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.

 

Birds and birthday cake

I turned 43 years old this month and brought in my next year with an overnight camping trip on the wide-open expanses of the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Unlike last year when I was too stressed out to even celebrate, this birthday was full of calmness (other than the wind which nearly blew us off the prairie.)

All year, I worked hard to re-prioritize various aspects of my life so that I could stop feeling so overwhelmed. This meant saying no to a lot of projects and requests and sometimes disappointing people. It meant spending less time on activities I enjoyed a little in order to make room for things I loved a lot. It meant that, yes, I would miss out on some opportunities and activities, but the reward would be a life that felt closer to my heart and less stressful. Activities like yoga, art and adequate sleep were back in my weekly routine. Pulling into our campsite, I felt light and free knowing that I had rid my life of many of the distractions that had been weighing me down. How wonderful it felt to have no agenda other than to relax and take in this new place with Doug.

We pitched our tent, set up camp and drove the desolate dirt roads that make up the Pawnee’s  21-mile birding tour. With no agenda, we let curiosity be our guide–stopping our car and getting out to explore whenever we saw something that caught our eye. We watched horned larks and McCown’s longspurs devour huge meaty grasshoppers and a saw a green, algae-filled pond that bubbled with squirming salamander tadpoles in its soon-to-evaporate water. Doug took photos of windmills and the landscape while I stopped to sketch.

Windmill-for-webPawnee-Grasslands-journal-pWhen we returned to the campground, the winds died down and we made madras lentils from scratch on the camp stove, ate birthday cake and watched the abundant bird life singing from the cottonwoods around our site. As the temperatures tanked, we burrowed into our sleeping bags in the tent, but not before gazing into the vast night sky. With little light pollution, the stars were so bright that it was hard to pick out some of the usually prominent constellations.

Cooking-web-version
I crush some garlic for a tasty meal of homemade madras lentils.
Binoculars-and-Birthday-cak
I watch the bird life while eating birthday cake at the campfire.

The blazing morning sun belied how cold it was when we woke up the next morning, but soon hot drinks were on the stove and we were ready to start the day. After packing up camp, we drove to the popular Pawnee Buttes hiking trail. On the way there, we stopped to scan a prairie dog town along the road for burrowing owls. Much to our amazement, we spotted one in less than a minute! I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to see one of these birds. It was a first sighting for us and a big birthday treat for sure!

Buttes-jumping-for-web
Hooray! Let’s celebrate Heidi’s birthday!!!

Though I will always be a mountain girl, it was wonderful to be visiting the plains for a change. When I was a child, I was captivated with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie books. My family went on many a road to trip to visit the places she lived. It had been a long time since I had been back to exploring a prairie landscape and the wide-open spaces surrounding the Pawnee Buttes Trail were awe-inspiring.

Buttes-hiking
Little hiker on the prairie.

When we reached the trail’s terminus, Doug spotted a horned lizard at the side of the path. I took out my sketchbook and sat down to record the shape of its head, curves of its tail and spiny body.  Had the creature not run off after ten minutes, I could have drawn it for hours. Here I was taking this little moment to sketch this little lizard, yet the peace I felt was as boundless as the prairie surrounding me. I could not think of one thing that would have made my birthday more special. I was in heaven.

Prairie-for-web
Enjoying the moment as I sketch a tiny lizard in an immense landscape.

It was time to head back to the city. We bounced down the washboard dirt roads and then finally made it to the smooth pavement of bigger highways. Soon we saw the familiar cityscape of Denver. It was hard to believe we had only traveled 100 miles to get home–the grassland was a different world.

In the days of bucket-lists full of exotic trips, it is easy to think you aren’t living life to the fullest if you aren’t voyaging to far-off locales. It’s not that one shouldn’t dream large, but family needs, lack of money, medical issues– including surgery recovery– and other things can make that safari to Africa or a climb of a Mexican volcano hard to manage.

Instead of feeling bad about what you are unable to do at a certain time, make it a priority to get out on some local excursions. Who’s to say that living fully has to happen in distant lands? I found a treasured moment hiding in six square inches of grass on a vast prairie only two hours from my home. I wonder what other incredible things are to be found right outside my front door?

Lizard-for-web
“Find pleasure in the simple things,” says the wise lizard.

 

Rainier is on the front burner

When life gets busy, some things end up on the back burner. Lately, that item has been sleep. There has barely been a night in the past couple of months when I have gotten more than seven hours of shuteye—usually the number has been closer to five and there have been times it has been less.

