My favorite products for dealing with ostomy waste in the backcountry

Just one more cast, I thought, as I tossed my line in the still waters of Middle Willow Lake in the Gore Range of Colorado. It was a phrase I had been repeating to myself all morning, and by that time I had completed dozens of “final” casts– almost every one hooking a hungry brookie. I nervously looked at the blackening clouds coming over the ridge but even the threat of a downpour couldn’t stop me from flinging my line in the lake again. Sure enough– a trout grabbed the elk-hair caddis fly. I reeled the fish in, released the hook from its mouth and watched it swim away.

Fly fishing before the storm came in.
Fly fishing before the storm came in.

Suddenly, a swift downdraft disrupted the glassy surface of the the lake and a crack of thunder smashed the silence of the mountain basin. That really would have to be my last cast of the day.

Doug motioned to me from down the lake shore that he too was ready to call it quits. Hail let loose from the sky and pelted my forehead as I hefted my pack onto my back and fastened the hip belt. That is when I noticed the bulging ostomy pouch on my belly and remembered that I had not emptied it since before breakfast; it was now late afternoon. Oh well. It would have to wait. Doug and I threw on our raincoats and made our way through the forest and back to camp.

When the rain didn’t let up for hours, I cursed not emptying my pouch earlier when the weather was fair. I could have taken my sweet time digging a perfect hole in the perfect location while blanketed in warm sunlight. Instead, I was cold, damp and stuck under our cooking tarp watching the torrential rain form small lakes around our backcounty site. Teeth already chattering from the damp chill, there was no way I was going to take a ten-minute hike into the forest surrounding camp to empty my pouch. Fortunately there was another option: in the tent I had a supply of closed-end pouches on hand. Within a few minutes I had a fresh one popped on and the used one bagged up.

Doug waits out the rain under our cooking tarp.
Doug waits out the rain under our cooking tarp.
warming-up
It is very important to color-coordinate your mug and jacket while in the backcountry.

Our backpack in the Gore Range has been just one of many outdoor adventures we have embarked on this summer (which is one of the reasons I have been so absent on this blog!) We also went on two more backpacking trips, including a short trip in the Mt. Massive Wilderness and a rugged nine-day adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness– all in our home state of Colorado. Early June also included a climb of the First Flatiron in Boulder, CO. Each trip was unique, and I loved having a variety of waste management techniques to pull from. In this post I will highlight my favorite products and techniques for dealing with output during those situations when emptying would be inconvenient or impossible. Some of these methods I have written about before and are tried and true for me. Others are new things I have just recently discovered.

Our first backpacking trip of the summer was a three-day adventure in the Mt. Massive Wilderness in Colorado.
Let’s go that way! The summer of 2015 was filled with three amazing backpacking/ fly fishing trips in our home state of Colorado. Our first one was a was a three-day adventure in the Mt. Massive Wilderness.
Trip number two consisted of a four-day hike into the Willow Lakes area of the Gore Range.
Trip number two consisted of a four-day journey in the Willow Lakes area of the Gore Range.
We ended the season with a 9-day off-trail backpacking and fly fishing adventure in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness in Colorado.
We ended the season with a nine-day mostly off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.

Closed-end pouches
So often, closed-end pouches are labeled as being designed for colostomies. True, ileostomates tend to have more profuse output which makes swapping out multiple pouches everyday an expensive endeavor.  However, for certain short-term situations, closed-end pouches can be an incredibly useful tool for all people with ostomies.

There is no place to drain a pouch on long rock climbs such as the First Flatiron, which Doug and I made an ascent of in June.
There is no place to drain a pouch on long rock climbs such as the First Flatiron in Boulder, CO, which Doug and I made an ascent of in June.
Swapping out a closed-end pouch on a climb up the FIrst Flatiron this summer was easy.
Fortunately, swapping out a closed-end pouch on a climb is easy– even while tied in with my harness buckled.

I use them on rock climbs, trips near water, snow adventures and any other times when the environment does not allow for digging holes to bury wast. They are easy and mess-free to swap and pack out.  Moreover, lately I have discovered their handiness for nighttime use on backpacking trips.

Though I dig holes and empty 90% of the time while backpacking, overnight emptying has always been a challenge for me. For some reason my digestive system changes when I am doing strenuous activity all-day and I have to empty a lot more at night than I do at home.

In order to minimize my impact on future backpackers, I like to walk a fairly long distance from camp to empty, and I only dig holes in areas where no one would likely set up a campsite in the future. The problem is, places like that are hard to find in pitch blackness. I used to pre-dig a few holes during the day and then make mental notes to find them in the dark, but it was still a challenge to hike to these locations in the middle of the night when I was sleepy. If it was raining, it was even worse. I soon discovered it was a lot safer to stay close to camp and swap out closed-end pouches in the middle of the night. During the day, I would go back to using a drainable pouch.

Hiking into the darkness to find a place to empty my pouch is not my favorite thing to do. I have since started swapping out closed-end pouches at night on wilderness trips so that I don't have to do this.
Hiking into the darkness to find a location to empty my pouch is not my favorite thing to do. I have since started swapping out closed-end pouches at night on wilderness trips so that I don’t have to do this.
It feels great to relax in my sleeping bag knowing I am not going to have to hike off into the dark woods to empty.
It feels great to relax in my sleeping bag knowing I am not going to have to hike off into the dark woods to empty.

