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!

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Turning 40

I couldn’t stop smiling as I sat in the stands at Coors Field. I was attending a Colorado Rockies game for my 40th birthday, and the evening had been amazing so far. Planning to ride our bikes to the stadium (to avoid traffic and the parking fee), Doug and I had parked our car about a mile away.  Just as we were about to unload our bikes from the roof rack, a massive storm blew in and we watched lighting streak across the Denver skyline as hail pummeled our car. Once the storm ended, we jumped on our bikes and cruised downtown, breathing in the wonderful spring smell of rain-soaked ground and blossoming trees.

We arrived at the stadium an hour early, so we stopped to enjoy drinks at the Irish pub next door. I was halfway done with my Strongbow Cider when the waitress surprised me with a free birthday shot. I have no idea what was in the fruity purple concoction, but she assured me it didn’t have gluten in it, so down the hatch it went. This was a little more than I would normally drink on a mostly empty stomach with my ostomy, but hey, it was my birthday. Time to throw caution to the wind. My stomach wasn’t empty for long. As soon as we walked over to the stadium, I indulged in one of my favorite treats. I hardly ever eat hamburgers due to having celiac disease (and the fact that they are not that healthy), but Coors Field has a special gluten-free concession stand. Soon I was in my seat, huge burger in hand and eagerly anticipating the game.

Nature even provided some pre-game entertainment for my birthday. Perched on the balcony railing above me, a male house finch was singing his heart out. Over and over he belted out his melodious tune, and I kept thinking that there had to be a female baseball-fan-of-a-finch listening somewhere in the stands. I hope he finds her. There are certainly many great places to tuck a nest in the stadium and then the pair can watch every home game as they raise the next generation of Rockies-loving finches.

If this amazing start to my birthday evening wasn’t great enough, things got even better. The Rockies were clobbering the opposing team in one of the best games I had the pleasure of watching. In between watching unbelievable plays, my mind cycled through memories of being at the stadium so many times before.

It was on a previous visit to Coors Field that my final UC flare first made itself known. I am sure many IBDers know the feeling of thinking they have finally found the magic bullet of probiotics, diet and medication to keep their illness in control, only to have their body fail them yet again. It was during a night similar to this one that I was having fun watching the Rockies when one such disappointing moment came. I got up to use the restroom during the 7th inning stretch and noticed a tiny speck of blood from my intestines on the toilet paper. My heart sank. I left the bathroom and tried to focus on the rest of the game, but all I could think about was the fact that my four-month remission was over and my UC was back. At the time, I had no idea that those initial specks of blood would turn into the massive flare that would cost me my colon. When I look back at my photos from that evening, I see a woman who is blissfully unaware of the major life change that is about to happen. If you would have told me that night that I would have an ostomy a few months later, I would have said you were out of your mind.

Sitting in the stadium on my 40th birthday, I realized that I still had no idea what was around the corner. But if there is one thing I have learned in my 39th year, it is that this uncertainty is okay. Tomorrow would be on its way soon enough, but right now I was enjoying watching the players slide into bases and hearing Doug yell GO TODD at the top of his lungs every time Todd Helton was up to bat. Right now I was having fun singing Take Me out to the Ball Game and seeing the people around me laughing and goofing around with their friends and family. Right now I was smiling as I blew out the candle in my birthday cupcake and made my wish for the year. Right now I was happy that my ostomy had allowed me all these moments.

For me, turning 40 wasn’t something to be sad about. It wasn’t about all the things that I hadn’t done or about goals not yet achieved. Turning 40 was about celebrating all the things I had done. It was about lightning and skyscrapers, house finches on balconies, bike rides through puddles, baseball players getting out of pickles and every other great memory I have from that day and all of those before.

Craving normalcy (feat. new video)

In the initial months after ileostomy surgery, all I craved was normalcy. Life as I knew it had completely disappeared. Gone were the days of getting up and going to the office to work on a variety of enjoyable challenges like writing nature-education curriculum and leading hikes. In my free time, there were no more hiking, snowboarding or running adventures anywhere on the horizon. Instead, life revolved around the wiggly red stoma on my belly. My days played out around endless worries and looked something like this:

7 a.m.  How am I going to get my appliance on while my stoma is spewing liquid output everywhere?

9:30 a.m. Okay… got the appliance on. Wait, is that skin showing between my barrier ring and stoma? Geez, maybe I should do it over. My output will certainly eat away my skin if it touches that exposed 1/8 inch. But will it destroy my skin more if I pull the wafer off so soon? I better just do it to be on the safe side.

10:30 a.m. I can’t believe it took me over two hours to get an appliance on and this second one still doesn’t look that great. I need to call Doug and vent about it or I will cry for hours.

10:45 a.m. I need to drink some water. I am already way behind on my liquids today and I haven’t eaten breakfast yet either.  I am really not hungry, but Dr. Brown said I need more protein. Is a protein shake and eggs enough?

11:30 a.m. I have only been up for a few hours and I am already tired. Better go take a nap. Am I always going to have to sleep this much?

1:30 p.m. Is that just a regular itch or is it from output touching my skin? Man, this incision hurts. I am not hungry, but I need to eat with my pain pills. I better have some lunch. When are these pain pills going to kick in? Drat, maybe I should have just sucked it up and not taken the pills. What if I become addicted to them?

2 p.m. Why am I watching this stupid TV show? Shouldn’t I be doing something productive? I am just too tired. Dang, I forgot to order those Hollister samples again. I am too tired to do that too. I can’t believe I am about to take another nap. I am supposed to be going for a walk right now, not sleeping.

