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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OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals: a helpful tool for dealing with ostomy waste outdoors

A couple of summers ago I climbed Devil’s Tower in Wyoming on a 98 degree day. As there was no place to empty up on the rock, I used closed-end pouches and carried the full ones out in my backpack.  As I was rappelling the route upon completion of the climb, I noticed that I could smell ostomy output through my backpack. Oh no! My used ostomy pouches must be leaking out of the plastic bags I put them in, I thought. When I got to the base of the tower,  I opened the lid of my pack with trepidation. However, all was well with my ostomy pouches. They were still nestled securely in three layers of plastic– the final one being an OPSAK odor-proof bag. The heat had simply made things very smelly and no amount of bagging seemed to help. If odor-proof bags couldn’t conceal the smell, I figured nothing could. I accepted that an odoriferous backpack would be my new reality on hot-weather outdoor adventures.

Fortunately, thanks to a new product called OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals, my backpack will be smelling a lot fresher. Last fall, a representative from the company contacted me to see if I would give the OstoSolution Seals a try and provide feedback. Though I don’t get paid to promote products, I enjoy trying samples out and letting readers know about supplies that may make managing their ostomy easier. After learning about the OstoSolutions Seals, I was excited to test them out because it seemed like there were many situations where they could be useful for outdoor adventures.

An OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seal is a lid for the opening of a two-piece ostomy pouch. It snaps on and keeps any odor or output from coming out when a used pouch is thrown away. To insure a tight fit, Ostosolutions Seals are pouch-specific and are available for a wide variety of brands and sizes.

I have an ileostomy and empty my pouch four to eight times a day. Because of this, I usually use drainable pouches and keep one on for three to four days. If I were to use disposable closed-end pouches everyday, I would go through far too many and it would be expensive. However, when I am in places where it is difficult to empty a pouch, for instance on a cliff face or in deep snow, I do use closed-end pouches and pack them out when full. These are the times when I could see the OstoSolutions Seals being practical for me.

The first opportunity I had to try out the seals was while doing volunteer flood-relief work in my home state of Colorado. I was scheduled to help dig out a home in a heavily impacted area and knew there would be no restrooms nearby. I wasn’t comfortable digging a hole to empty and it was difficult to find privacy with 20 other volunteers working at the site. My only option for managing my ostomy waste was to use a closed-end pouch and pack it out. This provided the perfect opportunity to test out one of the OstoSolutions Seals.

After shoveling mud all morning and taking a lunch break, my pouch was finally getting full. I wandered a short distance from the house, ducked behind a tree, discreetly removed my pouch and popped on a fresh one. Then I snapped an OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seal onto the coupling ring of the full pouch. It was as easy as putting a lid on a food container and completely secure. I did throw the full pouch in Ziplock out of habit, but I wouldn’t have had to. With the seal securely on the pouch, there was absolutely no chance of stool leaking out.

Moving countless buckets of mud as a flood relief volunteer.
We moved countless buckets of mud as flood relief volunteers.
With no restrooms or places to empty my pouch at the site, OstoSolutions made dealing with my waste easy.
With no restrooms or places to empty my pouch at the site, OstoSolutions Seals made dealing with my ostomy waste easy.
OstoSolution Seals simply snap on the pouch's coupling ring for a leak and odor proof seal.
OstoSolutions Seals easily snap on the pouch’s coupling ring for a leak- and odor-proof seal.

I worked for the remainder of the afternoon and used one more seal on a full pouch before finishing up for the day. My husband and I had carpooled to the site with two strangers in their Volkswagen Golf. As we made the hour-long trip back to Boulder, it was comforting to know that no odors would be wafting out of my pack and into the airspace of the small car.

The second test was on a November hike to the top of 14,440 ft. Mt. Elbert in Colorado. I knew it was going to be very cold and windy on the adventure and I hoped that using the OstoSolutions Seals would make swapping out my full pouches faster. I have Raynaud’s disease and when my fingers are exposed to cold temperatures, my circulation becomes impaired. Without blood, they turn waxy white and become prone to frostbite very quickly.

Just 500 feet below the summit, I realized my pouch was getting full. My hiking companions kept going while I dashed behind a boulder to swap out pouches. I quickly lowered my waistband, took off the full pouch and put on a fresh one. After that I snapped an Ostosolutions Seal on the used pouch and tossed it loosely into a stuff sack in my pack.  After a quick dollop of hand sanitizer, my gloves were quickly back on my hands and I was catching up to my friends on the trail. Not having to take the time to close multiple Ziplock bags in the freezing wind saved my fingers. Using OstoSolutions will make swapping out pouches on cold-weather adventures so much easier!

