|To the average person, Will Cross’s adventure at the South Pole sounds like something out of a nightmare.
Aspart of the NovoLog Ultimate Walk to Cure Diabetes, Cross and a partner, Jerry Petersen, 36, walked more than 700 largely uphill miles in 62 days in what is considered to be the harshest terrain on earth. The walk was part of a fundraising effort for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation UK and was also a research project that studied the effect of extreme conditions on the body of a person with diabetes.
The South Pole sits on 9,000 feet of ice. There are no human inhabitants and no animals. The sun never sets in summer and never rises in winter. During the polar darkness that lasts from around mid-February until late October, planes cannot even land.
Fewer people have walked to the South Pole than have visited outer space. Cross, who has had type 1 since age 9, is the first person with diabetes to make the journey.
For Cross, a 35-year-old high school principal from Pittsburg, Pensylvania, the journey to the Pole involved considerable risks. It also required rigorous training, intensive planning for his specific needs, and a self-described “brain haemorrhage” on his part.
“People thought I was crazy to do such a thing”, he says, now safely at home in Pittsburg with his wife and four children. “Maybe I was”
When Cross and Petersen-who does no have diabetes-began the walk. But his previous expeditions-to the North Pole (2001), up the Matterhorn (1998), and Cross that he could do it. He just had to prepare for the unusually brutal conditions.
The days in Antarctica began very early. In order to walk the requisite 13 miles a day, pulling a 150-pound sled through snow, slush, ice and wind in below-zero temperatures for 10 hours a day, Cross and his partner woke at 6:30 a.m.
For breakfast, they made sure to eat a very substantial meal. Cross even mixed butter into his coffee to add extra calories.
In order to avoid hypoglycemia while out on the ice, he snacked all day on nuts, dried fruit, honey, cookies and “lots and lots of chocolate.”
Cross and Petersen Walked in shifts of an hour and half, with 10-minute breaks in between, during which they ate as much as possible.
At 7 p.m., they would stop, pitch their tent, and set up camp. Then they would eat a huge dinner and call their families on cell phones. They also called the news agencies that were following their journey.
“The biggest challenge was the recovery process,” reports Cross. “Our bodies don’t recover as quickly. When you are ounishing yourself 10 hours a day for two months in the hardest part with diabetes.”
Dealing with the nuts and bolts of diabetes was also difficult in the frigid climate.
Because of the sub-zero temperatures, Cross could test his blood glucose only while in his sleeping bag, encased in a bomb-proof Swedish tent.
“I’d usually wake up with a reading in the low 100s,” he recalls, “but before we left the tent for the day, I’d want to be up in the 220s (because) I had to go all day.”
He could take insulin only twice a day, again while in the safety of his sleeping bag.
On the coldest day of their trek, the temperature dropped to minus 52 degrees. Even on average days, when the temperature was a relatively toasty minus 20 degrees, Cross says there was a always one important thing to keep in mind.
“You’ve got to go to the bathroom very quickly.”
Cross-admits that there were definitely days when he and Petersen thought, “What the hell are we doing here?”
“But I you build that into your mental planning process,” he explains. “You say, I know I am going to have days like that. Then, when you have one, you just keep on getting on with it. It’s like having diabetes. There is no point in complaining you’ve got it whether you complain or not. Just get on with it.”
Cross experiences walking as a form of meditation, and the Pole offered an unusual environment in which to let his mind drift.
“There is no pollution, the sky is a beautiful blue, there is a halo around the sun because of the reflection from the ice, and there are hundreds of patterns in the snow. It’s beautiful in very delicate ways.”
For the last two weeks of the expedition, Cross and Petersen were accompanied by two other people: Cross’s father, Michael, 60, also a type 1; and Dr. Bret Goodpaster, a medical researcher. The only medical problem that emerged on the trip was that Michael Cross developed frostbite in his hands, probably as a result of neuropathy. He has fully recovered.
While Cross has no plans to return to the South Pole in the immediate future, he is glad that he went in the trip-and somewhat amazed that he made it through.
“At the end of it, I’m like, I can’t believe I did that! I also got personal gratification from organizing the trip. I believe it has touched people who weren’t. I get comments that people were inspired and that the research was important.”
Cross also looks forward to future expeditions.
“I think expeditions are directly applicable to many parts of my life. It’s similar to having diabetes. It’s hard to have diabetes. You’ve got to plan, prepare and execute-and realize that if you don’t get it right, you will pay some consequences. On the other hand, diabetes gives me drive against the clock. I want to get these trips done.”