Lessons from a winter hiking trip

Sometimes after a busy summer season of packing and unpacking for an outdoor trip practically every weekend, I need a break. October and November were quiet months. I did some trail running, but didn’t go on any major adventures. The rest from the hectic pace felt wonderful and much needed.

Another reason I have been taking it easy is that I developed some unusual pain in my left shoulder in mid-October. My shoulder did great on my two-week climbing trip, but a couple of weeks after returning, the joint started to throb and hurt constantly. Ever since I was a teen, I have had off-and-on trouble with tendonitis in that joint and had even been working with my physical therapist over the summer to get my shoulder stronger and resolve these issues. Things had been going splendidly with the therapy, and before my climbing trip, my physical therapist thought I might even be close to not needing another appointment.

Unfortunately, that is not how things worked out. The new shoulder pain is different than what I had come to expect with my occasional bouts of tendonitis. Because of this, both my PT and doctor thought it would be a good idea to get an MRI. The test results showed tendinosis (a chronic form of  tendonitis) and also bone-marrow swelling in the head of my humerus. What this means exactly I do not know. My primary care doctor has referred me to orthopedist, but my appointment isn’t for another week. Of course, my mind once again wants to run to all the scary what-ifs of the situation. What if the marrow swelling isn’t from the tendinosis and is instead  being caused by… (fill in the blank with numerous frightening conditions here). What if I can never rock climb again? Ahhhhhh……

However, if there is one thing UC and having an ileostomy has taught me, it is that dealing with uncertainty is part of life. Instead of letting myself fall into my usual pattern of worry, I am going to try to forget about my shoulder until my appointment next week and focus on the activities I can do. One of these is hiking. Even with a backpack, hiking doesn’t seem to bother my shoulder at all. And on the plus side–hiking is the most important activity I need to be doing right now to train for Rainier.

So on Sunday, I set out with Doug and his dad to hike up a peak. Our original plan was to hike James Peak (elevation 13,294′). However, just before exiting the freeway for that destination, we had an idea. Let’s do a 14er instead! The road leading to Grays Peak (elevation 14,270′) was just a few exits up the road. Colorado is experiencing a very dry winter, and with the trailhead access snow-free and avalanche danger minimal, it was the perfect chance to get to the top of this peak.

The high temperature for the elevation we were at was in the mid-30-degree range, but with 30 mph winds, it felt much colder. I had packed 28 pounds of gear, including lots of warm clothes, food and three liters of water (Doug also carried an extra liter for me). I was surprised at how great I felt hiking at such high elevations with this weight. I had been expecting it to feel much harder after not hiking any big peaks since July. We made it to the summit in late afternoon and enjoyed the gorgeous views, including those of close-by Torreys Peak, another 14er. Though we had earlier thought about trying to do both peaks, we realized that the late departure from the trailhead on this spontaneous trip would not afford us enough daylight to get in double summits.

Descending Grays Peak with Torreys Peak in the distance. So close but oh so far.
Descending Grays Peak with Torreys Peak in the distance. So close but yet so far.

My ostomy caused no issues on the hike. I had to swap out closed-end pouches (I prefer these to drainables on peak climbing days) twice during the excursion. At one point on the ascent, I realized that my pouch was getting fairly full. I was behind a ridge that offered some protection from the wind and there was also a tall cairn to duck next to. Doug and his dad were a little ways back on the trail and there was another party about 500 feet behind them. There was no one coming the other direction, so I decided to seize the opportunity to swap out my pouch right there on the side of the trail. I grabbed a small trash bag and fresh pouch out of my pack, ducked behind the cairn, pulled the waistband of my softshell pants down and quickly swapped out pouches. By the time Doug and his dad caught up, I had the used pouch and my other supplies packed up and was ready to keep hiking. I know that on Rainier, I am not going to have much privacy when roped up with teammates on a glacier. It is reassuring to know that I can swap out pouches so quickly and discreetly.

Ducking behind this cairn to swap out my closed-end pouch right along the trail was easy and discreet.
When no one was close by, I ducked behind this cairn to swap out my closed-end pouch right along the trail on the ascent. I also swapped out a pouch on the decent. For that one, I just walked off the trail about 50 feet and turned my back so that no one could see what I was doing. I continue to discover that using closed-end pouches on these types of hikes is a very easy and discreet way of managing an ostomy.

The big challenge for me on this particular hike was the cold and wind. It was even more frigid than during our winter hike up Grizzly Peak last December, captured here on video.

Fortunately, in preparation for Rainier, I had purchased several new clothing items. This was a perfect chance to test them out. One new addition to my outdoor clothing quiver is a super warm down jacket with a hood. I have lighter jackets, but only this one is warm enough for extremely cold conditions. As I stuffed the two pounds of down luxury into my pack before the hike, I really thought it was going to be overkill. However, as  I threw this jacket on at breaks and at the summit, I soon realized it was a lifesaver.

Despite taking part in countless winter camping and backpacking trips, ice climbs and peak ascents over the years (including several since my ostomy surgery), I have never been as cold on a trip as I was on this particular hike. I am not sure why this was the case as I was dressed well and eating and drinking plenty. Regardless, some combination of wind, cold, shade, and my body on that given day had me freezing. On the summit I was so chilled that I could hardly grip anything. I had to use my teeth to zip up my jacket. As I descended back to the car, I kept having the urge to lie down and sleep. I would pass a boulder and think wow, that looks like a comfy spot to snooze for a little while. But then I would see Doug and his dad coming up behind me and would realize I didn’t have time for a nap. I don’t know if I was hypothermic, but if not, I was close. I shudder to think about how cold I would have gotten had I decided not to bring that down jacket.

On the summit with Doug and his dad in my super warm puffy down jacket.
On the summit in my super warm puffy down jacket.

I realize that having an extra-warm clothing item like this during cold temperature activities is especially important with my ostomy. Even though it only takes a couple of minutes to stop along the trail and swap out a pouch, I do have to expose a small section of my belly to the elements. In extremely cold temperatures, it doesn’t take long to lose heat by doing this. Packing conservatively with plenty of warm clothes is of paramount importance.

I can’t wait to head out on our next training hike, and I am starting to compile a list of peaks to attempt that have good winter trailhead access and low avalanche danger. For future training hikes, I will have to progressively increase my pack weight to at least 40 pounds (the expected weight of my pack on Rainier). I guess this means I can bring an extra large lunch next time!

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