My first post-surgery multi-pitch climb: my imaginings turn into reality (feat. new video)

In the weeks after making my decision to have a permanent ileostomy, my imaginings of what life was going to be like after surgery played in my head like little movies. There was the one that featured me happily leading hikes with my ostomy at work, and another in which I pictured myself successfully emptying my appliance on backpacking trips. However, the one that I liked to imagine the most involved being on a long multi-pitch climb.

There I was in my mind–hundreds of feet up a steep route and anchored into a small ledge with the climbing rope. I would picture myself removing a full pouch, snapping on a new one and then bagging up the old and tossing it in my pack like it was no big deal at all–as if I had been doing it that way my whole life. I would gaze up at the many pitches yet to go and get ready to climb, barely thinking about my ostomy at all.

As I prepared for and recovered from surgery, these visualizations became an important source of hope for me. I really had no idea if the reality would end up exactly that way I pictured it, but having these images in my head gave me a goal to strive for. I really saw no reason I couldn’t do all the things I was envisioning once I healed up.

One by one, in the year and a half since surgery, I turned those images in my mind into  actualities. I jumped right back into work and led hikes and nature programs. I worked my way into backpacking, even going on an eight-day trip 10 months post-op. Snowboarding, swimming, yoga, biking, short climbs–my return to all these sports has been just as amazing as I had pictured they would be. But there was one thing that was still just a series of images in my head:  the multi-pitch climb. Would dealing with my ostomy on a long, hot climb with small belay ledges be as doable as I had imagined? After all, one of the main reasons I chose to have a permanent ileostomy over j-pouch surgery is that I personally felt it would be easier for me to manage on all-day climbs. I was a little nervous about  putting that notion to the test. As I built up strength in the 20 months since surgery, and worked through some hip and shoulder injuries, I continued to wonder what climbing a long route was going to be like with my ostomy.

Last weekend I finally found out as I went with Doug and his brother and dad to climb Devils Tower in Wyoming. We had all climbed this famous rock formation in 1992 and were excited to give it another go. This reunion-style climb with my family was more than I could have ever asked for as my first post-surgery multi-pitch climb. Being back on the rock with all of them was a blessing.

Our gang on the summit of Devils Tower, WY, 20 years ago.
Our same team on the summit in 2012.
We are tired and thirsty, but safely back at the base.

The 15-minute video below highlights our adventure on the Tower. As I watch it myself, I am in awe at how similar the real images are to the little movie that played in my head in the hospital. For climbing and so many other aspects of my life, the things I imagined and hoped for with my ostomy did turn into reality–a truly amazing reality.

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Hanging out at the crag (feat. new video)

Lately, Ostomy Outdoors has turned into Ostomy Indoors. It feels like it has been so long since I have been outside doing even the smallest outdoor adventure and our video camera has been sitting on the shelf untouched for months. This has all been due to the hip pain that I have been writing about lately. My orthopedist gave me the go-ahead to work out again, yet I am still experiencing significant soreness in my groin and hip. A small uterine fibroid was ruled out as a possible cause, so my doctor wants me to go in for one more MRI just to make sure it isn’t a lower back issue. This has left me in limbo-land; I’m unsure if I should proceed full throttle with my trail running and other strenuous activities, or if I should hold back until I know more. I can work through some pain, but I don’t want to cause an injury.

Maybe as a result of some of this uncertainty, my spirits have hit rock bottom lately. I have been feeling super tired despite getting lots of sleep, and my normally positive attitude has been playing hide and seek with me. Yesterday afternoon, after bidding my brother-in-law and nieces farewell after a fun weekend visit, I spontaneously decided that Doug and I needed to go rock climbing that minute. It was gorgeous outside, and even though I had a daunting to-do list, every cell in my body was telling me I needed to get my body on the rock for some inspiration, or the gloomy emotions that I was experiencing would continue. Also, I was sure that my sore hips could handle the smooth, methodical movement of climbing.

Doug and I are fortunate in that we live in close proximity to some amazing climbing areas. We quickly tossed gear into our packs and within 30 minutes we were driving up Clear Creek Canyon to one of our favorite local spots. As I grabbed my climbing pack out of the car and headed down the trail, an incredible peace came over me. Gone were all thoughts of painful hips. Doug and I were going to be on the rock in a few minutes, and that was all that mattered.