Doggie Poo Bags
Managing an ostomy in the wilderness requires packing out used supplies. One of my favorite items to secure used pouches and wafers are simple opaque black doggie-poo bags. They are cheap, non-bulky, and lightweight. Moreover, Ziplock bags can easily un-zip or pop open when jostled. However, doggie poo bags can be tied tightly with an overhand knot. Even when packing out pouches with the the most watery output, I have never had one leak.

LOKSAK OPSAK Odor-proof Barrier Bags
Though doggie-poo or other plastic bags may work well for holding used pouches, they don’t do a good job of containing odors.  Even when I double-bag them in a regular Zip-lock bag, the smell still comes through. One great product for solving this dilemma is OPSAK odor proof barrier bags. They come in two different sizes and are great for holding in odors when you need to pack out full ostomy pouches. They are pricey, so I place all my sealed doggy-poo bags into one OPSAK, empty it into the trash at the trailhead, and then save it for another trip.

My pouch pack-out trifecta: the full pouch goes into a doggy-poo bag, that goes into a Ziplock, a few of those go into a Ziplock and than all of it gets placed into a re-usable OPSAK Odor-proof Bag.
My pouch pack-out trifecta: the full pouch goes into a doggy-poo bag, a few of those go into a Ziplock to contain odors a little bit more, and then those get placed into a re-usable OPSAK Odor-proof Bag.
OPSAK bags come in a large size too for a more extended expedition.
OPSAK bags come in a large size too for a more extended expedition.

OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals
Unfortunately, closed-end pouches that are full of ostomy output are incredibly heavy and take up space in one’s pack. I once weighed my full nighttime pouches on a two-night backpack trip and they collectively weighed three pounds. Multiply that for longer trips and the extra weight becomes quite burdensome.

I was faced with such a dilemma on a nine-day backpacking trip in the Sangre De Cristo range of Colorado in August.  This trip was a particularly strenuous one with difficult off-trail travel over incredibly steep mountain passes. Our packs were heavy due to the amount of food we had to carry and the last thing I wanted to do was add more weight to my pack in the form of closed-end pouches filled with poop. At first I had planned to just go out into the night to empty to save from carrying the extra weight, but every evening at bed time the storms and torrential rains seemed to roll in.

I scramble up a steep gully with a heavy pack on a 9-day off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Range, Colorado.
I scramble up a steep gully carrying a heavy pack on a nine-day off-trail backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado.
I didn't need the added weight of full used ostomy pouches in my backpack.
Food and supplies for such a long trip were heavy, and I didn’t need the additional weight of full used ostomy pouches in my backpack.

Fortunately, I found a great way to solve this problem by using some OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals that I had brought along. In the tent, I would swap out a closed-end pouch as I always had. However, instead of just tossing the full one into a baggie and tying it shut, I would cap it with an OstoSolutions Seal. In the morning, I would take a long hike from camp and dig a cathole in perfect Leave No Trace style. I would then remove the OstoSolutions Seal from the full pouch and dump the contents in the hole. Finally, I would snap the OstoSolutions Seal back on the now-empty pouch and bag it up to be packed out. The weight savings in packing out used (but no longer full) pouches was huge! The OstoSolutions Seals themselves are very light. I found that packing one for each night (plus a few more for those rare nights when I might have to empty twice) was easily doable. The seals would also be handy in alpine areas where digging holes to empty can cause damage to the delicate environment. A full pouch, capped with an OstoSolutions Seal, could be packed out until one got below treeline. There the seal could be snapped off, and the contents of the pouch buried in a much less fragile place.

I can snap an OstoSolution Seal on my pouch at night and then pop it off later to empty the contents into a cathole (a six-inch deep hole dug in the ground.)
I can snap an OstoSolutions Seal on my full pouch at night and then pop it off later to empty the contents into a cathole (a six-inch deep hole dug in the ground.)
Doug and I descended the steep gully below the notch in this photo on day seven of the trip. It was essential to keep our packs as light as possible in such terrain.
Doug and I descended the steep gully below the notch in this photo on day seven of the Sangre de Cristo trip. Keeping our packs as light as possible was essential in such rugged terrain.

Don’t let a fear of being away from a bathroom prevent you from heading into the wilds. With these four supplies (closed-end pouches, doggie poo bags, OPSAK bags, OstoSolutions Seals), you will be ready for storms, darkness, snow, rock, water, a heavy pack or any other challenges that might present themselves in the backcountry. If these supplies end up not working for you, get creative. An ostomy can be managed in even the craziest situations– it is just a matter of experimenting and finding the right tools for the job.

Yep
Stormy weather seemed to follow us on all of our trips this summer! Doug casts a few more times before we hastily return to camp.
Not another storm! Dealing with my ostomy in foul weather was an everyday occurrence on most of my trips this summer.
Yikes! Yet another storm! Dealing with my ostomy in foul weather was an everyday occurrence.
However, the clouds did part enough that I got some glorious backcountry lake swimming in.
However, the clouds did part occasionally, and I was able to get some glorious backcountry swims in. I do not have to make any special modifications to my ostomy system when swimming– it adheres just fine as is.

 

These goats have nothing to do with ostomies, but I did see them on one of our trips and they are cute.
These goats have nothing to do with ostomies, but I did see them on one of our trips and they were cute.

