Climbing With Diabetes: An Interview with Living Vertical’s Steve Richert

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I’m a type 1 diabetic, and I’m a climber, but just barely.  That is, I’m definitely a type 1 diabetic, but I’m a mostly-indoors, when-I-can, easy-route wannabe boulderer. I can do a few pull ups, and I’m pretty proud of that, but I don’t have real triceps or those back muscles that look like wings, so you know I’m just an amateur.


Steve Richert, on the other hand, is a type 1 diabetic and a climber, the real thing.  There is nothing amateurish about him.  Shortly after he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in high school, Steve discovered the joy and blood sugar control that comes with a rigorous physical lifestyle. Since then, he has been hiking and rock climbing– and has the back muscles that look like wings to prove it!  This coming year Steve won’t just be climbing for the fun of it; together with his wife, Stefanie, he will be traveling the country, climbing to raise awareness of diabetes, and to encourage other diabetics (and non-diabetics) to challenge themselves to reach new heights.
Climber wannabe that I am, I was very excited to hear about Steve’s project, the Living Vertical 365 Challenge. I spoke to Steve to find out more about where the idea came from, where he came from, and what I could do to hang out in the penumbra of his super-cool climbing challenge.

Let’s start at the beginning– what is the Living Vertical 365 Challenge, and what do you hope to accomplish?

LivingVertical is the name of our organization through which we will be creating opportunities for diabetics to challenge themselves outdoors and changing the social perception of this condition.  The 365 Challenge is a project that will help fund future programs while bringing an exciting and tangible element to the concept of empowering diabetics.

In short, we want to do incredible things that will inspire fitness and connectedness to nature.  We want to create opportunities for others to get outside and live their dreams!

What do you see as the relationship between diabetes and climbing? Why is a climbing challenge relevant to type 1 diabetics?

Climbing is a vehicle. It strips the barriers of social convention, pretense and forces you to confront yourself. When you test yourself and push your limits, you are forced to grow as a person—at the same time it is highly connected to nature and helps balance our perspective. Over the time I have spent guiding, I have seen people have life-changing experiences when they feel the power of climbing—and I can honestly say that climbing is what has kept me fighting in my own diabetes management.

In a more literal sense, climbing and diabetes require balance, strength, and attention to detail. The consequences of sloppiness in either are harsh. Risk management is paramount in both. They both present you with situations where you are forced to confront failure or an unpleasant reality and in order to survive, you have to find a way to make the best of it. The bottom line, however, is that both are about motivation and discipline.

What kind of climbing will you be doing throughout the year (bouldering, sport, top-roping, trad…), and, for those of us who aren’t sure, what exactly does that entail? In other words, what exactly is this rock climbing that you’ll be doing?

Climbing is a general term that implies going up. How far, how fast, what safety systems are in place and the medium on which you are climbing (rock, snow, ice) all change the feel and the challenge of the climb. One of the goals of the 365 Challenge is to get people interested in climbing itself and explore the nuances of different types of climbing.

Basically, I will be doing every type of climbing at some point throughout the year—rock, ice, snow/mountaineering, bouldering, aid , trad and sport. Explaining the difference between each of these is an another article unto itself, so I’ll just invite you all to follow along as we head out on the 365 Challenge and invite any questions along the way. I love teaching people about different types of climbing so I hope to generate a lot of discussion about the technical elements of what I do.

Will you be attempting the year-long challenge primarily by yourself? Who is working with you, what are they responsible for, and what is it that makes them care about the challenge?

My wife, Stefanie, has been my climbing partner for years, and she is a big part of my diabetes management. We will climb together and we will include as many people who want to come out and climb with us. This challenge is about sharing a wonderful gift that has given me a means to overcome a huge challenge!

Your webpage says that your initial funding goal is $10,000. What will those funds be used for, and how far will that $10,000 go? Do you anticipate needing more than that?

We have abandoned pre-determined amounts that we are committed to raising.  We feel like this project needs to happen and is meant to happen,regardless. We are prepared to see it through by operating on a shoe-string from the outset if necessary.  We know that people will take notice and will be moved by our passion and our mission and lend whatever support they can even if it we are a few months into the 365 Challenge before that happens. The biggest item that we need is some sort of small RV that can be our mobile “base camp”.

