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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Pacing Yourself After Surgery

One of the hardest things in recovering from surgery and getting back into outdoor activities is knowing how to pace yourself. There are times in the months after surgery when there are clear lifting restrictions and guidelines, which provide easy-to-understand parameters for your activities. However, once those restrictions are lifted and you are feeling ready to get back to your normal sport routines, the path isn’t as clear.

Though it may seem like I am doing a lot of outdoor activities since surgery, I have paced myself very slowly. I started out with many short walks. When those felt good, I moved on to longer and steeper excursions. On the hike to Mt. Elbert covered in this video, my legs got extremely tired on the hike out, and I thought perhaps I had overdone it. Still, within three days, my sore muscles had completely recovered–a sign to me that the hike, though strenuous, was not at a level that pushed me too hard. By the next weekend, my muscles were feeling great and ready for a new adventure.

The following is a list of additional things that I am doing to prevent injury:

  • I always wear my Nu Hope hernia prevention belt when I do any outdoor activity beyond a short, flat-terrain day hike when I am carrying no significant weight (say 10-15 pounds).
  • I have my husband, Doug, help me lift my heavy backpack on to my shoulders. Once it is resting on my hips, I am better able to handle the weight without straining my abdominal muscles.
  • I use hiking poles to help with my stability as I get stronger.
  • I leave for hikes extra early to allow myself the ability to hike at a slower pace with more frequent breaks.
  • I pay very close attention to my body. So far I haven’t witnessed anything more than normal post-workout muscle aches. However, if I feel something more significant, I will back off and give my body more time to adjust to the next level of activity.
  • I am working with a physical therapist to strengthen my core muscles using very mild and low-impact exercises that are safe for the level of healing I am at.

My goal for the fall is carrying out a week-long backpacking trip with a few peak ascents. Hopefully with my training regime, I will be ready for this challenge.