 

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Ostomy awareness comes in small forms too

Today is the one-year anniversary of my Mt. Rainier climb. I can’t believe 12 months have gone by since I stood on the summit. When I returned from the climb, I blogged about the adventure. However, I had intended to write a couple more posts related to the trip. The weeks sped by and I never got around to it. What better time to revisit the topic than on this anniversary?

At our high camp the night before our summit attempt
At the Ingraham Flats high camp the night before our summit attempt

As someone who has a big passion for spreading ostomy awareness, I viewed my trip to Rainier as a great opportunity to share information about ostomies with others and show that anything is possible with a stoma. In fact, as I walked into our pre-trip meeting at the guide service, I had all the things I wanted share with my teammates during introductions neatly figured out in my head. The problem was, things didn’t go as planned.

As we sat in a circle and got ready to meet each other, the lead guide threw out some questions to break the ice and get us started: Tell us who you are, a little bit about your climbing experience and something weird about yourself, she said.

Something weird about myself? That wasn’t the introductory question I had hoped for. Everything I planned to say about my ostomy didn’t fit at all with the concept of weirdness. If anything, I wanted to talk about how normal life with an ostomy was. I came up with another silly non-ostomy-related answer for the question and scrambled to think of another way to bring up my surgery.

As I shared a little bit about my climbing experience in my intro, I did mention that I had been severely ill with ulcerative colitis three years prior and had gone through major surgery to remove my colon. I talked about how much it meant to me to be healthy enough to climb Rainier. However, I didn’t mention any details about the surgery or the fact that I had a stoma or wore an ostomy appliance.

As I left the meeting, I felt disappointed in myself for being vague about my surgery type and not talking more openly about my ostomy. How could I have let such a good opportunity to spread awareness slip by?

That is when it hit me. I didn’t feel like talking about my ostomy in this situation– not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t want it to define me on the climb. After all, my stoma was really such a small part of me in the bigger picture of my life.

As it turned out, I did succeed in spreading the word about ostomies on my trip–it just happened a little more quietly and gradually than I had originally planned. I ended up having many great one-on-one conversations about my ostomy with most of my teammates when the topic of surgery came up. These small chats with individuals did just as much to spread awareness as a bigger announcement would have. I have also formed lasting friendships with some of my Rainier co-climbers and they continue to learn more about my life with an ostomy as time goes on.

I was more comfortable talking with others one-on-one about my ostomy.
I was more comfortable talking with others one-on-one about my ostomy.

Most importantly, my ostomy made its way to its rightful place on my climbing adventure–in the background. It didn’t become too much of a focus, and my thoughts and energy were left to more important things like cheering on teammates, taking in the beauty of the landscape and feeling the strength of my body making its way up the mountain.

So worry not if you are shy when talking about your stoma. Ostomy awareness comes in many forms:  from a grand campaign to a small heartfelt conversation with a friend.

Patience and progress

It’s as harsh out here as on top of peak in a snowstorm. This thought pounded in my head as I cross-country skied down a slope in my second-ever biathlon. The wind was blowing against me so strongly that I had to use my poles to make downward progress. I was freezing in my minimal layers, and I felt eerily alone on the course with no one in sight and snow swirling all around me. The weather was declining rapidly, and I was relieved to be on my final of five laps.

In the distance I could see the biathlon range as I steadily made my way up a final incline. Snow was filling in the trail with drifts, and I felt like I could have walked faster than I was skiing. All that powder would have been much beloved if I were out snowboarding, but I didn’t much appreciate it in a Nordic race. As I got closer to the finish line, I could see the person recording times from a stopwatch. It seemed to take forever for me to reach him. But I finally made it! I finished the race and was super happy that I stuck with it and did not give up. I couldn’t remember doing anything that felt so physically strenuous– not even hiking up Mt. Rainier. Skate skiing is one of the most aerobically intense activities I have ever done.

Happily leaving the starting line before the wind and snow picked up.
Happily leaving the starting line before the worst of the storm blew in.
I could barely stand up in the wind after shooting in the prone position. Miraculously, I actually hit four of five targets!
I could barely stand up in the wind after shooting in the prone position. Miraculously, I actually hit four of five targets at 50 meters away!

We wrapped up the weekend with more fun. After completing the race, we stayed overnight at Snow Mountain Ranch/YMCA of the Rockies (the place where the biathlon was held) and even hit up the climbing wall in the pool. The next morning, we got up early and drove to Copper Mountain to go snowboarding.

A little post-race climbing at the pool.
A little post-race climbing at the pool.
Powder day at Copper Mountain!
Powder day at Copper Mountain!

When the event results came in a day later, I discovered that I had the slowest pace of anyone who finished any of the various distances. It wasn’t a surprise. This is a new activity for me and I didn’t expect to be good at it right away. I had been working on my shooting a bit, but had put very little attention into becoming better at skate skiing. That changed last weekend when I took a beginner lesson and picked up countless tips that will help me improve. I also plan to begin working on my cardiovascular fitness again by running and going skate skiing as much as I can. I know it is going to take a lot of time and many little steps to get better at the sport.

That reminded me a lot of getting back into the fitness activities and sports I loved after ostomy surgery. Like training for biathlon, it wasn’t a quick process. One of the most common questions I get from blog readers is how long it took me to get back to “X” activity. Since a lot of information on that subject is buried in other posts, I thought I would create a summary of how long it took me to return to activities and what some of the challenges were. Keep in mind that I did have some significant complications with my abdominal incision healing due to a rare reaction to my particular suture material. This extended my healing time.