Ideally we will find a company (or individual) willing to loan us a RV for the year.  Any money that comes in will go to food, fuel and medication first, with the bulk of it going to programs and fulfilling our mission.  We are also donating a portion of our funding to medical research related to type 1 diabetes.

Is the 365 Challenge being sponsored or supported by any companies or larger donations? Would you be interested in corporate sponsorship if it was offered?

Not yet, but we certainly hope it will be.  If we can get our message out and share our mission with a wider audience, that would be amazing!

How might a type 1 diabetic who is interested in what you’re doing get involved? Are you inviting others to climb with you? Make donations?

We want our challenge to be an open book for everyone to follow along with and share in one form or another—sort of like reality TV but no gimmicks, and not mindless.  We know everyone can’t get out on the road with us but spreading information about our project is a huge help.

We will be hosting events at locations all across North America (coordinated with local chapters of the JDRF) where folks can come out and climb with us, even if it’s for one evening.

Donations of funds and other miscellaneous items like food, gear, and gas cards— pretty much anything, are greatly appreciated and will help make our programs available to more diabetics.

We WILL be inviting other climbers to join us on our challenge, specifically other diabetics. This invitation will be open to climbers of all skill levels—keep an eye out as we announce more about Team LivingVertical at!

Tell us a little bit about yourself– were you a climber first, or a diabetic first? How did you get into climbing, and where does your diagnosis story fit into that?

Climbing and diabetes came into my life within several months of each other. I was diagnosed in early January of 1999 at the age of 16. After spending a week in the hospital getting over the case of encephalitis that accompanied the diabetes and a couple weeks of taking it easy, my high school gym class did a unit on climbing and rappelling.

At the time of diagnosis, I felt hopeless. It was like being condemned to life in prison without parole and I was convinced that I would be unable to sufficiently control my sugar and wind up dying of complications at a young age.

Like most 16 year olds, I didn’t like being told what to do or what I could or couldn’t be. I decided that I would live my dreams or die trying rather than accepting the idea of being a ward of the medical community. As I saw it, there was no better option since I had little hope of living far into adulthood.

I started by controlling my diet to the point that my  A1c was around 5.5-6% and working out religiously. I knew that I had to pay a price to live my dreams, so I began to learn about what worked for me.  The more I learned about my body’s response to certain foods and exercise, the better the results became.

I began playing soccer during my last two years of high school and into college.  I continued until my interested returned to the outdoors. I decided to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail after graduating from college, so my roommate and I set off on a 150 mile, 2 week excursion to the horror of my doctors and parents—but I was determined to control my sugar and not let it control me!

I discovered that through the rigors of exercise as lifestyle (not just a hobby) and a diet that was predominately vegetarian whole foods, that I was able to eliminate almost all insulin during those two weeks.

Post Appalachian Trail, I began reading up on climbing and I taught myself the basics. I was too poor to hire a guide and I couldn’t afford gear.   Once I had the basic ideas in my mind, I was fortunate enough to make friends with a climber who had been a guide. This friend, Tony, took me under his wing and mentored me until I was able to be a full fledged climbed.
I consider it a privilege to be able to pass on that same sort of mentorship when I have the chance, and I am very proud of my friends who have trusted me to teach them the ropes, so to speak.

What is your life like normally, when not on a year-long climbing challenge? Do you climb professionally, or just recreationaly?

Prior to starting LivingVertical, my professional life has consisted of teaching at SUNY Orange in New York as an adjunct instructor (First Aid, CPR, Hiking, Outdoor Adventure, Climbing and other Movement Science courses) and guiding clients on rock climbing trips in the Shawangunk Mountains of upstate New York.

I look at my health and my fitness as my full time job. I need a certain amount of money to make that happen, so I teach to facilitate my climbing trips and it really has been a fun job.  It allows me to interact with people, which I greatly enjoy and it gives me 3-6 months a year to spend traveling and climbing.

How do you manage climbing and diabetes? When do you take insulin, and how do you avoid getting low during a climb? Or high for that matter? How do you handle unpredictable approach hikes, or unpredictable weather?