With OstoSolutions Seals, there is not need to double-bag. I simply put the full, closed up pouch in a plastic lined stuff sack.
With OstoSolutions Seals, there is no need to double-bag. I simply put the full, closed up pouch in a plastic-lined stuff sack.
On top of 14,440 ft Mt. Elbert-- the highest peak in Colorado.
On top of 14,440 ft. Mt. Elbert– the highest peak in Colorado.

Though I didn’t get to test out the seals on a hot day like the one on my Devil’s Tower climb, I know that they would be a great tool in these types of conditions. When one disposes of a full pouch in a regular plastic bag, such as a Ziplock, the odors are not contained–especially on warm days. To remedy this I would put all my Ziplocks full of ostomy pouches on a given trip into one large reusable OPSAK brand odor-proof bag. This would work fairly well, but on hot days the OPSAKS never fully contained the odor. Also, the OPSAK bags are expensive, and they would wear out after a while and need to be replaced. With the OstoSolutions Seals, I do not have to worry about using odor-proof bags. Ostomy pouches are already made out of odor-proof materials. By covering the opening with an OstoSolutions Seal, no smells can escape.

On some adventures where it is easy to dig holes in the dirt to empty my pouch into, I use drainable pouches instead of packing out my waste in closed-end ones. However, I may still have to pack out used pouches when I change my whole appliance on multi-day backcountry trips. An OstoSolutions Seal could also be used to snap onto a used drainable pouch awaiting disposal.

The only disadvantage of the seals for me was knowing that I was adding another piece of plastic to the waste stream each time I used one. However, this impact was counteracted by having to toss away far fewer Ziplock bags. The OstoSolutions are also made out of some recycled plastic. I know having an ostomy does result in throwing away a lot of bags, wafers, packaging and other supplies that only have a one-time use. However, these things are necessary for my quality of life without a colon. I choose to focus on all the other important ways I can reduce, reuse and recycle. For instance, I make my own lunches and carry them in re-usable plastic containers, I don’t buy bottled water, I use cloth grocery bags and I recycle every possible thing I can.

Overall, I am very happy with the OstoSolutions Ostomy Pouch Disposal Seals and plan to carry them on my future adventures. With them, used pouch disposal can be fast, discreet and odor-proof.

Check out the OstoSolutions website for more information and special offers.

Another review of the OstoSolutions Seals can be found at http://www.livingbiggerwithcolostomy.com/2014/02/ostosolutions-ostomy-pouch-disposal-seal.html.

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.

How to select ostomy pouch styles for the outdoors

Last weekend I was reminded why I love using closed-end ostomy pouches on hikes and climbs. I was up on a long ridge between between Loveland Pass and Mt. Sniktau in Colorado. Though it was a gorgeous 75-degree day down in Denver, up at 13,000′ it was blustery and frigid. We left the house at 4:15 a.m. so that we would be done with our climb and back to the car before afternoon thunderstorms came in. I emptied my appliance before leaving the house, but by the time we reached the summit of Mt. Sniktau at around 9 a.m., my pouch was reaching its 1/3 full point. This is typically when I like to empty it.

Problem was, no ideal place to empty a pouch could be found on the entire ascent. The wind was howling and shelter was non-existent. On top of this, there were many feet of snow on the ground. The few places where there was exposed earth, it was frozen solid.  There was also no way to go off of the ridge to empty away from the trail. Precarious cornices sat 50 feet to the east of the route and dangerous avalanche slopes could be found 50 feet to the west. Emptying would have meant draining my pouch in the snow close to the area where people travel. Once the snow melted, fecal matter would have been left on top of the ground in a popular area. This was one of those instances when wearing a two-piece ostomy system and using closed-end pouches was almost a necessity.

The ridge between Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau provided few places to empty a pouch.
The ridge between Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau provided few places to empty a pouch.

If you are just finding out that you will be having an ostomy, or are recently out of surgery you may find the sheer number of ostomy appliance choices to be overwhelming. Closed-end, drainable, one-piece, two-piece — what do all these mean and which ones are best suited for various outdoor adventures? A lot of these choices come down to a matter of personal preference.  The goal of this post is to share some information on the basic types of appliances and explain how I utilize the various options on peaks and trails. I’d also like to hear what you’re using in the outdoors.