Snowboarding:  I did this activity for the first time at around five months post-op, but because it was the end of the season, I was only able to get a few days in. I was surprised at how effortlessly the movement of boarding came back to me after losing so much strength after surgery. The most difficult part was getting back into a standing position after taking a tumble. Due to the crunch-like movement involved, it felt hard on my core. I wore (and still wear) a six-inch wide hernia prevention belt to help support my abdominal muscles. At first I was also careful to not venture onto icy terrain since falling onto my butt hurt the area where my anus had been removed. By the next season (about a year post-op), all that pain was gone and I was able to return to my pre-surgery level of boarding.

Getting up after all the falls on my first post-surgery snowboarding trip was tough on the abs!
Getting on my feet during my first post-surgery snowboarding trip was tough on the abs!

Hiking and backpacking: I went on my first backpacking trip at around five months post-op as well. I checked with my surgeon to make sure carrying 25 pounds was okay and then headed into the backcountry at the first opportunity–which happened to be a very cold and snowy April weekend!  Once again, I wore a six-inch wide hernia prevention belt and was mindful to keep the weight in my pack light. Doug carried many of my things and helped lift the pack onto my back. Once it was centered on my legs, it didn’t strain my abdominal muscles at all. The cold made this first trip with my ostomy difficult, but I was happy with the extra challenge. I knew if I made it through that, warm weather adventures would be easy.

After this trip, I kept hiking every weekend and slowly upped the distances traveled and amount of weight carried. I went on a few more overnight trips and began hiking 14,000-foot peaks. I remember walking like a turtle on the first one, but I just kept at it. By ten months post-op, I was able to go on an eight-night backpacking trip carrying 52 pounds.  Through all these adventures, I was continuously experimenting with supplies and techniques for dealing with my ostomy outdoors and I tried to put myself in challenging situations to maximize my learning and face my fears. For instance, I could easily have changed an appliance before a wilderness trip, but instead I would purposely wait to do it in my tent in the backcountry just so I could get the practice and become confident with my ostomy in those situation.

A little snow couldn't keep me out of the backcountry once my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to carry a pack again at 5 months post-op.
A little snow couldn’t keep me out of the backcountry once my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to carry a pack again at 5 months post-op.

Running: I waited seven months after surgery to go running and I progressed really slowly. For whatever reason, this activity made me much more fatigued than hiking or backpacking. I also had pains in various areas of my abdominal wall (almost like a stitch or side-ache in the muscles surrounding my stoma) for almost a year after surgery. I never knew exactly what caused this, but it always felt okay again a day or two after running so I chalked it up to muscle fatigue. After all, I had been cut open from belly button to pubic bone. That is bound to affect the abdominal wall a bit! Eventually those muscle aches went away and now I am able to go on long runs with no discomfort. I also wear a six-inch wide hernia prevention during this activity to help support my abdominal wall.

Jumping for joy on my first trail run which happened a little over a year post-op.
Jumping for joy on my first trail run which happened a little over a year post-op.

Rock climbing: This is the activity I took the longest to return to. Climbing involves many twisting and stretching movements and a lot of physical exertion. My surgeon never said I had to wait a year to go, but that is what I decided to do in order to give myself plenty of time to heal. I knew my ostomy was permanent and I wanted to do everything in my power to reduce the possibility of a long-term injury like a parastomal or incisional hernia. I was willing to wait as long as it took for my body to tell me I was ready. In the meantime, I worked on hiking and backpacking so it never felt like I was sitting around waiting to climb. To get stronger while I was waiting, I worked with my physical therapist to strengthen my core with gentle and safe exercises. By eleven-months post-op, I finally felt that I was strong enough to rock climb. I started in the gym by ascending routes that were easy and low-angle. Then I started to do the same outside. Over the following year, I slowly bumped up the difficulty of routes I was attempting and ventured onto more vertical terrain. At 22 months post-op, I led my first easy sport route. Now that I am over three years out from surgery, I am climbing in the gym on a weekly basis, doing overhanging routes and am back to scaling rock walls at my pre-surgery level. The only thing that I have yet to do is return to leading traditional routes where I place my own gear. Just like with every other strenuous activity, I always wear a six-inch hernia prevention belt.

Leading a climb at Shelf Road in Colorado this fall. I was back to leading sport climbing routes 22 months after surgery.
Leading a climb at Shelf Road in Colorado this fall. I was back to leading sport climbing routes 22 months after surgery.

Yoga: Like rock climbing, I waited a year to do yoga. I know I could have gone earlier, but I was busy working on the core exercises with my physical therapist and decided to wait to try yoga until my incision area felt solid. Interestingly, I found corpse pose to be one of my most uncomfortable poses. Lying on my back made my incision area ache like crazy. I think this was the result of horrible posture during the first four months after surgery when my incision was extremely painful. During that time, I was protective of the area, and I found myself walking in a hunched-over position. It took a while to reverse that and make my muscles to feel okay with being lengthened again. Nowadays, corpse pose feels fine and the only thing I still have trouble with are bridge positions. My body tells me to go easy on those and so I do!  I wear a hernia belt while doing yoga too, but switch to a four-inch model as it is easier to bend with that width.

Bicycling: This sport was gentle on my body and would have been perfect after surgery save for one thing: my butt hurt from having my rectum and anus removed. And this pain was not quick to go away. It took almost a year for the deep muscles in that area to feel like normal again. Fortunately, once I hit six months-post op, my pain had at least diminished enough that I could sit on the seat without too much discomfort. Now I can spend hours on the saddle with no issues.

