The Sugar Run

Location  - Lat: 50.056458, Long: -122.947504

Something doesn’t feel quite right.

I think to myself as the wind howls across the slope in front of me. Nothing is hurting and it’s been a beautiful day near the peak, but something still feels slightly wrong. I’m packing away my camera equipment and clipping my lighting stand to my backpack. It’s 3pm on the top of Harmony, one of the most stunning viewpoints on North America’s largest ski resort, Whistler. I have been working as a photographer for the mountain for two months, taking portraits of tourists in some of the most breathtaking scenery British Columbia has to offer. It’s a great job, one in which I have the privilege of being on the mountain everyday taking photographs and snowboarding.

One of the biggest highlights is the commute down the mountain at the end of the day when the crowds have cleared and I often have the slopes to myself. It normally provides an enormous sense of freedom and one hell of a rush, but today something feels wrong. I take another look at my surroundings; the clouds are coming in thick and fast over the peaks, and the ice whips across from the cliffs to my left. The mountains are beautiful and humbling, but it is definitely time to leave.

Before strapping into my board, I open my backpack and search for my blood meter, by now more of a habit than a chore. I always try to test my sugar level before heading down the mountain, aware that the exercise from the ride can cause my blood sugar to drop quickly. Pulling the trusty little meter from my bag, I prick my finger to try to get a reading. An error message appears before I can apply the blood sample, ‘Move meter to correct temperature and wait 5 minutes’. Not ideal. I look around, weighing up my options. There is a Ski Patrol hut just a short walk away, but by the time I wait for the meter to warm up I’m going to be late getting back to deliver my photos to the office in time, and the weather is changing for the worse. I contemplate my other option; to ignore the concern about my blood sugar and head down the slope. My last dose of insulin was about half an hour ago and I can feel it starting to take effect. I’d also eaten my last granola bar at this point (standing in -20 for a few hours will make you very hungry!).

I decide to head for the base of the mountain. I’m currently at 2115m elevation, but figure it shouldn’t take too long. Sealing up my backpack and tightening the straps, I step into my bindings and look towards the peak as it disappears from view behind a heavy blanket of cloud. The wind howls again as I turn my board toward the beginning of my route home, Harmony Ridge. The route is fairly simple and the most direct line I can take back to the village. I push my weight to my front foot and launch myself along the ridgeline at the top of the run. As I descend the slope, the cloud splits away and opens up the great white vistas of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. I look to my right, and a beam of sunlight illuminates Blackcomb glacier as the peaks of Garibaldi National Park pierce the cloudline, like giant’s fingers reaching for the sun.

I make a hard turn to my left, spraying a wave of the last powder for the day from the edge of the slope. I’m smiling as the snow brushes my face, intoxication from the adrenaline and phenomenal views setting in. I carve left to right in quick rhythmic motions, tucking in behind trees and ducking low for more speed. As I sweep around the next corner, I pause on the side of the run, once again unable to shake the feeling that something is still wrong.

Drawing in a few deep breaths of the mountain air, all of a sudden hits me. I can feel a tingling sensation creeping up from the tips of my fingers. Focusing on my toes, I realise I can feel it there too, though the intoxication from the exhilarating ride down is still present, and far more than just metaphorical. My blood sugar has already dropped beyond a safe level and is still plummeting fast.

I unclip my backpack and attempt to get a blood glucose reading from my meter, but again, the temperature is too low. I rummage through my bag desperately in search of something to eat with even a trace of sugar in it, though I have no luck. I take a few more deep breaths, trying not to panic. The slopes are empty and I’m still two thirds of the way up the mountain. If my sugar level drops too low, too quickly, I’ll find myself disorientated, confused, and weak before being unconscious in temperatures well below the freezing level. From experience, I estimate I have around 10 minutes before things start to get really bad. It’s definitely time to cover some ground.

Once again I tighten my straps, and launch myself down the run as fast as I can. The tingling sensation is still very present in my fingers, and I know that once this starts to pass I’ll be moving onto the next part of my hypoglycemic episodes: confusion. I swing my board hard to the left on my heelside edge, and tuck as low as I can to keep up the momentum over the flat terrain at the base of Harmony chairlift. Cruising to the right, I switch to my toeside edge as I enter the top of the next section. The mid winter sun is beginning to dip below the mountains and an orange glow bounces from the snow caps of distant peaks. Now drifting at a lower speed, I try to pause and calm myself.

I’m half way down, this will be fine. Also, if i don’t make it, there’s some much uglier places to die from a hypo…

I shake off the last thought, realising that ridiculous and morbid thinking was not going to help me. I slow to a stop on a long flat section, curse myself for not waxing my board recently, and unstrap my back foot to skate along the track. It’s a lot more physically demanding to push a snowboard along than to carve through big turns on a slope, and it’s far from ideal to be stuck on a flat path now. I reach the top of a rise that I know is steep enough to gain momentum again. I also remember that the rest of the route is fairly simple and forgiving, giving me a glimmer of hope that I may just make it back before things go badly. I return my foot to my binding and bend down to ratchet the straps tight. As I do, the world spins, and a huge wave of dizziness makes my eyes hurt. I squint, trying to focus my vision enough to fasten my toe strap. This is bad. It passes quickly, though I now start to second guess my ability to ride. Panic creeping in once more, I pull out my phone to make sure I definitely have the number for the ski patrol. I do, but my heart sinks as I realise my reception is non existent.

I have to get down. I should have been down 10 minutes ago.

I look around one last time for help, but see no one. I tilt my board forward and fly into the easier terrain of the lower mountain. The snow at this level has become a heavy slush from the warmer temperature, and my leg muscles burn as I try to hold my edges. My vision is blurring and my internal monologue is getting very confused. My vision becomes blurry, and I can feel confusion blanket my thoughts like a fog. Suddenly, I begin to hear the dull pumping of music from the village apres ski parties and my heart leaps, knowing I’m almost back.

I can see the last section of slope in front of me and, discarding the idea of turning altogether, straight line my board for the last 300 meters. I hear an unintelligible warning shout from a Mountain Safety staff member at the base of the slope, but ignore it as I speed resolutely down the hill. Relief washes over me as I reach the bottom. Hastily unclipping my bindings, I stumble to the closest vending machine and hurriedly jam some spare change into the coin slot, punching the button for a bottle of ginger ale. I must have drank it at record speed. The huge gulp of sugary liquid hits me quickly, starting a splitting headache that lasts a couple of minutes. My hands tremble. Suddenly exhausted, I slump onto a nearby bench and turn my head back at the mountain; the majesty of the peak is now hidden in a thick layer of cloud. Today was far too close for comfort, though not in vain. I am reminded once more, through my mistakes, that preparation is key.

After a little while, my blood sugar level rises and I begin to feel normal again. I look over at the apres ski party nearby and chuckle as two shirtless Australians fall from a table top that could no longer support their drunken dancing. It occurs to me that suffering from two autoimmune diseases, despite the day’s near brush with disaster, does not disqualify me from experiencing the things I had always wanted. Working in Whistler as a photographer on the mountain and snowboarding every day was one of those dreams. I smile to myself.

Life is good.

All images © Ted Lamb. Text Edited by Ellen Jephcott

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