Which line to ski? We ended up doing one of the smaller ones! (Red Arrow)

Which line to ski? We ended up doing one of the smaller ones! (Red Arrow)

When I was diagnosed in august last year my first concern was could I go skiing again?! After exercising daily, testing my blood obsessively and plenty of trial (and some error) I’m pleased to report that diabetes has had very little impact on my ski season. The weather and snow conditions have made it frustrating at times but I’ve still managed to have some awesome experiences.

My final ski of the season was the Gigord couloir in chamonix, last week. Skiing this kind of thing is a great transferable skill for managing diabetes. I need to carry the right kit (just like a diabetic), manage risk (just like balancing the risks of low blood sugar with the long run costs of high blood sugar), and solve problems with a clear head.

The start of the route we’d planned was a very short traverse from the top of the grands montets cable car. This combined with the warm sunshine gave us the deceptive feel that it would be easy. Looking up at the route it looked short and easy and whilst excited I also felt a bit of regret that we weren’t doing one of the classic north faces round the corner.

The Gigord Couloir marked in red

The Gigord Couloir marked in red

Illusions that this would be a walk in the park were quickly dissipated by a gust of wind so strong that we had to turn our backs to the snow and ice being driven into our faces. Yup: despite it being BBQ weather in the valley we were in the high mountains.

I tested my blood sugar (6.2) and ate the second half of my snicker’s (15g of carb) to preempt any risk of a hypo. We put skins on our skis (these allow you to walk up hill) and I bashed an unsocially steep skin track up to the burgshrund whilst Mark swore at his skins (which were coming off one ski) and announced he was in a bad mood!

Crossing the bergschrund was much easier than last time I was here a few weeks before (that time we had climbed half way up the neighbouring chevalier couloir before throwing in the towel and skiing down). The recent snow fall had covered the blue icy chasm and I could just walk straight over it.

Mark’s skins were still misbehaving so we ditched our rope, swapped skis for crampons and started our boot pack straight up the couloir. Skinning and boot packing up hill are similar intensities to running so I kind of know how much sugar I need to take on. I ate four jelly babies (20g of carb) before getting going.

After slogging up some deep powder for about 100m the snow turned firm and grippy (this kind of snow is called neve) and we shot up to the top, with Mark commenting “it’s steep!”

At the top there was no question of finding a ledge to put our skis on. We attached ourselves to some pitons left in a rock and busied ourselves with the precarious business of swapping crampons for skis and trying not to let poles, axes, bags or gloves tumble down the 55 degree slope – we had to tie everything on to either ourselves or the pitons. The faff involved in diabetes management is pretty trivial compared to managing all this kit in a howling gale on a seemingly near vertical slope!

In the shade and the wind and at about 3600m altitude my hands were too cold to contemplate a blood test so I just ate another five jelly babies (25g carb) which I knew would probably push my blood sugar over the recommended 8 mmol/l. But I needed zero risk of a hypo in this situation.

With my blood sugar sorted I could focus completely on the skiing. I took myself off the anchor – no losing balance allowed now – and started the ski. My plan was to side step for half a metre and side slip for another half a metre to get the measure of the snow. It was good. Firm and grippy.

I looked down. The slope is 50-55 degrees for the first two hundred metres. A fall in the first 150m would probably result in cartwheeling into the rocks on the side of the couloir. I’ve never turned on snow this steep and I’m in a situation where the consequences of falling are serious. I look up at Mark. “I’m not gonna lie: I’m pretty nervous!”

He tells me he’s happy to ski first, but I know I’m going to have to do my first turn at some point so I lean forwards, plant my poles and jump my skis round. As I land my skis kick up a load of snow and ice which the wind blows up into my face: unexpected, cold and beautiful. I’ve done it! I carry on turning, feeling more confident each time and also relieved that the gap between me and the rocks is narrowing with each successful turn.

The snow is giving me a serious ice cream headache and I’m kind of feeling sick from the cold. I’m used to the feeling from surfing in cold UK waters so I know it will pass. I stop to wave my arms around to get blood back in my fingers and to watch Mark doing his turns down the steepest part of the slope.

Neve turns to powder and before we know it we are jumping across the bergschrund and flying back to the familiar slopes of Grands Montets. Despite the fact that the top lift has been unloading skiers all morning we find some untracked powder in great terrain and we’re skiing in the sun with huge grins on our faces and whooping with joy.

We didn't take any photos on the day because we were concentrating and it was cold! This is Mark shredding Grand Montets on his telemark skis a couple of weeks beforehand.

We didn’t take any photos on the day because we were concentrating and it was cold! This is Mark shredding Grand Montets on his telemark skis a couple of weeks beforehand.

I test my blood: 12. Too high but I know it will go down quickly and much much better this way than having a hypo on a slope which requires total commitment.

