Doug and I kicked off the new year by taking part in our very first biathlon race. I decided before the event that I wouldn’t worry about my time or how many targets I hit and just enjoy immersing myself in a new activity. After all, I barely even knew what a biathlon involved three months ago and here I was wearing a race bib and sliding on skis that I waxed myself! What a fun and unexpected way start to 2014!
As for the results of the race–I ended up taking a while to complete the 7.5 kilometers, didn’t shoot that well and skied A LOT of penalty laps (extra skiing due to missing targets). However, today my father-in-law sent some photos that he took of the race and I noticed something: I have a huge smile in just about every photo. Clearly I wasn’t that concerned about my easy pace or any lofty goals; I was simply loving my time on the course.
When I was pondering setting updated goals for 2014, I thought about the biathlon and how I seemed to savor the experience more by not putting so much pressure on myself. Maybe for this next jaunt around the sun it is okay to ease up by not having a huge list of things I want to achieve. I have a general idea of what I hope to accomplish in the next year, but mostly I’d just like to allow some time for a little spontaneity, smile as much as I can and enjoy the journey.
Magazines? Bolts? Barrels? No… I wasn’t reading, building something or making wine. I was sitting in class learning all the terminology to shoot a .22 rifle in a biathlon race. Doug and I decided to give a new sport a try this winter and biathlon looked like a lot of fun. This weekend there was a clinic to learn about rifle safety and how biathlon races work.
I cross-country skied years ago, but it had been at least ten years since I had been on skinny skis. The shooting part was new to me, save for a couple of lucky shots (I hit the target!) with a BB gun in Wyoming. I was a little nervous to try both of these things together, but I am glad I did. I had a great time! There were many newcomers to the sport in the class and it ended up not being intimidating after all. I even managed to hit a few targets during the practical portion of the class. Of course–it will be much more difficult to do that while skiing in an actual race. One of the biggest challenges of biathlon is attempting to hit targets when your heart is pumping fast and you are breathing hard. There is a race in January that I am thinking of doing so I can get a feel for what this really feels like.
At the clinic, I was focusing on keeping my hands warm (the high temperature was a whopping 13 degrees), remembering how to skate ski and figuring out a lot of new vocabulary and skills. I was also hoping that skate skiing wouldn’t irritate the avascular necrosis (AVN) in my left shoulder joint (which fortunately it did not). One thing that I wasn’t thinking about at all was my ostomy. My altered plumbing feels very normal to me now and it rarely enters my mind except when I go to empty my pouch.
That wasn’t the case three years ago. At this time back then, I was a month out of surgery and struggling emotionally. It felt like my ostomy was the only thing I thought about during an entire day. Changes were overwhelming, I was full of anxiety and I wondered if life would ever feel normal again. Even though I had wanted my ostomy for treatment of my UC, I grieved over the changes to my body and cried every single day.
Those times were tough, but I know that I had to go through them to get to where I am now. Returning to an adventurous life after my ostomy didn’t happen all at once; it took a lot of small steps. Had you told me back then that I would be shooting a rifle at a biathlon course in a few years, I would have thought it was crazy! As I enter my fourth year with an ostomy, it is great that life feels so normal again and it is also wonderful to be trying a new sport challenge. I can’t wait to see where my skinny skis take me!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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.
When life gets busy, some things end up on the back burner. Lately, that item has been sleep. There has barely been a night in the past couple of months when I have gotten more than seven hours of shuteye—usually the number has been closer to five and there have been times it has been less.
What has forced sleep onto the back burner? In part, it’s a large, glaciated peak named Mt. Rainier that I will be climbing very soon. Along with my full-time job, life lately has consisted of these four things: hiking peaks every weekend to prepare for Rainier, going to the gym in the evenings to train for Rainier, keeping up with my physical therapy so that my joint issues don’t crop up on Rainier, prepping and packing for the Rainier climb. See a theme here? All these things take up an incredible amount of time. Many evenings I don’t get to bed until late trying to squeeze it all in. Most every training peak we have done has required a wake-up time of 1 a.m. in order to make it to trailheads early so that we can summit peaks before afternoon storms roll in. And even then—we experienced static electricity and buzzing hiking poles on one peak as a rogue storm cloud blew in at 9:30 a.m. Yikes!
With the climb on the front burner and sleep on the back one, my blog has worked its way into the far rear corner of a little-used cupboard behind a large kettle. Tonight I clanked through the pots and pans and dug it out for a quick post. To everyone who has been tuning in to the blog or who have emailed or commented and not gotten an answer: thanks for your patience. I will be back to posting and corresponding regularly once I return from the trip. Below, I am including some photos of our adventures so you can see what I have been up to. Since my last post about five weeks ago, we have climbed six 14ers and four 13ers, including a three-day backpack trip with one of the adventures. Whew!