My first bike ride at six months post-op: a short jaunt to see a Rockies game. It did hurt my healing butt a bit, but was tolerable.
I took my first bike ride six months post-op when Doug and I pedaled a short distance to see a baseball game. It did hurt my healing butt, but was tolerable.

As I get into my new sport of biathlon, I realize that it is going to take a lot of hard work and patience to get better. I know someday when I am skiing a bit more efficiently and faster, those early times when I struggled up the hills or felt like taking a nap in the snowdrift will seem like a distant memory. It was that way with my ostomy. Getting back to my pre-surgery activity level took perseverance.  My progress sometimes seemed dauntingly slow. However, as I moved towards that goal, I celebrated each small victory. Before I knew it I was back on my favorite slopes, trails and rock faces and my life was richer for all the tiny but amazing steps that got me there.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
-Ernest Hemingway

Me and my wound vac going for our first trail hike after surgery. I traveled a whopping 1/8 mile and I was thrilled. After having major incision healing complications, this was a huge milestone for me and I went home and celebrated with my first post-op beer.
Me and my wound vac returning from our first trail hike after surgery. This was four months after my operation and I traveled a whopping 1/8 mile. After having major incision healing complications, this was a huge milestone for me and I went home and celebrated with my first post-op beer.

The stars aligned for my trip up Rainier (feat. new video)

I must admit it. I have been very fortunate when it comes to my ostomy. I have had the best medical team imaginable through my UC and surgery journey. I have a wonderfully constructed stoma that functions perfectly and my wafers never come loose or leak. As of yet, I haven’t had the troubles with foods or blockages that some people with ostomies do. I don’t take any of this for granted and try to live each day with a sense of gratitude over the way things have turned out and for my restored health.

I felt this same level of thankfulness many times on my Rainier climb. I would stop for a few moments, look around in amazement and think I can’t believe I am really here and then close my eyes and give a silent thanks. Leaving the park after the climb was really hard. I didn’t want to let go of all I had experienced on the mountain. As we drove away, I kept wanting to take one last glance at the peak–as if each additional view would somehow help me better process all that being up there had meant or would make the memories more lasting. My ascent of Rainier couldn’t have turned out more perfectly, and it felt as if the stars had aligned for so many aspects of the trip:

My climbing team was amazing
I climbed with the best group of people that anyone could ask for. We had a total of four guides and eight participants in our team. Just by sheer luck of schedules– two of our guides also happened to be doctors and three of the other clients were nurses. Though I didn’t talk about my ostomy a lot on the climb (I had other things to focus on), having teammates with medical knowledge made bringing it up infinitely easier.

Our group met at the guide service headquarters the day before our climb to go over gear and logistics. After the meeting, I stayed back to talk with Emily Johnston, our lead guide, and also an ER doc. I brought up some of the unique challenges my ostomy presented (hydration, having to empty on rest breaks, etc.). She had some experience with patients who had ostomies and was very understanding and matter-of-fact about it. From that point on, I knew there would be no awkwardness when I had an ostomy-related question or needed to deal with it on a rest break.

Our team.
Our team.

All four of our guides were amazing and top-notch. One of our guides, Craig John, had made it to the top of Everest. Liam O’Sullivan, another guide and doctor, had set a speed ascent record on Rainier in 2008. Emily, Liam and Craig had also climbed Rainier over 100 times. Our final guide, Jeff Ward, was certified with both the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations as well as the American Mountain Guides Association and instructed other alpine guides. Suffice it to say that we were in very good hands.

The other climb participants were some of the nicest people I have met. We formed a quick bond and everyone was so encouraging and supportive of each other. I truly hope that someday we will get to meet up in the mountains and climb together again.

Our team rests before roping up and heading to high camp.
Taking a few minutes to rest before roping up and heading to high camp.

The weather cooperated
Day one was sunny and clear blue, but when we woke up on day two, an angry looking lenticular cloud had situated itself over the top of Rainier. Fortunately, we were only practicing glacier travel skills and rope work near our low camp at Camp Muir that morning. After a short hike to the high camp at the Ingraham Flats in the afternoon and an early dinner, a ferocious thunderstorm blew in. Not only were we surrounded by intense lightning–which was fortunately attracted to the higher ridges and not our camp–but three to four inches of fresh graupel (soft hail-like snow pellets that resemble the innards of a bean bag) fell. The forecast didn’t look good for our summit attempt the next morning either, and we went to bed feeling disappointed that we probably weren’t going to make it any higher on the mountain.

Making our way to high camp a couple of hours before the severe storm blows in.
Making our way to high camp a couple of hours before the severe storm blows in. The crevasses were scary but beautiful.
My father-in-law Peter checks out the spectacular post-storm clouds.
My father-in-law Peter checks out the spectacular post-storm clouds.
Home sweet home at high camp.
Home sweet home at our high camp at the “Flats” on the Ingraham Glacier.

Much to our happy surprise, we woke up to our  guides’ voices telling us that the skies had cleared! We quickly ate breakfast (at 11:30 p.m.–yes, that’s right, in the middle of the night), got packed up and then tied in with our assigned rope teams. It was slow going with all the fresh deep graupel on the trail which made it feel like we were walking in deep sand. I was second in line, and for every step forward, I slid a half a step back.