3:30 p.m. The neighbors must be wondering what happened to me. I am walking so slow and hunched over, but it hurts too much to stand up straight. Is this two-block walk through the park really all I can muster? I can’t believe how much this hurts. This used to be my warm-up walk before I ran five miles, and now I can’t even cover this short distance. And I’m walking as slowly as a turtle.

4 p.m. I miss Doug. I am so lonely stuck here by myself. When is he coming home from work?

5 p.m. Doug is home! Doug is home! Doug is home!

6 p.m. Is this too late to be eating dinner? I am supposed to eat before now, but that isn’t very handy. Is four weeks post-op too soon to eat steamed broccoli if I chew it really, really well? I am so hungry for veggies. What if I get a blockage? Or horrible gas?

7 p.m. Wasn’t that just the 12th time I emptied my pouch for the day? When is this output going to slow down! It is like water. Have I had enough liquids to drink to offset that?

9 p.m. Okay, time to take a shower. Can I get this appliance wet? I better tape plastic wrap all over my belly just to make sure it stays dry and doesn’t peel off.

10 p.m. Time for bed. I should lie on my right side all night just in case I leak. Don’t want to get stool into my open wound.

11 p.m. My back hurts. I sure wish I could lie on my left side but I am too afraid.

12 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

2 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

4 a.m. Better get up to empty my appliance just in case.

7 a.m Thank goodness it is morning but I don’t want to get up. I am going to lie here and cry for a while. Will my life ever be normal again?

And so it went for the initial couple months after surgery. I was overwhelmed and depressed that my entire life now seemed to revolve around my stoma. I tried and tried to picture what things would be like when everything settled down, and I actually learned how to manage my ostomy, but it seemed impossible. I couldn’t see beyond the hard times I was facing in those moments. It was particularly difficult to imagine how I could possibly ever do outdoor sports like snowboarding again.

I wish I would have had a crystal ball back then. Had I, I would have seen that I shouldn’t have worried so much. My ostomy output would settle down as my body adapted. I would figure out my systems and become more efficient with them. My incision would heal. Someday in the not so distant future, my ostomy would feel like a regular part of my life as I returned to work and went on outdoor adventures again. In the crystal ball, I would have seen the point I am at now when everything is so much easier. The normalcy I craved after surgery has been restored to my life.

Last Sunday was a beautiful powder day in the mountains, and Doug and I headed up to go snowboarding. I decided to film the day’s events and create a video showing a typical day on the slopes with my ostomy. I realize everyone’s experiences are going to be a little different regarding their emptying schedule, when they eat, etc. What I hope to show is that once a person adapts to life with an ostomy and gets their own particular systems down, life can feel wonderfully natural again.

Cheers! Alcohol and the ostomy

One of the questions I see posted on forums often revolves around the ability to drink alcohol with an ostomy. Though every ostomate is different in what they can tolerate, I thought I would share my experiences. Now I will say straightaway that I am not a big drinker. Months can go by where I don’t drink at all. I even sometimes have beers in the fridge that reach their expiration date. Crazy, I know. However, even though I don’t drink that often, there is nothing like cracking open a cold beer after doing a successful climb, relaxing with a brew at a baseball game or enjoying libations at a special occasion.

Enjoying drinks with friends is something I hoped I could still do after surgery, and I am happy to report that I have no problems drinking wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages with my ileostomy. Here are a few of the things I notice:

  • If I drink on an empty stomach, I get pure liquid output that rushes through my system, and I can get dehydrated. I make sure to always eat a meal when I drink alcohol. When I do eat food with the alcohol, my output isn’t affected at all.
  • Even when things don’t rush through, I notice that alcohol still dehydrates me. Therefore, I make sure to drink a lot of water. Last night, I had two drinks and drank two 12 oz glasses of water with each one.
  • I can drink wine, beer (as long as it is gluten-free due to being gluten intolerant) and any other alcoholic beverages. I notice no appreciable differences in the way they affect my stomach or output.
  • Some people find that carbonated beverages like beer can cause gas which makes their pouch puff up. I have not found this to be the case and notice no difference from the normal “poofing” I get everyday.
  • The effects of alcohol seem more pronounced now that I have an ileostomy. I am very careful to assess my transportation options before I drink any alcohol.

Last night there was much reason to celebrate. My friend, Sarah, had passed her prelims and is now a Ph.D. candidate for her Graduate Degree Program in Ecology. Her final next step will be to complete her doctoral dissertation on the research she is doing on elephants in Africa. She even started an organization to help the Tanzanian people form a personal connection with the wildlife in nearby Ruaha National Park in hopes that it will lead to a local ethic of conservation. Sarah is a super inspirational person, and had worked so hard to reach this milestone. Celebrating over margaritas and beer was most definitely in order.

Amanda, Sarah and I celebrating after Sarah aced her Ph.D. prelims.

I often write about how meaningful the small things in life feel after being sick. It felt so good to be sitting there in the bar last night, laughing and enjoying drinks with my friends, basking in the camaraderie and hearing stories of hard tests and accomplishments reached. I looked around and saw everyone at the booths and tables around me smiling and having a fun time. It was one of many moments this year when I had the profound sense that everything is wonderfully normal and good in my life again.

Packing for a trip: could GORP come along? (feat. new video)

It is crazy what goes through your mind before surgery. Of course, I was worried about all the big things like how painful surgery would be, and how well my stoma would function, and if I would have any complications. But many times, other goofy little worries would pop into my head that should not have been on my radar screen. One of those was whether or not I would be able to eat GORP.

GORP, or good old raisins and peanuts, was a staple of my wilderness diet. I would create all sorts of great mixes with dried fruit, nuts and a variety of chocolates and candies. Yet nuts and raisins are both on the list of foods to be cautious with when you have an ileostomy. I feared that I would never be able to take one of my favorite treats into the wilderness again.

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