It is hard to describe how much I love rock climbing and how vital it is to my life. Doug and I got into this sport together and have been been climbing since we first met in the college dorms in 1990. That year, we bought our first carabiners, rope, and a beater Toyota pickup to use on climbing trips. We have so many memories on the rock and have made many life decisions based on our shared love of this sport, including my desire to have a permanent ileostomy to treat my UC. To be out climbing with Doug again is joy in its absolute purest form.

However, as I climbed that afternoon and into the evening, there were moments of disappointment when things felt harder than they used to. I had to constantly remind myself to quit comparing my performance to the days of old. Things have changed, and though I may eventually return to my previous climbing abilities, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that I was back outside, covered in that wonderful mix of sunscreen, chalk dust, and dirt, and loving the amazing feeling of my body moving upwards over the rock. I ended up having so much fun that I completely forgot about the special solar viewing glasses sitting on my bookshelf at home all set for watching the 7 p.m. eclipse. We completely missed it! At first this disappointed me too, but I decided an afternoon in the canyon climbing and laughing with my sweetie was  so much more memorable and important. It was exactly what we both needed.


The inspiration that the spur-of-the-moment climbing excursion brought was also much needed. I hadn’t filmed a video for Ostomy Outdoors in a while, and hadn’t really planned on filming anything yesterday. Along with being in a mental funk, I was also in a creative one. Fortunately, climbing outdoors rekindled the desire to film, and I was glad we had brought the video camera along. At first, being filmed again felt as awkward as getting back on the rock after not climbing outside for months. When the camera rolled, I felt tentative and unsure of what I wanted to say. I wasn’t even sure when we left the canyon if the random footage we filmed could be woven into a coherent movie. I hadn’t really filmed any tips or tricks and wasn’t even sure it had a theme. Once I got home though and watched the clips, a story did begin to emerge. This day at the crags and this little film is about reconnecting with my passion, and discovering its ability to infuse my life with the hope and creativity needed to keep moving forward.

Vanilla Blush ostomy underwear review

A few readers have suggested recently that I write about some of the products I use. I thought this was a great idea. Though everyone is a bit different in what products they prefer for their ostomy, writing posts on this subject would still help introduce people to some of the available products.

Just as I was thinking of doing this, Vanilla Blush, a wonderful ostomy lingerie company based in England, sent me some of their underwear to try out. The underwear they provided were the Grace and Beth styles, and those are the two models I’m reviewing here. Though this review describes their women’s styles, Vanilla Blush makes undergarments for men as well.

Right after receiving the underwear, I tried both styles out for everyday wear. Most of the time, I wear regular low-rise underwear and just let my pouch flop over the top of it because this is what I find to be comfy. If I am going to wear ostomy underwear, it must be as comfortable as my regular panties. After trying out the Vanilla Blush undergarments, I am so impressed! These undergarments feel great and are not too tight or restrictive. The fitting chart on the website is accurate, and the size I requested based on my measurements fit perfectly. One of the things I love most about these underwear is that they are not unnecessarily high-waisted.  They are exactly the right height to cover my pouch from bottom to top with no extra fabric. I love how I can see my belly button with the Vanilla Blush underwear.

The "Beth" underwear conceals my pouch from top-to-bottom without being too high-waisted. I love the sparkly fabric too!

The white “Grace” style is made out of a 93% cotton and 7% spandex fabric that feels very soft and is a perfect weight. The black “Beth” style is made out of a polyester/elastane fabric that is stretchy and comfortable. It also has some pretty sparkly threads on the front. Both styles have an inner pocket to hold a pouch. I happen to not use the pockets in any of my ostomy underwear or wraps. Due to the lower placement of my stoma, pockets tend to cause my pouch to bunch up more than if I just let my pouch hang freely in the underwear. Still, I don’t mind that the pocket is there. By not using it, I actually have a nice double layer of fabric over my pouch which covers it nicely. Whether you use the pocket or not, the underwear fit beautifully.