Basically, I am much more concerned with lows than highs, because highs will not be unmanageable as long as my diet doesn’t change and I am eating low GI foods.  Highs generally burn off and don’t interfere with what I am doing. I rarely take Humalog while climbing because I don’t want to risk a fast onset hypo at a bad time.

I rely on Lantus predominately while climbing and usually I eat very small amounts on a regular basis – lots of nuts and vegetables – which keeps my energy level high but my sugar in balance. The bottom line is that I have learned to listen to my body very carefully. I check my sugar more if my routine is disrupted or if I just feel “off” and I have developed a good sense of where my sugar will be at any given point during a day of climbing.

Weather is always unpredictable! Lightning kills more climbers per year than falling. Know that you can only control what you choose to do in relation to issues that are out of your control. I choose to operate conservatively in relation to weather because if I bail on a climb, it will definitely be there when the weather is cooperative.  No climb is worth dying for.

Are you ever scared while climbing, either because of diabetes or not? How do you handle fear?

Part of what makes climbing so meaningful is that it forces you to confront fear. I have some days out climbing that I feel totally in control and others when I am reminded that “control” is a perception and at the end of the day there are bigger things that we cannot change.

I have learned to manage fear. There is no person without fear, at least not that I know of. An effective climber knows how to separate rational fear (which can save you from catastrophic error) from irrational fear (that can debilitate you and put you in greater danger). Something that I have learned to do only recently is to channel fear into appropriate action rather than panic.

Do you have any advice for type 1 diabetics who climb or participate in other extreme sports? Any tricks to managing diabetes in tight spots?

Listen to your body. Consistency in diet and quality of the food you put in will greatly improve the performance you get out. Choose your food by the results it gives you, not by taste alone or convenience. Lastly, test, test, test!

For a type 1 diabetic who has never climbed before, but wants to start, what would you recommend? How does one start becoming a climber?

I recommend visiting and contacting me!

And, just for fun, some rapid-fire questions so we can know a bit more about you as a diabetic and as a climber:

  • What is your favorite climb? Tough one, but I would say “Bloody Fingers” in City of Rocks, Idaho.
  • What is the hardest climb you’ve ever completed? Difficulty in climbing and ratings are another long discussion, but I have climbed 5.12, bouldered v4/5. I intend to surpass both of those achievements during the course of the 365 Challenge!
  • Have you ever climbed El Capitan? Not yet—I will during the 365 Challenge, and share that whole experience with everyone following!
  • What’s the lowest blood sugar you’ve ever had while climbing? Interesting question—I usually eat if I feel low rather than testing (not a textbook answer, but it works for me because I know that 9 times out of 10 if I feel “off” it won’t be a high). Usually climbing isn’t where I hit lows—its usually on approaches– 65 is my “climbing low” 45 my “approach low”
  • Have you had any near-death experiences climbing? Yes- lightning!
  • Have you climbed anywhere outside the US? Does Canada and Alaska count?
  • What’s the highest point you’ve ever reached climbing? 12,000 feet
  • We won’t tell anyone if the answer is yes, but: do you builder as well? Where? Not yet…I have my eye on a few of the buildings at the college where I teach!

Karmel Allison is ASweetLife’s science editor and a regular contributor.  She writes the blog Where is My Robot Pancreas?

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Comments (7)

  1. Sysy at

    This is so great!  Loved reading about this today, thank yoU!

  2. Hi Karmel, this article looks great and we really appreciate the opportunity to share with your community!


  3. Damien at

    Sweet article, I am super proud of you both. Come hell or high water, I will be on a climb with you once 365 kicks off

  4. Emily Patton
    Emily at

    Can’t wait to climb with you when you get to Seattle, Steve!  Thanks for all the helpful info, Karmel!

  5. Paul at

    Great interview! I’m a (novice) climber with Type 1 in Seattle, and would like to climb with you as well. Best of luck on the project!

  6. This is very exciting! There is lots of rock and lots of stops that we will make, all during 2012, all across North America. Let’s make it happen!!!

  7. Great post Karmel, and great interview.  I’m a big fan of Steve and what he’s doing.  Thank you for helping spread the word!

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