First, ostomy appliances come in one- or two-piece options. With a one-piece appliance, the wafer (also sometimes called a skin barrier) is permanently joined to the bag and cannot be separated–you’re literally stuck with this pouch until you remove the whole thing. The benefits of this style is that it has a low profile and sits very flat against the abdomen. The disadvantage is that because the wafer and bag cannot be separated, you lose the flexibility of being able to swap out different types of pouches unless you take the whole system off your belly. I used one-piece drainable pouches for the first five months after surgery, and on one of my very first major outdoor trips as an ostomate: a three-night early spring backpacking excursion. The ground was snow-covered and frozen on this adventure and I ended up trying to drain my pouch into plastic bags so that I could pack out my waste. It didn’t go well and I got output all over my pants and all over the outside of the bag I was trying to drain into. From that point on, I recognized that a two-piece system would be a better option for my outdoor trips.

In a one-piece ostomy system, the wafer is permanently attached to the pouch. Because of this, swapping out different pouch styles on the same wafer is impossible.
In a one-piece ostomy system, the wafer is permanently attached to the pouch. Because of this, swapping out different pouch styles on the same wafer is impossible. Pictured is a Coloplast SenSura X-Pro drainable one-piece appliance.

With a two-piece appliance, the wafer and pouch are separate and attach to each other with a plastic ring that snaps together much like Tupperware. Once the wafer is on your belly, different styles of pouches can be put on or taken off this ring. These systems are a little higher profile because of the plastic ring. However, there is much flexibility in using them because you can swap out different types of pouches depending on your activities. Due to this, a two-piece appliance is my clear choice for outdoor adventures. Also, I find that even with the plastic ring, two-piece ostomy systems are undetectable under my clothing.

There are also choices for the pouch portion of an ostomy appliance; they come in drainable or closed-end versions. Drainables have a tail that unfolds so that output can be emptied out of the bottom. Once the tail of the pouch is wiped clean, it rolls up and closes with either a clip or a Velcro strip until it needs to be emptied again. A person with an ostomy may use the same drainable pouch for multiple days.

Closed-end pouches have no tail. Once they fill up, they are designed to be thrown away full. Due to their simpler design, they cost less per bag than drainable pouches. However, most ileostomates don’t use them the majority of the time. Due to output coming directly out of the small intestine having higher water content, those with ileostomies usually have to empty their pouches six times a day or more. Even though closed-end pouches have a cheaper per-pouch cost, going through so many  in 24 hours makes them impractical and not cost-effective. Generally closed-end pouches are better suited for those with colostomies who may only have to empty a few times a day. That said, there are occasions when closed-end pouches are the perfect tool for those with ileostomies too.

With a two-piece system, the pouches can be separated from the wafer. On the right is a drainable pouch and on the left a closed-end one.
With a two-piece system, the pouches can be separated from the wafer and swapped out. On the left is a drainable pouch and on the right is a closed-end one. Pictured clockwise is a Convatec Sur-fit Natura drainable pouch with an Invisiclose tail, a closed-end pouch, and a Durahesive cut-to-fit wafer.

Drainable pouches are my preference most of the time, even on wilderness adventures, as long as I can find a good place to empty. Packing out full closed-end pouches can be heavy due to the high water content of ileostomy output. In fact, I once weighed the trash bag that contained a day’s worth of full closed-end pouches after an all-day climb and it came in at 3.5 pounds! Multiply that for trips that may be several days long and you can see why I use closed-end pouches only when necessary.

However, my hike on the ridge is an example of an ideal time to use a closed-end pouch. I also like using closed-end pouches in other places where it is impossible to empty: on cliff faces when climbing, on rocky peaks where it is impossible to dig a cathole, and on crowded urban trails. Though I haven’t been on a river trip with my ostomy yet, I can also see them being very useful in these situations when one cannot get far enough from a water source to empty. Also, it takes longer to dig a hole in the ground and properly drain my pouch when in the wilderness than to swap out a pouch. There have been a few times when I have been caught in storms and have decided to swap to a closed-end pouch instead of draining in order to minimize my exposure to lightning, high winds, cold rain or other dangerous elements.  Both drainable and closed-end options also come in smaller sizes if one wants a tinier pouch for some activities such as swimming.

