Lessons From a Slot Canyon



Pushing Past the Limitations of Diabetes in Zion National Park


This is not the first time 8-year-old Kaia Behrstock has strapped into a climbing harness—but this time, the stakes are much higher. Rappelling into the one-human-wide slot canyon just outside Zion National Park, fears about heights, slipping and rockfall would naturally swirl in an average human’s mind. But Kaia has one more: she’s Type-1 diabetic, which means losing control of her blood-sugar levels in such a remote location could be disastrous. And that’s exactly why she’s here—to learn how to manage her own glycemic levels and gain a sense of confidence and independence the outdoors, which will spill over into her daily life back home in New York.


Kaia’s trip down the slot canyon may have felt extreme and dangerous, but she was constantly under the watchful guiding eye of Steve Richert, a local climber and guide who is also Type-1, and just a couple of quick rappels away from her parents, who were descending the same canyon by another route. The dramatic descent was part of a three-day, boundary-pushing event Richert organized in Springdale, Utah, to inspire young diabetics to learn how to manage their disease in order to live adventure-rich lives instead of standing by passively, waiting for a cure to appear.


“The current trend in messaging from big, cure-related organizations seems to tell people with diabetes that they aren’t normal and can’t ever be normal until there’s a cure. That’s the same message I got when I was diagnosed and I rebelled against that because it just didn’t resonate with me,” Richert says. Instead, he views diabetes as a gift. “It doesn’t have to be a limiting factor—it might force you to see things differently because of the inherent challenge, but that fact in and of itself gives you a unique opportunity if you accept it.”


Rappeling the route on her own was both a real and symbolic step toward independence for Kaia as well as her father, Jason Behrstock. Separating from his daughter at the trailhead, Jason freed Kaia to step up and take responsibility for her own testing and blood-sugar management. That moment of freedom and letting go was simultaneously a testament to the strong bonds of community their family had built and support that had solidified during the gathering in Springdale.


Those bonds of trust and support had begun to form earlier in the year, at a time when Richert was the one being challenged. In a big way.


The birth of a challenge


Richert and Behrstock first climbed together in January, during the final week of 365consecutive days of climbing for Richert. The two Type-1 climbers had met up in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, and with Behrstock’s support, Richert sent his longtime project, pushing himself to climb harder than he ever had before. It was a personal victory and satisfying capstone to a year of dramatic ups and downs.


In early 2012, Richert left behind a community college teaching gig on the East Coast and moved into his red 1987 Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon—dubbed the Dragon Wagon—juggling medications and prescriptions, filming a documentary, blogging and running a nonprofit while attempting to climb every day for a year.


“At the beginning I saw the whole year ahead of me and I almost constantly doubted myself,” Richert says. “After the first 20 days or so, I accepted the fact that I would have to stop looking at the year and just focus on each day individually. From that point on, I stopped worrying about finishing the year. I started worrying about going broke or dying, but I felt good about getting to the end of the year—I just put that objective at the top of my list.”


Diagnosed with diabetes at 16, Richert had spent most of his life figuring out the delicate balances required to pursue the athletic, adventurous life he was inspired to live. His commitment to climbing every day was his way of challenging others to reexamine their own limitations, real or imagined.


As he traveled, blogged and reached out to others, his small community of diabetic climbers slowly began to grow. “Seemingly every place I climbed, I would run into people who knew someone who had diabetes and climbed,” he says. “Realizing I wasn’t the only one out there was really encouraging, too—and that is one of the projects I’m working on moving forward. Creating a community and information collective geared to bringing people who climb with diabetes together.”


Richert admits it’s easy for him to get caught up in his own head out on the rock, but gym climbing with diabetic kids in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Atlanta was a fresh reminder of his mission. “It didn’t matter if I sent, or at what grade,” he says. “Seeing a kid get up a wall and then tell me that the fact that I was able to drive across the country was in itself a huge inspiration because they felt they couldn’t even get in a car without being limited by their diabetes—that really hit home. And it happened more times than I ever would have expected.”


Literal and emotional topography


Inspiring other diabetic climbers and pushing himself technically were the highlights of Richert’s year of climbing, but the project wasn’t without its emotional valleys. Vehicular breakdowns and long separations from his wife, Stefanie, challenged him along the way.