The route was also more technical than it usually was at this time of year. Several larger crevasses had opened up, and we had to cross the gaping abysses by walking across extension ladders secured on each end. When I shined my headlamp into one of the voids I could not see the bottom. As we hiked, we could see that the stars were disappearing in the dark sky– more clouds were coming in. We pushed on and reached the top of Rainier at 7:30 a.m. We were only able to bask in our success for maybe ten minutes before it was time to head down. The clouds were looking alarmingly like the ones that had just dumped on us the previous evening. Even in good weather, the technical crevasse sections of the route had a tendency to cause a bottleneck of climbers. Being stuck waiting in an exposed place surrounded by lightning would have been terrifying and dangerous. Though we all would have loved to spend more time on top, we knew it was not worth the risk. As it turned out, the clouds blew over without incident and we ended up having great conditions for our descent.

Peter, Doug and I on the top of Rainier!
Peter, Doug and I on the top of Rainier! They can’t be seen in the photo, but some ominous storm clouds were gathering to the south. Fortunately they never materialized into much and we had good conditions on the descent.
Descending the upper slopes of the mountain.
Descending the upper slopes of the mountain.
Another team makes its way across the most technical part of the route. A climber crossing a ladder over a large crevasse can be seen in the center of the photo.
Another team makes its way down the route. A climber crossing a ladder over a large crevasse can be seen in the center of the photo.
Doug makes his way across a ladder that bridges a gaping crevasse.
Doug makes his way across a ladder that bridges a gaping crevasse.

My ostomy behaved
Two days before I was to leave for my climb, my ostomy acted up for no apparent reason. I had pure liquid output for a while and when I changed my appliance wafer one final time before leaving, I noticed I had numerous ulcers on the surface of my stoma. I had experienced these on many occasions before and even had them biopsied (which only showed non-specific inflammation and not Crohn’s). However, this time there were more ulcers than usual and some of them looked different. Along with he circular ones that I have been getting on the side of my stoma, there were strange elongated amoeba-shaped ulcers on the tip and just barely extending into the inside of my stoma. I thought, Oh no! I don’t need something new to deal with right before heading out on the climb.

I decided not to worry about it. If I had liquid output and had to change my closed end pouches more frequently along the route, so be it. I had also trained with a much heavier pack than I would actually be carrying on the trip. I knew that if I had to bring more water to offset any extra fluid loss, I would be fine with the pack weight.

Luckily, the morning we left the trailhead, my output thickened and my ostomy fell into its usual pattern of having to be emptied every four to six hours. The first day of the climb I was even able to go one stretch of eight hours. When I returned to my lodging after the climb and put on a new wafer, I noticed the ulcers had also started to go away. Whew!

I ran into one of my IBD role models on a rest break
Years ago, Doug did some website work for International Mountain Guides and met with the three guys that ran the company: Eric Simonson, Phil Ershler and George Dunn. When it came time to climb Rainier, we knew we wanted to make the trip with their guide service.

In 2006, when I was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, I also found out that Phil Ershler had Crohn’s disease and had recovered from colon cancer. He and his wife Sue had just shared their story in the book Together on Top of the World which chronicled their journey to overcome those challenges and climb the seven summits together. I read the book and went to see them speak at a local climbing shop and was deeply moved. The things that Phil had gone on to do in spite of IBD were truly remarkable. As my disease continued to worsen over the years, Phil’s story remained an inspiration to me.

When we knew we wanted to do our climb with International Mountain Guides, I emailed Phil and asked him his thoughts on doing the climb and what route might work best for me. He gave me some great suggestions and was really encouraging. As luck would have it, we ran into Phil on the way to Camp Muir on day one of our trip. He was descending from a day hike with his wife and a friend and happened to pass by just as we had paused for a rest break. He stopped to chat with our group, and I pulled him aside afterwards to thank him in person for the encouragement and inspiration. I still can’t believe that of all the days on the mountain… and all the people who climb it… and of all the places to take a rest break… we ran into Phil right there that day. Seriously. What are the chances?!

Chatting with Phil Ershler, co-owner of International Mountain Guides, at a rest break.
Chatting with Phil Ershler, co-owner of International Mountain Guides, at a rest break.

Though there were many fortuitous things on my climb, there were also aspects that were not just a matter of luck:

I trained really hard
The months before my climb were a roller coaster ride of injury and uncertainty. From being diagnosed with steroid-induced avascular necrosis in my shoulder in December to having hip and Achilles tendon problems in the spring– I really thought I might never be able to do the climb. However, I did everything I could to make it happen. I worked diligently with my physical therapist to get to a point where I could at least hike and aqua-run again and then did those activities week after week. If I was tired after work, I still found the motivation necessary to head to the pool. When the alarm went off at 1 a.m. every weekend to hike a big peak, I rolled out of bed and did it. Once on Rainier, this training made the climb so much easier. I still can’t believe how healthy and strong I felt up there; it was everything I had hoped for.

I was willing to ask tough questions
When I filled out my application for the climb last fall, I was very open about my ostomy. I wrote about the challenges it presented and asked for feedback from the staff about how I could handle these things on the climb. No– it wasn’t easy writing to strangers and explaining ostomy waste and my various needs related to it. However, because I was straightforward and honest about my situation, I got some amazingly helpful suggestions and gained insight into how I could adapt to the conditions I would likely encounter on the trip. Once I got up there, I was able to enjoy the climb and not worry about my ostomy because I knew what to expect.

