Later this month Helen Shepherd, from Huddersfield will be hiking the length of America to raise awareness of diabetes. Catherine Scott reports.
Hiking the length of the US is a daunting challenge for anyone, but when you have type 1 diabetes that challenge becomes even greater.
But that’s exactly what a 49-year-old pensions specialist from Huddersfield is planning to do later this month. Helen Shepherd will set off for the Pacific Crest Trail, 25 years after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail runs the length of the United States, through three states − California, Oregon and Washington.
“The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) has published figures which show that in 2016 around 22 per cent of people who applied to walk the entire trail actually completed the task. In 2017, due to numerous wildfires and record levels of snow leading to dangerous river crossings, many decided to cut their attempt short for safety’s sake,” says Helen.
“A few years ago, I decided I wanted to do something big, something that would really push me out of my comfort zone and to show that having diabetes doesn’t have to stop you doing anything in life. I read a book by a painter and decorator who had done the Pacific trail and it sounded just like the challenge I wanted. I love to wild camp and really push myself.”
The Pacific Crest Trail runs straight through mountain lion and black bear habitat. While unprovoked attacks are rare, the bears will try to get at any food hikers carry with them.
“I’ll be wild camping on the route which means being aware of any potentially dangerous plants and wildlife. I’ll have to store anything that smells in a bear-proof caddy, away from my tent. Insulin also smells, but I’ll need that close by in case I need to use it during the night so I’ve found some odour-proof bags online that I can keep my insulin in to help minimise the smell,” says Helen.
“A black bear’s sense of smell is seven times greater than a bloodhound’s which demonstrates why these steps are necessary.”
A trip like this needs a lot of planning, but having Type 1 diabetes means even more organisation. People with Type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, no one knows what causes it but it’s got nothing to do with being overweight and it isn’t currently preventable. It is treated by daily insulin doses.
Helen will have to make sure she can access insulin during the trip so that she doesn’t run out, as well as keeping the insulin at the right temperature using a Frio bag.
“It will require some serious monitoring of blood sugar levels, ensuring that hypos are recognised and treated swiftly, making sure I eat the right sort of food and crucially, that I can keep all my medication at the right temperature.
“I’ve made sure to take safety precautions. I’ll be carrying a satellite communicator, so that my family can track where I am and also a special scanning machine which means I won’t have to constantly test my blood sugar levels, but I have no idea how they will work at altitude or in the extreme cold.”
The challenge has been years in planning, but Helen still didn’t know whether it could definitely go ahead until she was granted a permit in late November last year.
She has given herself just five-and-a-half months to cover the distance and she is being joined by a fellow type 1 diabetic – who she has never met before,
“When I started to plan the trip I thought it would be good to have a team of around five people, but it is very difficult getting people who want to do the same thing at the same time and can get the time off work and so it looked like it was just going to be me.” But then Helen wrote an article for Frio and it was read by a woman in Australia who had been planning to do exactly the same trail as Helen just a year later.
“She contacted me and she decided that she could pull her trip forward. As a fellow type 1 sufferer, we will be able to support each other.”
As well as planning, Helen has been training for the past few years.
“Another huge motivation was to get fitter and doing regular exercise has also made managing my blood glucose levels easier. I’ve taken on a number of smaller challenges like climbing Snowdon and at the end of August I did the ‘Coast-to-Coast’ walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, but nothing like the Pacific Trail.”
Helen likens the forthcoming trip to walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats not once but more than three times non-stop.
“On top of this, you are carrying everything you need such as a tent, food, water, clothing over terrain that ranges from sea level to heights of up to 4,009 metres. Just for good measure, we will also throw in temperatures of around 100F (38C) at the start, building up to freezing, snowbound mountains in the middle where the use of ice axes and crampons are strongly advised.
“We are determined to reach our goal and in doing so, my main aim is to show people currently living with diabetes that adventures are possible and dreams can be achieved and also to raise money for Diabetes UK.
“It just takes good planning, the right equipment and a stubborn desire to ignore the naysayers and just do it.”
Tyler Anderson, Diabetes UK Regional Fundraiser said: “This is an incredible challenge and we are extremely grateful for all the support Helen has given to Diabetes UK and for all her efforts to raise awareness of the condition. Her hard work and dedication will go a long way to helping us create a world where diabetes can do no harm.”
Helen will be chronicling her trip via her online blog: https://www.hikingtype.com/ and Instagram page:https://www.instagram.com/?hl=en
To sponsor Helen for her epic trek visit: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/shepherd-pct
For more information visit www.diabetes.org.uk