It’s the closing day of the ski season so we round the corner to a massive party at midstation. Pumping tunes, BBQ and a water pool which all manner of crazy skiers are schussing down to and flying across. Some in their underwear, some on piggy back, even a guy on cross country skis!

We find Emily, eat our sandwiches (1u insulin for 50g of carbs in the bread), bask in the sun and laugh at the water pool attempts. It’s a different world from our mini adventure an hour ago. But I’m on such a high and feeling unbelievably happy about my last day’s skiing.

The pool party

The pool party

The diabetic medic wrote one of her favourite quotes on her blog. Epicticus said: “it’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.”

I feel really strongly about this and think that it’s a very important piece of the puzzle of finding happiness. I sometimes seek out stressful situations for fun. And I’m often happiest after a ski or a climb if it was difficult but I managed to overcome my emotions (normally of fear!). I like the satisfaction of solving problems when things go wrong.

Of course we don’t get to choose all the stressful situations we face. My diabetes diagnosis last year was life changing, unwelcome and dominated most of my waking thoughts for a couple of weeks after (and a good deal of them on a permanent basis).

But I’m incredibly lucky. Not just because I have the opportunity to ski or climb in beautiful places, but because these activities have taught me to stay calm under pressure, to evaluate failure in a measured way and to learn from it rather than become frustrated.

I’ve managed to transfer the same attitude to my diabetes management. I was amazed to find that I quite liked learning about the condition. Whilst the digital hour glass on my glucose monitor display is spinning I look forward to, rather than dread, the result: it’s an extra bit of data I can learn from. Whether it’s good or bad I’ll be that little bit better at controlling my diabetes in the future.

It’s how you react to it that matters. Getting diabetes is obviously rubbish. But I feel that I’ve reacted well to it. And that makes me happy. The amazing thing? I’ve picked up an incurable autoimmune disease which requires constant daily effort and I’m happier than I was the day before it happened!

I’m more grateful than I was for the simple joys of running along a trail or turning my skis down a slope. The joy of living life to the full is a very very big motivation to learn to live with my diabetes.

All this…

My first prescription! Insulin pens for injecting, spare needles, the expensive testing strips and a "sharps" disposal box

Is a small price to pay for this…


Sunset at orestes




  1. Great post Alex! I’m not a skier, but your descriptions were perfect. I can totally understand the nightmare of trying to test, manage gear, and not drop the whole lot of it. What sort of altitudes were you at? I spent a lot of time trying to sort through BG accuracy at altitude, and how various meters (and my CGM) were capable or incapable of accurate readings. I’ve only been up one peak so far, but I hope to do some more in the near term.

    Was the 12 solely a product of the candy, or was there a bit of adrenaline rush in there too? When I’m on the sharp end my sugars can almost instantly spike and then plummet almost just as instantly when the route is sent. But that’s me, your diabetes may vary.

    On the topic of can it make you happy – I do believe it can. Unlike you, I was terribly unhealthy, and while it’s a debilitating disease that I loathe, it’s actually turned my life around. It makes us self aware of every single thing we do. We cannot be observers in our lives, we become active participants. We’re truly “the quantified self” type people – people with Nike Fuel bands and fitbits have nothing on us! Yes, we do get tired of some of the nuances of managing it, but the more active we are in the management of it, the easier it is to do – or at least that’s what I think.

    The diabetes community can always use positive, can do voices like you! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. I ski between 1000m and 4000m. I’ve had my worst hypos -according to my meter – have been shortly after I go up about 2500m in a lift (I wrote about one here: https://masteringdiabetes.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/diabetes-and-being-ill-dont-mix/) It’s always been to very cold windy conditions so not sure if it’s that environment that affects me or my glucose monitor or something else! I don’t have enough data points yet to be sure. I suspect it’s genuine falls in BG. As for adrenaline and stress – I’m not sure about that either! I’ve had my blood sugar falling and rising concurrent with stressful situations so at the moment I predict it based on a combination of feel and level of physical exertion. I’m sure stress plays a role but I don’t have a good feel of how it affects me personally yet.

      I asked my care team about altitude and they say the glucose meter I use claims to be accurate at altitude.

      So far diabetes by itself hasn’t stopped me climbing or skiing, but I did turn back during one very simple mountaineering objective this spring. It was 5 days after the London marathon so my legs were still knackered. I tweaked my right leg on the way up to the start of the climb, it was totally freezing and I had no circulation in my hands and some snow sluffed on us when we were transitioning to crampons to cross the bergschrund. I was feeling sick from my cold hands, couldn’t test and so had no confidence I could tell hypo symptoms apart from my other feelings of general suffering which one has to endure from time to time on the mountains! So we turned back. It’s annoying not achieving an objective, but it happens diabetes or not and we learnt something.


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