I did not give in to fears
There were a plethora of things to be nervous about in regards to my ostomy on Rainier. Would I be able to stay hydrated on long days when all our water came from snow and could only be obtained at camp?  Would it be really hard to swap full pouches on steep slopes in the cold? What about when being roped up on a team? Would my heavy pack be a problem? How much should I tell my fellow team members about my ostomy and when? I knew rest breaks were kept short. Would I have enough time to empty my appliance plus refuel and hydrate?

Instead of getting too worried about any of these things or letting them stop me from going, I equipped myself with as much information as possible to help me prepare for the trip. Beyond that, I wholeheartedly jumped into the unknown and let it play out minute by minute. There were many times that I had no idea where I would swap out a pouch within the next hour or when a conversation with another person might turn to my ostomy. I figured it out as I went along and that is one of the things that made it such a grand adventure.

On the way to the high camp, we had to move quickly through an area prone to rockfall.
As we crossed the Cowlitz Glacier on the way to high camp, we had to move quickly through an area prone to rockfall.

The video in this post covers some highlights of the trip and conveys the emotions of the climb better than I could ever express in writing. Due to the fast pace of the climb and the fact that we were moving through difficult terrain in roped teams, carrying ice axes and wearing heavy gloves, we weren’t able to record nearly as much footage as we usually do for our films. I plan to do two more written posts in the upcoming weeks covering more details about the Rainier trip: one on the specifics of how I managed my ostomy on the climb and another regarding the sometimes challenging issue of knowing how much information to share with others regarding one’s ostomy.

Happy travels! (feat. new video)

Last month, I wrote about a climbing road trip that Doug and I took to Idaho and Oregon. We finally completed a video highlighting the vacation. It is a long film at 30 minutes, but there was a lot to cover on this 17-day adventure.

Getting out and traveling with your ostomy provides some very significant confidence-building opportunities. You have to change and empty your appliance in unfamiliar surroundings and you must learn how to adapt to having an ostomy in unique situations. Unknowns abound with each bend in the road and each new town on the map. Dealing with each of these new situations stretches your comfort zone and leads to growth and tenacity. So, if you are just recovering from surgery, plan a trip if you can — even if it is just a weekend getaway.  If you have had your surgery for a while, get out on a longer excursion and try something new.

Mt. Rainier next summer!

I have a brand new goal to work toward for next summer: a climb of Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet) in Washington’s Cascade Range. Ever since Doug and I backpacked on the lower forested flanks of Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail when we were in college, I have wanted to try the peak. Doug and I had talked of doing it a couple years ago with his Dad, but my illness and surgery delayed those plans. I am ready to dust off this dream, and the three of us will finally give it a go.

A painting of Rainier that I did in 2003. Can’t wait for my adventure there next summer! Copyright 2003 Heidi Skiba.

Though Doug and I rock climb a lot, we do not have experience on peaks with large glaciers (and Rainier is the most heavily glaciated mountain in the Lower 48). We know it would be too dangerous to try Rainier on our own. Therefore, we will be doing the ascent with a guide service, International Mountain Guides (IMG).  This company leads mountaineering trips all over the world and has some of the best guides in the business.

As it turns out, one of the owners of IMG, Phil Ershler, has Crohn’s disease. He and his wife, Susan Ershler, wrote the book Together on Top of the World. The book describes Phil’s challenges with Crohn’s disease and colon cancer and tells the story of the couple’s journey to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents despite these odds. I went to see Phil and Susan speak in-person in Boulder shortly after they released their book in 2007. This was roughly a year after I had been officially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and  I was scared  of what my recent diagnosis might mean to my outdoor adventure-filled life. Their words gave me much hope. I read their amazing book shortly after hearing them speak and was further inspired.

As we started to research our climb with IMG, I emailed Phil to find out if he felt that any of the Rainier trips were feasible with my ostomy. The last thing I wanted to do was get excited about a trip only to find out I might be denied due to my medical condition. I was candid about the extra challenges I now face after ileostomy surgery, but Phil was very encouraging and suggested the route he thought might work out the best. He also warned me that Rainier trips fill very quickly and to get our application in as soon as the 2013 dates were published.

He wasn’t kidding. We knew the trip dates would be published while we were on our climbing road trip, so we were driving into town from our camp every other day to find a place to connect to the internet and check. Turns out the dates were published on the one day we didn’t get to town. By the time we checked the following day, there was only one trip left with three openings during the month-long window of time we wanted.  Thankfully we secured our spots!

Before being officially accepted on the climb, the guide service emailed me with more specifics on the route so that I knew what I was likely to face on the mountain. Among several challenges, the ascent to high camp involves carrying a 40-pound pack for five miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain.  The final day of the route includes a five- to six-hour ascent to the summit and then a descent all the way to the trailhead. This means a round-trip travel time for that day of up to 16 hours. I had been very open on my application paperwork about my ostomy and the challenges it can present (such as dehydration and my limitations of carrying super heavy loads). The staff  wanted to make sure the conditions of the climb seemed doable to me. IMG was super accommodating and helpful about it all and explained some steps I could take to help meet my hydration and pack-weight needs within the confines of the trip. They were even set up to deal with my gluten-free diet.