It is also worth mentioning that there is one other style of two-piece ostomy appliances; they are called adhesive coupling systems. Instead of having a plastic Tupperware-like ring like traditional two-pieces, the wafer has a smooth plastic area and the pouch affixes to this with a sticky adhesive ring. The benefit of these is that, without a plastic ring, they are very flat on the belly. You can still swap out pouch styles by peeling off the old bag from the wafer and sticking on a new one. However, I find that adhesive coupling appliances don’t work well on my outdoor trips . When I peel off the full pouch, a little output inevitably gets on the place where I am supposed to affix a clean one. I then have to fully clean this in order to get the fresh pouch to stick. It ends up being too messy and hard to deal with in the wilderness where there is no water to clean up with. I find it much easier to use the traditional two-piece appliances with plastic rings. Even if a small bit of output gets on the ring, it still snaps together fine and is not messy at all.

In adhesive coupling two-piece systems, the wafers and pouches stick together with an sticky ring. They are low profile, but I find them messy to swap out when on outdoor trips.
In adhesive coupling two-piece systems, the wafers and pouches adhere together with an sticky ring. They are wonderfully low profile, but I find them messy to swap out when on outdoor trips. Pictured on the left is a Convatec Esteem Synergy adhesive coupling system and on the right is a Coloplast SenSura Flex wafer and pouch.

A downside of closed-end pouches is that they are a disposable item. I try to make the best environmental choices possible in my daily activities, so I do sometimes cringe when I throw away my bag of closed-end pouches after a climb knowing I have added more to the landfill than I would have if I would have stuck to a drainable that day. I try to remind myself that I do this for a medical reason and to deal with a basic life process of bodily waste removal. In other aspects of my life, I try my best to be gentle on the earth. I take reusable bags to the store, drive a fuel-efficient vehicle, use public transit, buy organic produce to protect wildlife from pesticides, use eco-cleaners to keep toxins out of our water supply, recycle every item possible, and make wise purchases. I hope that, in the grand scheme of things, the impact of the pouches that I throw away is small. I really do only try to use them when absolutely necessary.

When I was on Mount Sniktau on Sunday and decided draining wouldn’t be possible, I even began to wonder if I could find a good place to take off my full pouch and put an empty closed-end one on. It was so windy and there were people everywhere on the ridge. Once my pouch was 1/3 full, I couldn’t find a place to make the switch. I decided I would wait until later to deal with it. The good thing about my ostomy is that, unless I eat something that irritates my stomach and gives me pure liquid output, I have plenty of time to get around to emptying. It is rarely urgent.

On the summit of Sniktau. It was really cold and windy up there with very little shelter.
On the summit of Sniktau. It was really cold and windy up there with very little shelter.

As I made my way down the ridge from the summit, more and more people were coming up and I realized I couldn’t be fussy with my site selection for swapping. My pouch was now 1/2 full and I needed to take care of it soon. I ran ahead of Doug and his dad but also saw that some people were heading towards me.  I had about 5 minutes before they reached me so I tossed my pack to the side of the trail next to a small pile of rocks and tried to create a wind break. I then dug my supplies out and tied a small doggie poo bag to my pack strap so it wouldn’t blow away (this is what I would throw the full pouch into). Next I pulled down the front of my pant waistband, took my hernia prevention belt off, and quickly swapped out the full pouch for the clean one. Just as I had gotten my clothing back into place and was bagging up my trash, the two hikers approached me. I said hello and we talked for a second about the route. They clearly had no idea I had just dealt with my ostomy. To them, from a distance it probably looked like I was futzing around with my clothing or backpack. One can very discreetly manage their ostomy on the trail with a two-piece system and closed-end pouches.

With all the options out there, it pays to experiment with all the different brands and styles. Don’t feel like you have to use only one type of appliance. Have a dressy occasion where you definitely don’t want your appliance to show? Wear a sleek one-piece that week. Hanging out at the beach all day? Go for a mini drainable pouch that won’t hang out beyond the bottom of your suit. And if, like me, you find yourself needing to empty on a wind-swept ridge with sheer drop-offs on both sides — a two-piece with a closed-end pouch may be just the ticket. Take advantage of all the products out there to make life with your ostomy the best it can be.

This is the spot where I swapped out my pouch. By the time Doug caught up and snapped this photo, I was finished managing my ostomy and was changing my camera battery. However, from a distance swapping out a pouch doesn't look much different than this. It can be done very discreetly.
This is the spot along the trail where I switched out my pouch. By the time Doug caught up and snapped this photo, I was already finished managing my ostomy and was changing my camera battery. However, from a distance, swapping out a pouch doesn’t look much different than this. It can be done very discreetly.

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!

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.