Summiting Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet, is a physically and mentally grueling wilderness adventure. Imagine taking on this challenge as a Type 1 diabetic that must constantly monitor blood sugar levels.
Zoe Foster ’17 accepted the challenge this summer, and proved to herself and others that she has the courage and confidence necessary to succeed – both in spite of her diabetes and because of it.
Zoe made the two-week Mt. Whitney trek in July under the auspices of Diabetes Youth Families, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for children, teens and families affected by diabetes. Every hiker and counselor on the group journey had Type 1 diabetes.
Diagnosed when she was 11, Zoe also suffers from an autoimmune disease that affects her pancreas. She wears an insulin pump – a small electronic device about the size of a mobile phone – that delivers precise doses of insulin every 45 minutes through a cannula (small tube) that is inserted in her body. An accompanying sensor and transmitter alerts Zoe when her blood sugars are too high or too low.
During the summer of 2014, Zoe participated in a six-day backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park with DYF. “It was fun and it was really good opportunity to learn how to backpack correctly,” she said.
But after that backpacking experience, Zoe knew that she needed to do a lot more training if she wanted to take on the Mt. Whitney challenge. So she spent almost a year working with a personal trainer, doing strength and conditioning exercises, and going on long hikes to build her endurance.
When it was time for her July departure for Mt. Whitney, Zoe was ready. The trek spanned 100 miles, with the final day’s segment to the summit 20 miles long. “We got up at 2 a.m. and started hiking, and we were able to see the sun rise,” Zoe said. “It was amazing.”
The altitude gains made for some challenging moments, Zoe said. “A lot of us were really feeling the effects of the altitude,” she said. “We found that the best cure was drinking tons of water.”
Maintaining stable blood sugar levels was even more difficult. “Either we were constantly eating, which makes you feel crappy when you are hiking, or taking less insulin. But if you don’t get enough insulin you can get diabetic ketoacidosis – which is like a poison in your body – and that makes you feel awful, too. It was like being on a roller coaster,” she said. “In addition to our medications, we had huge gallon bags of sugar cubes (to help stave off low blood sugar situations). I probably ate 500 of those.”
Zoe said that during most of the backpacking trip her focus was simply putting one foot in front of the other. But as the group approached the summit she became energized. “One of the best feelings was just looking down from the summit. You don’t realize how far you’ve come,” she said. “All I could think was ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’ I was so proud of myself.”
She’s received lots of congratulatory messages from friends and family members. “I don’t really think of myself as inspirational, but people tell me I’ve motivated them,” she said.
She says that while her close friends know about her Type 1 diabetes, she does get some strange looks from unaware classmates when she’s checking her blood sugar levels in class or giving herself an insulin shot if her pump isn’t working.
“I don’t mind explaining my situation to people. I’d rather have them ask me, than give me a weird look,” she said.
At O’Dowd, Zoe played junior varsity softball her freshman year and participated in the musicals “Little Shop of Horrors” during her freshman year and “Hairspray” during her sophomore year. She intends to play softball again this year.