What has forced sleep onto the back burner?  In part, it’s a large, glaciated peak named Mt. Rainier that I will be climbing very soon. Along with my full-time job, life lately has consisted of these four things:  hiking peaks every weekend to prepare for Rainier, going to the gym in the evenings to train for Rainier, keeping up with my physical therapy so that my joint issues don’t crop up on Rainier, prepping and packing for the Rainier climb. See a theme here? All these things take up an incredible amount of time. Many evenings I don’t get to bed until late trying to squeeze it all in.  Most every training peak we have done has required a wake-up time of 1 a.m. in order to make it to trailheads early so that we can summit peaks before afternoon storms roll in. And even then—we experienced static electricity and buzzing hiking poles on one peak as a rogue storm cloud blew in at 9:30 a.m. Yikes!

With the climb on the front burner and sleep on the back one, my blog has worked its way into the far rear corner of a little-used cupboard behind a large kettle. Tonight I clanked through the pots and pans and dug it out for a quick post.  To everyone who has been tuning in to the blog or who have emailed or commented and not gotten an answer: thanks for your patience. I will be back to posting and corresponding regularly once I return from the trip. Below, I am including some photos of our adventures so you can see what I have been up to. Since my last post about five weeks ago, we have climbed six 14ers and four 13ers, including a three-day backpack trip with one of the adventures. Whew!

As I prepare for Rainier, I am starting to get a little nervous about some ostomy-related things. I am wondering what it will be like trying to discreetly swap out closed-end pouches while roped up on a team, including some strangers.  I hope I can keep up with my hydration needs.  I am afraid that during short breaks, all my time will be used dealing with my ostomy and that I won’t have time to eat and refuel.  Will my ostomy supplies make my pack heavier than everyone else’s? I know it will all be fine, but there are a lot of unknowns on the trip.

One thing that has really helped me not worry are the amazing staff at the guide service we will be using, International Mountain Guides. I have explained what having an ostomy is like to them and have asked for their suggestions on everything from dealing with poop on the mountain, to questions about hydration and accommodating my gluten-free diet.  It is always a little awkward bringing up the intimate details of life with an ostomy, but being open about it helps me get the answers I need. The staff has made the process so easy. I feel comfortable asking them anything which definitely helps quell the fears.

In many ways though, I love the uncertainty. The best thing I have discovered for becoming confident with my ostomy is to throw myself into new situations wholeheartedly. Through those occurrences, I learn that I can be resourceful and adapt to anything. I can’t wait to see what challenging experiences await me on the gorgeous ice-covered slopes of Mt. Rainier. No doubt I will come back from this adventure with my horizons stretched even farther.

On the summit of Mt. Bierstadt at 9:30 a.m. in what we thought was just a rogue misty fog cloud rolling through. Moments after this photo was taken, Doug's hair started to stand on end and our poles started buzzing. We never ran so fast down a mountain.
On the summit of 14,060 ft. Mt. Bierstadt at 9:30 a.m. in what we thought was just a rogue, misty cloud rolling through. Moments after this photo was taken, Doug’s hair started to stand on end and our poles began to buzz. We never ran so fast down a mountain.
Gorgeous views often come with early starts. The moon sets over the saddle between Grays and Torreys peaks.
Breathtaking views often come with early starts. The moon sets over the saddle between 14,270 ft. Grays Peak and 14,267 ft. Torreys Peak.
Taking a breather and soaking in the view after hoofing it up a steep gully on our acent of Mt. Evans with a 45 pound pack.
Taking a breather and soaking in the view after hoofing it up a steep gully on our ascent of 14,264 ft. Mt. Evans with a 45-pound pack. We make our packs heavy for training by carrying bags full of water. I actually threw in a few rocks for extra weight before heading up this slope:) I definitely won’t be doing that on Rainier!
Resting with my 55 lb pack on an 3-day backpacking trip to climb Mt. of the Holy Cross. After a night of sleep at basecamp, our route asended the ridge on the right side.
Resting with my 55 lb. pack on a three-day backpacking trip to climb 14,005 ft. Mount of the Holy Cross. After a night of sleep at base camp we ascended the ridge on the right side of the photo.
A gorgeous early morning sunlight greets us mid-route after starting our hike up Holy Cross at 3 a.m.
Spectacular early morning sunlight greets us mid-route after starting our hike up Mount of the Holy Cross at 3 a.m.
On the summit of Mt. of the Holy Cross.
On the summit of 14,005 ft.  Mount of the Holy Cross.
Descending from Notch Mountain. Mt. of the Holy Cross, which we hiked the day before, can be seen in the background.
Descending from 13, 237 ft. Notch Mountain the day after ascending Mount of the Holy Cross–obvious in the background.
Ascending Mt. Yale with my monster pack in some early morning fog.
Ascending Mt. Yale with my monster pack in some early morning fog.
No Views from the summit of Mt. Yale on this day.
There were no views from the summit of 14, 196 ft. Mt. Yale on this day.
Yet another 3 a.m. alpine start as we leave for Turner Peak.
Yet another 3 a.m. alpine start as we leave for the 13er called Turner Peak, the day after hiking Mt. Yale.
On the summit of Turner Peak. The day before we climbed Mt Yale which is the peak in the center behind the mist cloud.
On the summit of 13,233 ft. Turner Peak. The day before we climbed Mt. Yale which is the peak in the center behind the mist cloud.
For our final training climb we did a chain of peaks: Mt. Chapin, Mt. Chiquita and Mt. Ypsilon. Just for fun we reascended Chiquita on the way back to throw in a little extra elevation gain.
For our final training hike, we did a chain of peaks: 12,454 ft. Mt. Chapin, 13,069 ft. Mt. Chiquita and 13,514 ft. Ypsilon Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Just for fun, we reascended Chiquita on the way back to throw in a little extra elevation gain.
On the summit of Mt. Ypsilon. The next time we are at this elevation will be during our Mt. Rainier trip.
On the summit of 13,514 ft. Ypsilon Mountain. The next time we will be at this elevation will be on Mt. Rainier.

