosed–it went undiscovered for several months and I developed encephalitis and finally wound up in the hospital when I went into seizures and lost two days from memory in the ICU. It was pretty eventful.
- What diabetes gear do you use and why? What diabetes supplies go with you on climbs? (Pump, CGM, meter model, lancer, insulins?)
I use injections–that’s been my method since 1999. I don’t like having things attached to me and I don’t like all the extra gear that is required on a pump. Also, I prefer having basal insulin on board that will give you 24 hours no matter what–pump sites go bad, rip out, insulin gets cooked–things go wrong and then you have only a couple hours to resolve the problem. If you’re on a committing climb that leads you away from your camp/gear for a while–or weather pins you down on route you’re stuck. There are certainly ways around that–I know some fantastic T1 climbers who use a pump and do monster walls in remote places, but it’s a matter of how you prefer to manage risk. There is no “best” anything, only what suits each person best. I use a dexcom CGM and that’s been a game changer for me.
In terms of what I actually bring with me on the wall–CGM and sugar. That’s it. Unless I’m doing a multi-day wall, no insulin and usually no meter. My insulin sensitivity goes up enough that my basal keeps me steady while I’m active–sometimes I even run a little high but I just drink a little more water and keep going. I’d rather not risk harm to my insulin on the wall and low BGs from dosing rapid while active so it makes more sense to leave it behind. I trust my CGM regardless what the FDA says. On longer climbs I bring the meter but most of the time, if you take rapid insulin out of the equation you reduce or eliminate the rapid BG fluctuations.
- Can you give a little insight on the ketogenic diet and how it affects your blood sugar management and climbing abilities?
The keto diet allows me to do an end run around the need for rapid insulin–while still having energy, power, endurance and stable BGs. That combination makes a perfect approach for me. I’ve done vegan, low carb, raw…combinations of those–and all of them sacrificed either BG stability or physical performance. The keto diet has given me both.
- What does a typical climbing day look like for you in terms of nutrition?
In a word, grazing. I’ll eat a small breakfast–1-2 eggs, a piece of bacon, some macadamia nuts and tea or coffee with coconut oil. Then I’m off to the races and will just stop and eat bits of protein bar or dark chocolate in response to BGs drops throughout the day. I try to eat things that will bump my BG back up if it’s dropping but do so through protein and limited amounts of carbs. I’ll snack on nuts, cheese and jerky too. Dinner will usually be meat of some sort with greens.
My last big day climbing (12 hours solidly on the go) I ate about 45g of carbs all day. I had consistent energy for what turned into a pretty gnarly climb and no interruptions from dropping BGs. It’s important to mention that the keto diet absolutely relies on consuming sufficient electrolytes and hydrating aggressively. Failure to do so will leave you really badly off–so it’s by no means an easy fix. You still have to be on your toes.
- What is the biggest challenge you have faced while climbing and how did you overcome?
I think the biggest challenge in climbing is always between my own ears. When you’re in a committing place, every little hiccup becomes more dire and the temptation to panic is always right along side you. I don’t think that I’ve come close to overcoming it, but I’ve learned to expect it and bring it with me.
- The quote “Life is full of inherent risk, no one gets out alive” really stood out to me on your site. How has this mentality influenced your lifestyle?
There is a big difference between fear and danger. Living with diabetes we are taught to feed our fear and as it grows we begin calling it danger. Before you know it there’s a huge wall built up between you and what you love doing. I see it everywhere in society–not just in diabetes but it’s certainly more pronounced in our community. Knowing that I could go from healthy one day to the ICU in a couple of weeks–as a kid–taught me that waiting for life to invite me in was the wrong approach. You can fail and die even by avoiding risk all together. The idea that we should be timid because of the risk we have to manage is a false economy.
- What message do you wish to convey to the diabetes community and anyone else battling chronic illness through Living Vertical?
Independence. Writing your own narrative. Don’t buy into marketing. Don’t accept being a victim. Diabetes is never going to be easy–so there’s no point in limiting yourself because that won’t change things. The best answer I’ve found is to find something that makes the difficulty of diabetes matter less. That’s called living your life on your own terms.
- Where is your next adventure? What can we expect next from Living Vertical?
I’m currently training for an ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–it’s 3300 feet tall and I’ve failed on it before. I’m hoping that a new diet and better training will put me over the top! You can follow my progress on my YouTube channel!
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