'Diabetes Doesn't Have to Stop You'

Will Cross, a 38-year-old father of six and former high school principal from Pittsburgh, plans this week to become the first person in the world with diabetes to climb Mount Everest, the earth's highest peak at 29,035 feet. He says he wants to prove that the disease, which affects more than 18 million Americans, doesn't have to be a limitation.

After retiring four years ago, Cross joined The NovoLog Peaks and Poles Challenge, a competition sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk that involves ascending the highest peak on each of the seven continents and walking to the North and South Poles. So far, Cross, who suffers from type 1 diabetes, has trekked to both poles and scaled five mountains. Last year he made his first attempt at Everest but turned back after his climbing partner experienced altitude-related retinal hemorrhaging in his left eye and Cross encountered problems with an oxygen tank. This year, Cross's expedition has already encountered hardships: on May 4, a massive avalanche on Everest's western ridge tore through base camp. Miraculously, Cross had opted to stay at a different camp the night before. On May 16, Cross spoke with NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo by satellite phone from Mount Everest. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Where are you now?

Will Cross: Right now I'm in a tent, in a base camp at Everest, at 17,500 feet. We are toward the end of the trip and getting ready and looking at weather and juggling summit dates.

How do you feel?

I feel good. I've been here almost two months, about 60 days. It takes a while to adjust with the diabetes. As I slowly gain altitude, I have to adjust the insulin dose based on my blood-sugar reading, the amount of exercise I'm going to do for the day, the amount of food I'm going to eat. The variable factor is altitude. The diabetes body reacts very different to altitude than someone without diabetes.

What special precautions do you have to take as a diabetic?

The altitude is a big thing with diabetes because the body reacts as though it's under a high amount of stress--which of course it is, with a lack of oxygen--and the reaction is to elevate the blood sugars. In response to that, I have to inject more of the NovoLog, a rapid-acting insulin, which allows me to adjust very quickly to changes in diet and altitude.

Maybe five to 10 years ago, I couldn't do this. The significant advances in diabetes have been in the way insulin works. When I was first diagnosed, we were using syringes and glass bottles. Nowadays we have plastic pens [that contain a small needle and injectible insulin]. No one would know it's medication. It's just so easy to use. That's what allows me to do these trips.

I have to make sure the insulin in the FlexPens doesn't freeze. I have a little cooler here, and at night I put the FlexPens in my sleeping bag. And when I climb, I climb with [them] right on me. It's part of my down suit. I always have it with me, so that prevents it from freezing. I have about 20 pens.

You started climbing 15 years ago. What did you do to manage your diabetes when you were first starting out?

I used to wrap glass bottles of insulin in duct tape and aluminum foil. The trips, while certainly hard, did not involve altitude. So the ability to get up these major peaks [is a new thing].

I heard you survived a massive avalanche earlier this month. What happened?

Camp 1, which is at about 20,000 feet, was completely buried. I had been through there the previous day. I usually spend the night there. But I elected not to [that night] and went to camp 2. There's been a lot of snow this year and variable weather. That was one accident that fortunately did not take any lives. Two people have been killed already this year [in other accidents].

Yes, and approximately 120 corpses remain on the mountain. What makes you want to climb it?

Certainly since I was very young I had a desire to climb Mount Everest. I feel lucky that I can send out the message that just because you have diabetes, it doesn't have to stop you. When you carefully control this condition, you can actively pursue your dreams. And mine is to climb Mount Everest.

What do your six kids think of you climbing Mount Everest?

It's just like dad going to work. They're used to me doing big trips. My role as a father is to teach and demonstrate that you should go after what you think is important. In my case, obviously, diabetes is not something I plan to let limit my life. That's what I want to teach them: you have dreams and aspirations and things are going to get in the way, but you just have to get on with it.

You've already climbed Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and you've been to the North and South Poles. Which was the hardest?

The biggest challenge was going to the South Pole. Pulling a 150-pound sled for 10 hours a day for 60 days would be tough for anyone. And with diabetes it was particularly challenging. I don't recommend it.

The mountain climbers I know all say that each mountain has its own character, its own temperament. What's Everest like?

She's big and she's bad, that's what she's saying. Right now, she's not giving up any good weather. Different mountains have different personalities. One of the fun things about climbing around the world is learning the cultures that go with the mountains.

Who are you climbing with?

I'm very privileged this year to be able to climb with Apa Sherpa. He has 14 summits. He's the king of the mountain.

When do you hope to set out?

The actual summit push [is] about a one-week round trip, if all goes well. The important thing for me is to be hydrated, to have the oxygen system work and to be able to use the FlexPens at that altitude. As soon as we have a window, we're going to go for it.