In June, he and a friend pulled into Yosemite with plans to climb Lurking Fear on El Capitan. Wowed by his first glimpses of the monolith, he and his partner began packing for the climb and bivy. With his six months’ supply of Clif bars and medications at stake, he opted not to risk theft in one of the park’s bear boxes, instead leaving the sealed food in airtight containers within a hard-shell cartop carrier.


They made two trips to shuttle gear to the bivy spot before they bedded down the night before the climb. The next morning, as they waited for the parties ahead of them to start up the wall, Richert’s partner made one last run to the car to deposit garbage they didn’t want to haul up the climb. Richert says he started to get excited as he saw his partner running back up the trail toward him. But the stoke bubbled burst when his buddy said, “Dude. Your car is gone.”


The Dragon Wagon not only held all Richert’s medications, food supply, and all his documentary footage so far—it was his home. All he had.


Concluding it had either been stolen or towed, they dashed back down the 45-minute approach trail to find park authorities had impounded the car because a bear had punched through the cartop carrier to raid the food stash.

It took most of the day to retrieve the car, and their plans for Lurking Fear were postponed. “It was a pretty dark day,” he says.


The next day, he got his chance on El Cap, where he and his partner ended up moving too slowly and consuming too much water to complete the climb, but ended up spending a star-filled night on a portaledge 700 feet off the ground before heading down, watching the tiny lights from other parties on El Cap.


Spending the night on the wall where he couldn’t easily get down if his blood-sugar went haywire had pushed Richert to a new level of commitment. “It was a beautiful thing,” he later blogged about the night. “A precious glimpse of a highly valued and rare bit of life that straddled the line between art and hard labor.”


Only a few weeks after the El Cap debacle, the Dragon Wagon died outside Sioux Falls, S.D, forcing Richert to crash at his father’s house in New York while he figured out the next step. The breakdown put a crimp in his plans, but he persisted with his daily climbing—even if it meant buildering a gas station—and was soon on the road in a new rig.


Contagious inspiration in Springdale


In January, when Richert completed his year of climbing—which he dubbed Project 365—he set his sight on inspiring other people to take control of their diabetes management and shift their mindset to one of pursuing dreams instead of feeling limited. Springdale seemed like the perfect place. He began applying for permits and gathering gear for what would be the first annual SweetestSummit Diabetes Family Adventure Weekend. He also began editing footage from Project 365, crafting it into a documentary.


He aimed to give families of diabetic children an adaptive weekend of outdoor adventures to learn how to climb and enjoy the backcountry, sharing information about blood-sugar management as well as technical climbing and canyoneering. The Springdale community rallied around him: Deep Creek Coffee hosted the premiere of the Project365 documentary and Zion Adventure Company and Imlay Canyon Gear offered up technical gear. The icing on the cake was getting permission to guide within Zion National Park, which is off-limits for commercial guiding.


“Anyone who’s been to Zion knows it’s a magical place,” Richert says. The three days would be filled with rock climbing, canyoneering, and hiking and wading the narrows of the Virgin River.


Decision time in the canyon


It’s day three of SweetestSummit, and the young campers have become fast friends. The number of participating families is smaller than Richert initially envisioned, with just seven kids participating, but the depth of community the small group has developed has come to outweigh any expectations for larger numbers.


The kids have learned to set up their own rappels and shared beta on negotiating blood-sugar levels in the outdoors. But Richert is not yet satisfied.


“I watched parents taking ownership of their kids’ diabetes, reminding them to test, even testing for them,” Richert says. He wanted to challenge the parents to let go, to let the kids take control. They know how to test, and what to do in response to different levels. Maybe it’s time for them to get a taste of real responsibility?


It might be a bigger test for the parents to let go than for their children to step up and take it. Not being a father himself, Richert struggles with how to approach the subject. It’s been a fun week, and he’s tempted to just leave it at that, he says. But he’s afraid of missing the chance for something larger to happen. “I want more than fun for these families,” he says. “We must push beyond that point of pure fun if we want growth to happen.”


At the trailhead to the slot canyon, Richert explains his plan to take the kids down a different route than their parents. He watches as the parents process what that means, and chats with Kaia’s father about his concerns. The moment of decision is at hand, and father and daughter rise to the challenge.


At the canyon bottom they’re reunited, with a new sense of independence and accomplishment. The majestic isolation of the canyon walls produced a focused challenge unlike anything they face back home in New York. But the newfound confidence—and supportive community—will stick around long after the last bits of red dust are washed from their clothes.

One Response to “Lessons From a Slot Canyon”

  1. Great article! Kaia especially loved reading it!

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