As I prepare for Rainier, I am starting to get a little nervous about some ostomy-related things. I am wondering what it will be like trying to discreetly swap out closed-end pouches while roped up on a team, including some strangers. I hope I can keep up with my hydration needs. I am afraid that during short breaks, all my time will be used dealing with my ostomy and that I won’t have time to eat and refuel. Will my ostomy supplies make my pack heavier than everyone else’s? I know it will all be fine, but there are a lot of unknowns on the trip.
One thing that has really helped me not worry are the amazing staff at the guide service we will be using, International Mountain Guides. I have explained what having an ostomy is like to them and have asked for their suggestions on everything from dealing with poop on the mountain, to questions about hydration and accommodating my gluten-free diet. It is always a little awkward bringing up the intimate details of life with an ostomy, but being open about it helps me get the answers I need. The staff has made the process so easy. I feel comfortable asking them anything which definitely helps quell the fears.
In many ways though, I love the uncertainty. The best thing I have discovered for becoming confident with my ostomy is to throw myself into new situations wholeheartedly. Through those occurrences, I learn that I can be resourceful and adapt to anything. I can’t wait to see what challenging experiences await me on the gorgeous ice-covered slopes of Mt. Rainier. No doubt I will come back from this adventure with my horizons stretched even farther.
Last Tuesday evening, I left work in a gorgeous swirl of falling snow but promptly got stuck in standstill traffic due to slippery road conditions. I half-thought of exiting the freeway and heading home, but the destination was too important and I knew that getting there would soon melt away any stress that had accumulated on the drive. In fact, it was almost guaranteed that I would leave the event in a good mood. I always do. So where was I heading that had me filled with such eager anticipation?
The fourth Tuesday of every month is my Ostomy Association of Metro Denver meeting. I started going to these meetings as soon as I was healed enough after surgery to get to them and quickly discovered how valuable they were. When you have a condition that is hard to talk about with most people, there is a feeling of instant comfort that comes from being surrounded by others who immediately understand what you are going through. A place where it is okay to talk about normally taboo subjects such as gas, rectums and bowel movements. Now that I have been attending the meetings for almost two years, I cannot imagine not having this support system in my life. I absolutely love talking to those who are facing or recovering from surgery and doing what I can to offer encouragement. I head home from every gathering wishing I had more time to talk to everyone and eager for next month’s meeting to arrive.
One thing that I hear many young people on IBD and ostomy internet forums say is how they often walk into such meetings and feel that they are the only one in their age group there. Many times these people don’t come back for this reason, and I think it is really unfortunate. Regardless of age, everyone can relate to the overwhelming emotions that come with ostomy surgery. Though different for each person, we all have stories of difficult times, fears we are facing, successes we are celebrating and hopes and dreams for our lives beyond illness. Coming together to share our experiences and thoughts on these things can offer profound opportunities for healing. I love the conversations I have at the meetings and learn something from every single person there whether they are 25 or 70 years old.
And guess what? If you wish that there were more people at the meetings your age– stick around. The next time someone else your age is nervously walking down the hall towards the meeting room and peeks in, they will see you there and feel less apprehensive. If that person chooses to also come back next time, it has a ripple effect and soon the group becomes more diverse. Make the meetings be what you want them to be by participating and returning for the next one.
If you don’t have access to a local support group to meet people in person, there are many groups to join on the internet. I wrote a post a while back about the importance of reaching out to others online. One of my biggest twists of luck when I was in the hospital and facing the possibility ostomy surgery was that my room had a good internet connection. Whenever my favorite nurse would see me typing away on my computer at an intense pace, she would always remind of how fortunate I was to be in that room because many of the others on the floor had poor Wi-Fi signals. I don’t know what I would have done without my computer. It became a lifeline from my isolated hospital room and allowed me to meet others who had gone through surgery and gone on to lead active lives.
Because of my own experience in reaching out for help when I was sick, it is a huge priority of mine to try to answer every single comment and email I receive on this site. Sometimes it takes me a little while due to a busy schedule, but you will hear from me if you write. Last fall, an email appeared in my box from another local adventurous ostomate: Lewis Benedict. That initial contact led to other opportunities to meet up including a recent hike of Twin Sisters Peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Lewis is now working on his own ostomy awareness website, ostomatevillage.com, and was even on cover of The Phoenix magazine this quarter! I am so proud of his accomplishments and look forward to many future adventures with Lewis and his wife, Tara.
I am thankful everyday that I have met so many amazing people through my ostomy association meetings, OstomyOutdoors.com, and other websites and social media. You all inspire me to no end and help keep me motivated when my own life presents challenges.
I am going to end this post with a video of the hike with Lewis mentioned above. I hope it provides some inspiration to get out there and meet other people with ostomies. If you are feeling alone while facing or recovering from surgery, or if you just want to meet other people who have been through similar things, know that there is a strong ostomy community out there. You just have to reach out.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.