The Vanilla Blush underwear also holds my pouch in place and conceals it well, even under my tightest pair of low-rise jeans. The part of the underwear that sticks out above the waist band of my jeans is very flattering. If my shirt rode up as I went about my day, and the top of the undies were inadvertently exposed, I wouldn’t care. The bow and trim make them super cute!

The underwear work great under my low-rise jeans. They look so nice it doesn't matter if they stick out above the waistband.
The Vanilla Blush underwear hold my pouch against my body so that it is invisible under my most form-fitting jeans and T-shirts.

I knew I loved these underwear for day-to-day wear, but how would they perform during an outdoor adventure? I decided to give them a try during a day of rock climbing at the North Table Mountain climbing area in my home town.

As I hiked up the trail to the crag, the underwear didn’t ride up or bind and felt pleasant to wear.  The temperatures were really cooking on the south-facing cliffs, but the underwear was cool and breathed well.

Heading up the trail to the rock climbing area, the underwear are not restrictive and are cool in the hot temperatures.

When I do any strenuous activity, such as climbing, I always wear a six-inch-wide Nu Hope hernia prevention belt. Over this, I usually wear a pair of ostomy underwear to hold it in place. If I don’t, the hernia belt tends to ride up to the narrow part of my waist and does not provide the support I need. One thing I was a bit concerned about was whether these underwear would work with my hernia prevention belt since they have a lower rise than the ones I usually wear. Any ostomy briefs I wear for my outdoor activities must fit over the hernia belt.

When I put the Vanilla Blush underwear on, an inch of the belt stuck out at the top. However, this was not a problem. They still held my hernia belt in place wonderfully through the whole afternoon of climbing. It never shifted once, even when doing high steps and stems on the rock and hanging in my harness as I was being lowered on the rope.

Even though my six-inch-wide hernia prevention belt sticks out above the undies, they still held it in place well.
The underwear were comfortable while climbing...
...and lowering in my harness.

As late afternoon approached, I realized I had one more workout to complete. I bid my climbing partners farewell and drove over to the gym to do the core and upper body weight routine that was on my schedule for the day. I have been really disciplined in doing the workouts recommended by my personal trainer and only miss them if absolutely necessary. I knew I could still squeeze them in before the facility closed. As I did planks, stability ball work and lifted weights, the Vanilla Blush underwear continued to feel great.

Finally, it was time to head home. When I got there, I took off my hernia prevention belt and climbing pants and threw my jeans back on. From trail to cliff, and from gym to jeans, the Vanilla Blush underwear performed just as I had hoped they would.

Climbing progress

On Sunday I climbed a few feet above the fourth bolt on the wall at the rock climbing gym, held my breath, and jumped off. I felt a few butterflies in my stomach as I free-fell 10 feet before my rope and harness caught me and brought me to a stop. Doug lowered me to the ground where a staff member gave me a smile and a casual “nice job” nod. I had just passed the test to be able to lead climb at our local rock gym. This was my second such test. I had also taken one in Fort Collins last month at the gym we sometimes climb at with Doug’s father.

In lead climbing, a climber clips their rope into protection placed in the rock (or on the artificial gym-wall) as they go. This “pro” is either: 1) temporary equipment that a climber places in cracks outdoors, or 2) permanent, preexisting bolts drilled into the rock or artificial wall. If a climber falls above the last piece they clipped, they will travel some distance before the rope catches. For instance, if a person falls three feet above their pro, they will fall that distance plus three more feet until the rope catches. Factor in a bit of rope stretch and the total distance could be 10 feet. The climbing gym wants to make sure climbers know how to safely clip their rope into the bolts on the wall and fall properly before they will allow you to lead climb.

Top roping is a different style of protecting the climber in which the person will only fall a short distance because the rope is already anchored at the top of the cliff or wall. When I began climbing again a year after ostomy surgery, I started with top rope climbing. Though I am now leading in the gym, it will be a while before I feel confident to lead routes outdoors again where there are more hazards.

Nothing has been a bigger symbol of my climbing progress as being able to get back on the “sharp end” of the rope. I was fearful of what a big fall might feel like after surgery. Would falling several feet in my harness hurt my stoma? Would the resulting tug make my pouch pop off? As has often been the case when returning to my active pursuits, none of my fears came true, and my stoma and pouching system held up just fine through the tests at the gym.

