Munro bagging as a type one diabetic

Helen Rose shares her experiences of walking with diabetes

I was diagnosed as an Insulin dependent diabetic in December 1999 following three months of being acutely unwell. I had suspected for some weeks that the problem of my ill health was diabetes but as a keen and active hill walker, I wanted to deny the diabetes as I was afraid that it would end my days on the hills having done half of the Munros. I need not have worried and thanks to the help and support of family and hillwalking friends along with the encouragement of my GP and the specialist diabetes nurse at the local hospital, I continued my walking and trekking adventures. 

My reason for writing this article is to give inspiration to other insulin dependent diabetics to go out there and be adventurous and also to give non diabetic walkers some insight what it means to have this condition. However, diabetics have to be cautious at all times and I would not advocate buying a pair of boots and rushing up a mountain without first being hill fit, understanding the needs of your body, having adequate support on the hill and having clearance from your medical adviser. Hills can be very dangerous places for even the fittest people and weather can be fickle with four seasons in one day in Scotland. When I was Munro bagging I was out most weekends in all weathers. It is now seventeen years since I completed the Munros and due to age, my limit is ten miles walking and about a thousand feet of ascent. 


Walking adventures 

Some of the adventures I have had while on insulin were a charity walk from Melrose to Lindisfarne, nearly sixty three miles in length and crossing the Eildon Hills, a trekking holiday in Iceland back packing for four days in mountain huts, crossing glaciers and rivers while walking around volcanoes and climbing the highest mountain Snaefell. On a trip to Ireland, I climbed the ten mountains there over three thousand feet over five days. Unfortunately, the weather was very poor and we were extremely wet every day so did not have the rewards of views as there was a thick mist on the tops 

I have also scrambled up Curved Ridge on the Buachaille and traversed the Aonach Eagach Ridge but for an experienced hill walker knowing their own limits and well in control of the diabetes, a hard rock scramble is possible provided adequate precautions are taken to avoid hypos when holding on to rocks for short periods. 

kildonan beach

Dealing with hypoglycaemia 

A hypo is short for hypoglycaemia where the blood sugar level falls very low affecting brain function. This results in lack of concentration and extreme exhaustion. The lower limit will differ in each diabetic but the important thing is that warnings are received and action can be taken by the diabetic to resolve it. This means taking sugar followed by carbohydrates. I use concentrated glucose liquid which I get on prescription for my GP. I would usually follow up with some cereal bars after checking the sugar level using a glucose meter that my symptoms are due to a low sugar level. I am indebted to the people who walk with me for their understanding of the condition when I say I need to stop they will give me time. Also I eat at regular intervals on a walk as well as having slow acting carbohydrates such as porage for breakfast. 

I resumed hill walking three weeks after going on insulin as I felt so much better after such a such a long time feeling under par. Being in the hills takes away the worries of everyday life and gives you fresh air and often there are wonderful views which I find uplifting. Even on my low levels walks, there is much to see of nature and a lot of historical interest in Scotland. After a walk, there is nothing better than a visit to the pub for a favourite tipple be it tea, coffee or something stronger but I have to be careful with alcohol as it initially raises sugar levels but later causes a drop. After a walk, I have a hearty meal to replace all that carbohydrate lost in the exertion of walking. My advice is don’t expect good weather and always be prepared for the worst with adequate food supplies including sugar based and the right support gear of a whistle, glucagon pen, insulin pen etc 

The golden rule is never give a diabetic insulin. I carry the pen for my own use. There are a number of different types of insulin, some are fast acting and some are a mix of slow and fast acting. The glucagon pen is in an orange box and can be given if the diabetic is in a coma but has to be followed up with carbohydrate when they are conscious. Most of my hill walking was done before mobile phones were in use but now the best thing to do is to call for help if you are not sure what to do. I appreciate there is not always a phone signal. I have never required help from another person, only for patience to allow me to test and eat if necessary. The reason for hypos is that the balance of food, insulin and energy output has gone wrong. Non diabetics will automatically produce the required amount of insulin when they eat but diabetics have to inject the amount to balance out the food input and the energy output. Another factor is that the body continues to burn up energy for thirty six after exercise and subsequent days walking requires a lot of calculation of insulin and energy requirements from food. Apparently, diabetics make more than eighty one decisions a day more than non-diabetics! 


Always be prepared 

Diabetes has not stopped my adventures walking and travelling but I do ensure that I am properly prepared and go with the right people. The physical exertion is well worth the effort when the reward is a wonderful day out in good company with stunning views, fresh air rand feeling at one with nature. After my diagnosis, I became more adventurous even going out in snow with ice axe and crampons and staying in bothies to complete the Munros. It has not all been straightforward and on one memorable occasion, we arrived at a bothy to find I had lost my insulin pen. Unfortunately I could not function for another day without insulin so we had to walk out again. With no insulin, I would not be able to utilise the food. It taught me a lesson and I carried two insulin pens in different places in the pack after the incident. During Covid, I continued to walk where possible and also led a walk for the Ramblers 

I must thank many hill walking friends and acquaintances for their support. Also the Ramblers for their support over the years. I would not have completed the Munros without them.  


a male rambler overlooking a river with several small boats parked by the riverbank

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