Diabetic snowboarder chases big mountain lines
Sean Busby started snowboarding when he was 12. He got his first sponsors at 14, and was competing professionally at 16. After high school he moved from Canada to Steamboat Springs, Colorado to train for an Olympic racing bid. He was 19 when he first learned, the hard way, of his diabetes.
"I began getting really ill, just throwing up all over the place," Busby recalls. "I didn't know what was wrong with me. My sponsors began to drop me because they didn't want to deal with an athlete who was chronically sick. Back before insulin was discovered, they used to call Type 1 Diabetes 'wasting disease' because kids would just waste away until they were skeletons, and that's what was happening to me. By the time the doctors figured it out I was down to 119 pounds, wasting away on my parents' couch. I thought I'd never snowboard again."
But this March Busby traveled through the backcountry of Iceland's Hornstrandir Nature Reserve to explore the sub-polar West Fjords with a sailboat and a splitboard. The trip followed a series of successful recent adventures in Antarctica and Patagonia, all of which are serving as training for an expedition to Greenland in search of first ascents and descents next year.
After seeing his Olympic racing plans derailed, and told his big mountain dreams might be out of reach, Busby feels he has something to prove, both to himself and to the community of athletes with diabetes he hopes to inspire.
"When I finally got my first shot of insulin it was the most amazing feeling in my life," explains Busby. "I could feel like a human again!" As soon as he realized he was going to live, he started trying to figure out how to live again. Since, for Busby, "life" and "snowboarding" are one and the same, he ditched his racing career to follow in the high-backcountry trails of his heroes Craig Kelly, Jeremy Jones, and Xavier de Le Rue, former racers all.
"Iceland has been a magnet to me because I like the remoteness of expedition snowboarding. I like being in an element where every move you perform has to be calculated. It is my modern-day 'competition' since I am still competitive at heart. I love the challenge and I love what it throws at my snowboard skills and my disease management."
For Busby, those calculations and challenges include the usual backcountry concerns, like avoiding falling into crevasses or setting off avalanches, but the danger is magnified by his diabetes.
"Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, meaning that your body sees the pancreas, which produces insulin, as a foreign body object," Busby explains. "It sends out T-cells to attack the pancreas and ultimately destroys it, and thus you're no longer able to produce insulin, which is a needed hormone for survival. That's where insulin shots and pumps come into the picture. My biggest problem, trying ride at high elevations and in extreme low temperatures, was that my insulin would freeze in the pump's tubes and then I'd be screwed."
Finding a solution for insulin freezing lead him to the OmniPod Insulin Management System, a tubeless and programmable pump system he now wears on his skin and monitors from a handheld digital device. Busby must also monitor his blood glucose levels and his body's temperature and circulation at all times on these trips. Failure to do so could result in him slipping into a coma, seizure, or hypoglycemic event.
"I have the tools now to set me up for success," he says. "I've just got to do a lot of thinking and checking with them, and I've always got to prepare for the worst."
First descents aren't the only thing Busby is conquering these days. Busby went back to school, graduating with a degree in health and education. He recently relaunched Riding On Insulin, a series of ski and snowboard camps for diabetics that he first founded in 2004, just after his own diagnosis. He's also now leading backcountry adventures all around the world with Powder Lines Expeditions, and has plans for an upcoming trip with an entire crew of diabetic riders.