Lead climbing has not been my only measure of progress lately. While climbing weekly, I am quickly moving up the grades and getting on some overhanging routes (steeper than 90 degrees). When I returned to the rock gym five months ago, I didn’t even try to do any marked climbs — I just grabbed any hold on the wall. Soon after, I was only using the “on route” holds, but sticking to routes in the 5.7 range. Last month I ventured into the 5.8 and 5.9 territory, and last weekend I did my first 5.10-. I am feeling powerful and strong with not the slightest pain in my core.

When I got back into climbing, I told myself that I would be happy doing 5.7 routes for the rest of my life if that was all my body could handle. All that mattered was that I could climb again. However, I now see that these restrictions won’t be necessary. By conditioning my body, progressing slowly to build the required strength, and always wearing my six-inch-wide hernia belt, I am quickly returning to my pre-surgery climbing abilities. I look forward to warmer days when I can start climbing outdoors on a regular basis and head out on some much longer routes. And, of course, I’ll share some of those through videos!

The New Year: looking back and looking ahead

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2012 brings health and many blessings.

As I set out to write my first post for 2012, I couldn’t decide if it would be best to look forward and write about my goals for the coming year, or if it would be better to reflect on highlights from 2011. As you are about to find out, I like to juggle a lot of things. I might as well keep up with that tendency and write about both in the same post!

I have never been a fan of creating a formal list of New Year’s goals. I have a lot of interests and love them all… everything from activities at work, working on projects involving ostomy awareness, artistic endeavors, fitness goals, to trips Doug and I want to go on. I get a little frustrated when I try to make a formal goal list because there is so much I want to do! I soon discover that it is probably unrealistic to accomplish it all. That said, there are a few things that are a high priority this year.

  • I want to do a better job of keeping in touch with my friends and family. To all my family and good friends who are reading this: did most of  you get a Christmas card from me??? (Rhetorical question!) I didn’t think so. The same busyness I mentioned above sometimes keeps me from answering emails, writing or calling people, and spending time with my loved ones. I want to be better about making sure these people know how much they mean to me.
  • I want to continue sharing my thoughts on this site. No need to elaborate much more on this one. I have a huge passion for showing people what is possible after ostomy surgery and hope to keep writing and creating videos.
  • I want to get back into working on art. My creative endeavors like drawing, painting, blockprinting and keeping illustrated journals are also big passions for me, and I keep another website covering some of those pursuits. If you visit the site you will see that my last post was completed in August. Not so good. And there is a printmaking project that has been gathering dust on my art studio table for over a year. Art needs to be part of my life again. I realize that may mean a few less posts here, as there are only so many hours in a day, but I am going to try to balance both…. all while working and doing outdoor adventures and exercising. Whew! It is going to be a busy year.
  • I want to go on a climbing road trip.  Two weeks, camping near the crags, waking up and firing up the camp stove, climbing routes all day and then coming back to camp to relax with a beer only to do it all again the next day — that is what I am longing for this year. When Doug and I were in college we spent a summer living out of the back of our truck and traveling the west, climbing pretty much non-stop. I am psyched to get back to that, even if it is only for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t strong enough for this type of trip in 2011, but I will be in 2012 and look forward to doing it with an ostomy!
  • I want to run in the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Team Challenge Half Marathon next December. I am only up to running about three miles right now. However, I have almost a year to train and it seems like I am finally getting off the plateau I have been stuck on. I am feeling so much stronger on runs lately and plan to inch up the intensity a bit in the ensuing weeks.

