Diabetes in the Altitude

I spent the last week in Crested Butte, Colorado, for what has now become an annual family ski trip. The place we were staying was at an elevation of 7,000-something feet. Of course, my mom told us to drink plenty of water and take saltwater nose drops to flush the system out. All of this is fine and dandy, but I wondered what, if any, effect does altitude have on diabetes?


I know that my lungs were working a bit harder to adapt to the drier air. I was out of breath after climbing two sets of stairs. I also found that I needed a snack every couple of hours on the slopes, but this makes sense, as snow skiing is a workout. I would leave the condo every morning with my glucometer, NovoLog FlexPen, needles, and about four granola bars to eat on the lifts in between runs in case I felt a little low. The tricky part here was that it was more of a guessing game, because my glucometer could easily get too cold at the top of the mountain to check my blood glucose. Anyone have any tips on checking your blood glucose outside in really cold weather?

This year had exceptionally good weather for spring skiing and we celebrated my niece Sara Reeves’s fifth birthday. I really enjoy spending time with her and watching her grow up. We skied together and she followed right in my tracks. There is nothing cuter than a five-year-old with pigtails on skis. After a long day on the slopes, we got in the hot tub with everyone for a few minutes and she felt like a big girl.

One morning, before breakfast, I was in the kitchen drawing up my insulin, and she was at the bar having cereal. I asked her if she wanted to give me a shot, and she said no. Then she said something that surprised me. She said one of her best friends, Molly, has diabetes.

Maybe it’s just that it was coming from an adorable five-year-old, but I thought it was the cutest thing ever. There is something about the way kids pronounce “diabetes” that makes it seem harmless. Especially of you get them to say it again.

I was glad that I had something in common with her friend, I’m sure she will tell Molly that her silly uncle has diabetes. If that makes Molly feel a little more normal for just a moment, it’s worth it.

Another highlight, or should I say lowlight, of the trip was the goatee-off between my brother and me. I conceded victory to Curt, as his goatee actually connected, whereas mine appeared to be split up by some nice beachfront property—a.k.a. the area right underneath the corners of my mouth where hair has never and likely will never grow. After losing the goatee-off, I proceeded to do what any man would do—I shaved it down to a really nice moustache.

It was my first ever ‘stache, and I felt like a true champion cruising the slopes with a it. I jokingly told my family that the ski patrol pulled me over to tell me that they had not seen such a beautiful moustache since 1984.

Well, I’m off to play in Baltimore this Saturday. If you have any friends in the area, send them to Frazier’s on the Avenue.

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10 thoughts on “Diabetes in the Altitude

  1. Last summer we were in Denver for a week and I wondered then what effect altitude had on my glucose levels. It seemed I was high every time I checked it, which was often. I was new to all this – I had my pancreas removed in Mar, 2006 – and didn’t think about increasing my Lantus at night. Instead, I took extra Humalog (fast-acting insulin) each meal, only to find it high again at next meal.

  2. I found a really good article online about a year ago. Here’s a link to it:

    I cross-country ski, snowshoe, and backpack, so all of the tips were really helpful… and I hadn’t found the info. ANYWHERE else. The glucose meter companies don’t want to guarantee any results over 10,000′, but I think mine were pretty accurate even above 14,000′. Who knows.

    Good luck.

  3. “Anyone have any tips on checking your blood glucose outside in really cold weather?”

    These may be of interest:
    Handy Hints on Managing Diabetes During Cold Weather Outdoor Activities:
    Katherine Brandt-Wells, Isabelle Emery and Bob McQueen

    Performance of Glucose Dehydrogenase–and Glucose Oxidase–Based Blood
    Glucose Meters at High Altitude and Low Temperature

    Effect of High Altitude on Blood Glucose Meter Performance
    Kenneth S. Fink, Dale B. Christensen, Allan Ellsworth
    Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics. Oct 2002, Vol. 4, No. 5: 627-635

    Science Information Officer &
    Islet Project Coordinator, Diabetes UK
    scienceinfo [at] diabetes.org.uk

  4. I lived in Leadville, Colorado (10,000 feet) and worked at the hospital there. We would frequently have companies come in to do tests on new glucose monitoring strips because they had to prove that the strips worked at altitiude. If we would let them poke our fingers several times we would receive a stipend in cash.

    When I moved to that elevation from about 4000 feet, I had to increase my basal insulin a couple of units.

  5. It is very important to drink plenty of liquid to prevent dehydration when exercising at high altitude. It would also be safer to bring some glucose pills along with your granola bars. Don’t forget to wear a health alert bracelet or necklace and keep a card detailing your medications, your doctor’s contact information, and your name, and local and family contact information. And it’s best to stick together with a partner in case you encounter difficulties and need assistance.



  7. For the past two weeks I have been living at 9,000 ft in the Sangra de Cristo Mountains just outside of Westcliffe. Interestingly enough my sugar levels were at around the 140s but now I am in the 120s. I am not exercising too much. SoI guess at this point there seems to be no normal.

  8. When I was at high altidtude my numbers increased incredibly, like in the 400’s. I got a new meter that was adjusted to the altidtude and it said 122 instead of 400. Crazy, right?! Any advice?

  9. I am planning on a trip to hike the Andes in South American where I will be trekking in altitudes between 16,000 and 24,000 feet. It seems that there must be type 1s who live in high altitude environments that have figured out how to work with their testing equipment and insulin management and could offer tips and alternative ways to be safe.

    Any suggestions would be much appreciated!

  10. When I was in vail Colorado
    I was a type 1 diabetic that drunk alcohol clear no sugar added
    But learned that 1 drink equals two. Liquor makes your glucose go down you have to be aware of your alcohol intake.

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