Hanging out at the crag (feat. new video)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Climbing progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long haul (feat. new video)

When I first got out of the hospital around Thanksgiving in 2010, I was overwhelmed with my ostomy appliance. I remember calling Doug on the phone in tears the first time I tried to change it on my own. Output had gotten all over the place, there was way too much skin showing around my stoma, and I had put the one-piece pouch on quite crooked. Doug had gone to the airport to pick up my Mom so that she could help take care of me during my recovery and wondered why I hadn’t waited until they got home so that they could assist with the change. I didn’t have a good answer. I have a fierce independent streak, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. However, after that disaster I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready. I needed their help, and Doug or Mom assisted me with every single change in those initial weeks.

Though I was feeling better about my appliance after a few weeks, I still wasn’t all that efficient or confident at changing. So I went back to my stoma nurse for a refresher. She gave me some more tips which helped and soon I could change my appliances by myself. Still, it was the one thing ostomy-related that made me cry out of frustration time and time again. My stoma always created output during the change, making things take a long time, and I struggled to get my pattern cut to the right size. I constantly worried that I wasn’t getting things perfect and that I was either going to strangle my poor stoma or that my skin was going to get eaten away from cutting the wafer too big. It was at these times that I had my biggest moments of doubt about backpacking. If I couldn’t even handle doing the changes in my house, with hot running water and oodles of washcloths at my fingertips, how would I possibly do it out in the wilderness? No matter how I tried, I couldn’t picture it as a reality.

The problem was, I was jumping to step 20 when I should have been concentrating on getting the basics down. I realized this was causing undue stress and anxiety, and I began to focus more on the moment and tasks at hand. I could figure out the backpacking part later.

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