Now to rewind and reflect on 2011– the first full year of living with my ostomy. There have been so many highlights this year and most of them have already been covered in posts. Great times with friends and family, fun outdoor trips, stellar surgery results– I could write a book on all the amazing things about this year. To keep this post from becoming as long as a large novel, I will cover just a few major categorical highlights. Here are the best of the best for 2011:

  • Discovering my body’s ability to heal. There are many, many examples of this, but there is one that sticks in my mind the most.  Ten weeks after my initial surgery, I had to have an operation on my  incision, and my surgeon ended up removing some sutures that my body had reacted poorly to and then fixing things up. The resulting wound had to heal from “the inside out” with the help of a wound vac. Seeing that wound for the first time was a surreal experience. It was 13 cm long by about 3 cm wide and another 1 cm or so deep. I had to detach mentally to view it, and when I did, it reminded me of an interesting dissection project from biology class. Actually, my scientist-side was pretty fascinated– it was certainly not a part of me that I had ever gotten to see before (and hopefully never would again). Right before my eyes I could see my abdominal wall and the layers of skin tissue on the sides of the wound opening. What happened in the following six weeks was even more captivating (okay… except for the pain of the wound vac which was really bad for me at times). The wound filled up with healthy red granulated tissue and then sort of zipped itself up from top to bottom. How did my body know how to do that?  It was absolutely amazing! I thought I would end up with a heinous scar, but it actually looks pretty great considering the wound that was there before. Now whenever my body is healing, even from something as small as a pulled muscle, I think about that experience. The body’s ability to heal is truly amazing and something that 2011 will always remind me to celebrate.
  • So many firsts! After I was sick for a while and then started to feel better, life just got so exciting! In the beginning, the firsts are so small. There was the first walk after surgery, the first time output came out of my stoma, the first appliance change. Things progressed from there… there was the first time I got brave enough to eat a peanut, the first try at putting my favorite jeans back on, drinking my first beer. Then there were all the athletic firsts… snowboarding, hiking a 14er, running, climbing. I am still hitting firsts all the time. Yesterday was the first time I climbed a 5.9-rated route at the gym. It was a delicate climb that required more balance than brute muscle power. Still, it was the first time that I felt like I was back in my old climbing body, doing some of the more athletic climbing movements that I used to. What a way to end 2011!
  • A new outlook. I write often about how being sick and going through major surgery has changed the way I view things. This has been one of the biggest blessings of 2011. I find examples of this new outlook in even the smallest moments of my life. For instance, a few months ago I was getting ready to lead a campfire program at work. It had been a long week and I was feeling tired and “grumbly” and not into it. Suddenly I remembered how much I missed my job last year and how much I longed to be out in the parks leading programs again. I immediately changed my attitude, got excited about the program and fully seized the moment. I got up on stage and shared information about all the amazing changes animals were going through to prepare for winter. I told stories, sang goofy songs with the kids and had one of the best programs ever. On the drive home I was overcome with emotion because it had felt so good to be out there again doing what I love. Life had given me back all I had ever hoped for and here I had been sulking just a few hours earlier. It was a big reminder to live with a spirit of thankfulness for what I had. Gratefulness, the ability to live more in the moment, the capacity to deal with uncertainty and change– these are just some of the ways I have changed for the better I have made in 2011.

As soon as I am done with this post, I am going to go for a run. I love the thinking-time running gives me, and inevitably, I always start composing blog entries in my head. I am sure as my feet hit the pavement and my thoughts drift off, I will think of hundreds of other things I could have included in this post. Suffice it to say that it has been an incredible year of recovery, growth and change. I am so excited to see what the next year will bring!

Hand jams and high steps: outdoors on the rock (feat. new video)

Five days ago at our local crag, I stood at the base of a short, easy (5.6) route, looking up and assessing the possible moves and thinking about how my body might handle them. This outdoor climb (on real rock!) looked easy and had obvious holds, but it was still much different than the indoor routes I had been training on. In the gym, the wall is peppered with holds and any time one of the routes (marked with colored tape for various difficulty levels) would get too hard for me, I would simply grab a hold marked with another color to make it easier. It was a different world outdoors. Here, the holds were spread out with far less to choose from than in the gym.

Until that moment, the last time I had been outside on the rock was in July of 2010. Doug and I had taken a nine-day trip to a climbing area called City of Rocks in Idaho. Amazingly, this trip fell right in the middle of the only true remission I ever had in my 10-year history with Ulcerative Colitis. I remember walking to the outhouse in the dark to administer my maintenance dose of Rowasa and wondering if I even needed it. I would check my toilet paper whenever I went to the bathroom, certain there would be blood on it. Astonishingly, for the first time in a very long time, it looked normal. Every time I got to the top of a cliff on that trip I remember pondering how amazing I felt. I seriously thought I might have somehow been spontaneously cured.