After carrying a 40- to 55-pound backpack on several trips since surgery, I was sure that I could handle the load on this climb–especially with time for additional training. Just as I carried extra water on some long all-day climbs this summer, so I would on Rainier. I already had a lot of experience swapping out my ostomy pouches in frigid temperatures and with a harness on. I had no concerns about that part of things. I was sure the climb was within my abilities, but I also had to get signed forms from my regular doctor and surgeon stating that they approved of my participation. After outlining the specifics of the trip to them, neither had any reservations about me taking part in the climb. I was set to go!

It is just starting to settle in that I am actually going to be attempting Rainier. I can’t describe the excitement I am feeling for this adventure. The route that was recommended to me is the easiest one that IMG uses on Rainier. It is a three-and-a-half day trip starting at a beautiful place called Paradise (5,400 feet). We will carry our loads to Camp Muir (10,080 feet) and then move on to a higher camp at the Ingraham Glacier the following day. On the final day of the trip, we will attempt the summit (conditions permitting) and descend to the trailhead. Pack weights are less on this route than most others because some group gear is kept at the already-established camps.

I have to admit that I was really drawn to do one of the longer or more remote Rainier trips described on IMG’s site like the Emmons Glacier climb or even a six-day seminar that includes a lot of technical skill instruction plus an ascent of the peak. In my mind, I am still the woman who has gone on several 30-day backpacking and mountaineering trips into the remote wilderness carrying 75 pounds of gear on my back, but I have to acknowledge that my body has changed since then. I am still learning what it is capable of after surgery and this trip will be a perfect test. I am fully confident that it will be strong enough for this route, and after that, who knows? Maybe I will want to do a longer or more difficult trip on Rainier or another peak down the line. Right now, I am ecstatic to have the chance to take part in this climb.

Let the training begin!

On the Road

When Doug and I became a couple during college, our very first group purchase was a spatula. We were heading out on a camping trip and realized we would have no way to flip the pancakes we were making for breakfast the next day. We stopped at a grocery store en route to the park and pooled our funds to acquire the best turner that $1.99 could buy.

Our next group purchase was a bit more substantial — a slightly beat-up 1985 Toyota 4×4 truck. The lakes of northern Wisconsin, wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and craggy climbing areas outside of Madison were calling us, yet we had no reliable way of getting there. The truck became our key to adventure. Every weekend we would load it up and head out to the wilds. During a couple of college summers we hit the open road of the western United States for months on end — living out of the back of the pickup and stopping at every climbing area we could find along the way. Those weeks of roaming freely and opening the map each day to decide where we wanted to go next provided some of our most beloved memories together.

One of the things I longed to do most after surgery was to go on a climbing road trip again. I wanted to remember what it felt like to climb all day, cook up dinner at camp, talk about the day’s adventures over a crackling campfire, and then get up to do it all again the next day. Last summer, I wasn’t quite strong enough to rock climb. After training and gaining strength over the winter, my body finally felt ready to spend day after day doing climbing routes. In the beginning of September, Doug and I set out on a 17-day adventure that would include a week of climbing at City of Rocks in Idaho and several days of climbing at Smith Rock in Oregon. While in the Northwest, we also planned to spend time with some good friends who lived in Bend, as well as meet up with my parents for some sightseeing.

As we were traveling and climbing, I noticed that quite a few things had changed since our road trip days long ago:

  • There is now something called the internet. In our college days, I carried a small leather address book and actually wrote to my friends on paper while on the road.
  • Cell phones have replaced pay phones. We used to have to to load up our prepaid calling cards and look for a pay phone to let our parents know we were still alive. Now we just searched around Almo, Idaho, until we discovered the cell phone reception sweet spot. (It was pretty good at the northern-most table on the patio of the Rock Stop general store.)
  • Our trip food budget expanded to include things other than rice and ramen noodles. Though we still cooked most of our meals on this vacation, it was nice to have enough funds to enjoy the food and drink at some of Bend, Oregon’s great brewpubs with our friends.
  • We looked at some of the climbs we did at these areas in our early 20s and wondered how we had the nerve to get up them.
  • Our truck has been replaced by a tiny, fuel-efficient Toyota sedan. It is amazing how much camping and climbing gear we squeezed into that little rig. However, we did bottom out on some three-inch-tall rocks on Idaho’s back roads.
  • I now had an ostomy.

It was easy to forget about this last big change because things felt so much like they had in the past before I had gotten sick with UC and before I had surgery. I was just out there having fun and my stoma did not diminish the joy of a road trip one bit. Other than changing or emptying my appliance, or having to drink extra water to prevent myself from getting dehydrated, I hardly thought about my ostomy at all. It proved to be no trouble during long days on the road, while living in camp or while climbing long routes.

We shot a lot of footage on our road trip and will be putting together a video about the adventure soon. Until then, the following photos share some of the great times Doug and I had on the trip.

Climbing Theater of Shadows on Jackson’s Thumb at City of Rocks. This was my very first lead climb after surgery.
Rappelling off of a route at City of Rocks in Idaho.
Our very cool campsite at City of Rocks.
Sketching at camp.
I love donkeys. We encountered this cutie while walking near our friends’ house in Bend, OR.
Showing off a fresh wound after a full day of climbing at Smith Rock, OR.
Enjoying the McMenamins salt-water soaking pool in Bend, OR.
Spending time with my parents at Crater Lake.
Exploring the mile-long Lava River Cave near Bend, OR.
No road trip is complete without at least one stop at a giant roadside sculpture. Doug and I getting silly during a major windstorm at the huge Conestoga wagon near John Day, OR.