For most people, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a huge achievement to cross off a bucket list. But for two women hikers in particular, the feat became even more remarkable as both have Type 1 diabetes.
Helen Shepherd, 49, of the United Kingdom, and Katrina Hemingway, 58, of Australia, were first connected by FRIO UK, a company that manufactures individual cooler wallets for diabetics to safely transport their insulin. Hemingway said she read an article published by Shepherd on the FRIO website seeking other PCT hikers who could support and understand her condition.
"On this website, there was this article about a group that were getting together to do the PCT, and Helen had written this article," said Hemingway.
Hemingway, who goes by the trail name Kit Kat, and Shepherd, who goes by the same trail name, carried on a long-distance conversation for six months in preparation for the 2019 hiking season.
Said Kit Kat, "After I had a conversation with her, she sounded lovely. I thought, what are the chances that I'm going to meet a Type I diabetic? This is something I really want to do, a once in a lifetime, so let's go for it."
The pair decided to travel to the United States and meet for the first time before setting out on the 2,650-mile trail hike. Their first day on the trail was April 28.
"We got to the U.S. a few days before," Shepherd said. "We met, introduced ourselves, and then were transported near to the Mexican border where we started walking."
Shepherd was in charge of preparing a detailed itinerary for the six-month hike to keep them on track with their insulin supplies, which they shipped ahead of time to different trail angels who agreed to keep it refrigerated and meet them at designated stopping points along the way.
"I spent a lot of time researching this prior to meeting up with Katrina," Shepherd said.
Although insulin can go unrefrigerated up to 30 days, it can become compromised if overheated. The women said the hike was made possible by using the FRIO wallets, which contain gel beads that are activated once wet and keep the insulin cool.
Both women are required to take five shots of insulin per day. They found, however, that exercise lowers their glucose levels, so their daily dosage involved a lot of trial and error.
Said Kit Kat, "Walking together, we are starting to see why we are not walking at the right pace. Our condition is a pretty serious condition, and can have some dire consequences if you don't manage it well, but a lot of people think with diabetes that they couldn't do the PCT. Maybe they can't, but your disease shouldn't stop you from following your dream."
Carrying ultralight backpacks is preferable by PCT hikers; however, the women faced the additional challenge of carrying their diabetic equipment. They started the hike by covering 11 to 12 miles a day, and have since built up to traveling about 20 miles a day. In order to escape the heat, they hike at night and sleep in the day.
Asked if they have come across any snakes or other wildlife, Kit Kat laughed and said, "We saw a couple of bush rats, and I took a photo of a scary Joshua tree."
"I've seen about 10 snakes in the day, crossing the trail," added Shepherd.
PCT Trail Angel Brenda Masalin, who is a supervising registered nurse II at Wasco State Prison and the administrator of the PCT Trail Angel Facebook page for the Tehachapi Pass and Mojave, met up with Kit Kat and Shepherd for breakfast to hand over a bundle of insulin she kept refrigerated for them. The women had been on the trail just over six weeks by then, and have traveled about 550 miles thus far.
"It can be really difficult because it takes a lot of planning for them to go long stretches to resupply," said Masalin.
Not only is hiking the PCT very challenging, Masalin said it also puts individuals with Type 1 diabetes at a higher risk.
"But, I think it's awesome that they are showing people that it doesn't have to stop them from doing what they want to do. It's inspiring that they are achieving their dream. The trail is for anyone as long as they plan ahead," Masalin said.
Asked if the women plan to keep in contact with each other after the hike is over, they both said, "Of course."
Said Shepherd, "When you are living that close in wilderness conditions with somebody, you form a strong bond, and I am sure that is going to last."
The women say they are hiking to raise money for better awareness and a cure for diabetes. They have fundraising pages at give.everydayhero.com/au/pacific-crest-trail# and justgiving.com/fundraising/shepherd-pct. Donations can also be made to the American Diabetes Association as well.