Enjoying remission on top of a route at the City of Rocks in July 2010. This was one of the last climbs I did before falling ill with the final severe UC flare that led to my surgery.

Sadly, that joy didn’t last. Two months later my final raging ulcerative colitis flare came on and I found myself lying in a hospital bed instead of sitting on top of a cliff. When I was ill it took a ton of effort just to bend over and pick something up off the floor. I sometimes thought my climbing days were over for good.

But they weren’t. One of the main reasons I chose to have a permanent ileostomy surgery was because I felt that it would give me the best chance of returning to climbing. Still, it was a long road to get back to the rock, and the strenuous nature of the sport made me apprehensive and cautious. It took a lot of time to heal, get strong (I’m still working on that) and gain confidence, but the moment had finally arrived to attempt my first outdoor route after the operation.

Many months had gone by since I last sat at the base of a cliff lacing up my rock shoes in anticipation of an ascent. This time, as I began to climb, I barely recalled what it felt like to dance up a route with the sun warming my back and the wind gently blowing my hair against my face. I had forgotten how amazing it was to have my mind focused only on the cracks and crimpy holds in front of me and nothing else. These things had once been so beloved and familiar to me, and though they now felt foreign, I could sense my body waking up and remembering with every reach, jam, and high step. My passion for climbing had been rekindled, and this was only the beginning.

If you’re new to Ostomy Outdoors, don’t forget to check out all the other adventure videos we’ve put together for you.

When to be patient? When to push?

It is obvious when reading my blog that I am happy with my ostomy and super thankful for the surgery. However, there are still days on which the fears capture me. This morning when I woke up, my abdomen was unusually sore to the touch in about about a 3-inch perimeter around my stoma. It has been a while since I have had ostomy-related pain of any sort, but I was instantly taken back to those days after surgery when I was desperately trying to sort out what was normal pain and what might be something serious. I had a short period of intense anxiety issues after my surgery due to some complications (I hope to write a little more about this in a future post), and this morning I was back in that place for a moment.

My stomach clenched up and my head spun in a storm of worry thinking about all the things that the pain could be from. I knew the pain had nothing to do with a blockage, my output was completely normal in consistency and quantity. In a moment of rational thought, I remembered all the exercise I had done during the week. Two nights ago, I had upped my workout at the climbing gym. It was the first time I had ventured onto more vertical routes– still easy but slightly more strenuous than the slabby ones I had been doing. This week I also went from running every few days to running 30-45 minutes each evening. The runs I had been doing previously were short mileage-wise and slow, but last night, I felt carefree and energetic, and I ran faster than at any time since surgery. It was invigorating to fly down the trail at a brisk pace and with no rests. I couldn’t wait to go again today.

But now this pain. I really hope I didn’t overdo anything and cause injury. Tomorrow is my appliance-changing day, and I will get to take a better look around the area. In the meantime, I am actually relieved that the muscles on the other side of my abdomen are starting to hurt as are my calves. That means that the pains around my stoma are likely nothing more than sore muscles too. I am going to guess that they just came on sooner and fiercer because that side is much weaker. I canceled my run for the day and went for a speedy walk instead.

One would think that a year after surgery, especially with all the hiking I have done, that my body would be ready for such a workout. When I am feeling so well and healthy, it is incredibly difficult to know how hard I can safely push myself. The little pieces of colored tape marking even the 5.7 rated routes (an easy-to-moderate grade) at the climbing gym keep tempting me, as do the steeper trail runs. How will I ever know when I am ready for these? I wish that there was some kind of manual that said 365 days after surgery you should be able to do A, B and C. Seeing that there is a much higher likelihood of going downstairs and finding a sloth sitting at my dinner table holding a fork in his three toes than acquiring such a publication, I will have to continue to proceed through trial and error.

I hope tomorrow when I poke around my stoma that everything feels great, and that I can slip on my running shoes once again and hit the trails… albeit with the pace turned down a notch. Patience, Heidi, patience.