Back in the wilds!

Heart pounding, quads burning and lungs barely able to keep up — I could not believe I was standing at 13,000 feet again. Yet there I was! Doug and I spent the weekend in Breckenridge with his parents. Our rental was a mere two miles from the Quandary Peak trailhead, so yesterday we decided to head up the trail to see how far we could get.

Doug and I take a break along the Quandary Peak trail.
Doug and I take a break along the Quandary Peak trail.

I had no intentions of making the summit, and just wanted to be out in the mountains moving my body again. With the sudden onset of groin pain in mid-January and an MRI in February that showed gluteal tendinosis in my hip, I had been doing lots of physical therapy and taking a break from hiking. In fact, I was starting to think that my Rainier attempt in July might not happen. I tried to keep my fitness up with biking and swimming (doggie paddling really… I cannot do any overhead swimming strokes because it hurts my shoulder avascular necrosis (AVN) too much). However, those activities hardly replicated the intensity of climbing big peaks with heavy gear at altitude.

Fortunately, last week I got some good news at a much-anticipated appointment with a new orthopedic surgeon. After looking at my MRI, he didn’t see anything in my hip except for the gluteal tendinosis. However, he does not think that the tendinosis is causing the groin pain I have been experiencing because that type of injury typically causes outer hip soreness. This makes sense as the physical therapy I have been doing for the last two months has really helped some of the pain in the outside of my hip, but did little for the groin. The bottom line is that the doctor did not know what was causing the soreness in that part of  my hip; the joint looks healthy. He said sometimes they really can’t find anything and oftentimes these issues resolve on their own with time. He thought it was fine to start training for Rainier again as long as the pain didn’t worsen.

I also talked to him a lot about my shoulder AVN. Though I really liked working with the doctor that diagnosed the condition back in December, this particular orthopedic surgeon has more experience working with patients who have AVN. After looking at my MRI, he felt the AVN in my shoulder may not cause me any further issues. He said the necrotic area is small and that most of the cases he has dealt with have involved a much larger percentage of the humeral head. As a result, it is quite possible that I won’t ever need a joint replacement. Of course, he did say the exact progression is impossible to predict. The doctor said I was really, really lucky that I have not developed AVN in my hip. He has never had a patient that had it in the shoulder that did not also have it in the hip. (Could I be this lucky?!) Though he said it is always possible to develop AVN in another joint at any time down the line, the more time that passes after taking steroids, the better the chance is that this won’t happen. He mentioned that there are a lot of factors at play with steroid-induced AVN that doctors don’t understand. For instance, the window of time for developing AVN after stopping steroids appears to be a lot longer for some people and with some diseases than others.

It was a huge relief leaving the doctor’s office knowing that I had just been given the okay to get back to all my activities. And with my shoulder also feeling so much better, I happily started planning all my new adventures.

Unfortunately, my body wasn’t quite ready to cooperate. The morning after my appointment, I was bending over to pick something up off the floor and I felt a pull in my Achilles tendon. I was so disappointed. I had waited so long for that appointment with the new orthopedist and now I had developed an entirely new issue less than 24 hours later! This is so typical for me. There were many times when I was recovering from ostomy surgery when I would tell my surgeon everything was great at an appointment and then have something go wrong the following day.

Luckily, I had an appointment with my physical therapist that evening so I could at least discuss my latest joint woe with someone. He felt I had probably just strained the Achilles tendon a bit and gave me some stretches and strengthening exercises. Because my pain was minor, he thought I could still train as long as the movement of hiking didn’t irritate the tendon. Obviously if the issue starts to become more painful I will head back to the orthopedic doctor.

So, I wasn’t sure what to expect on the adventure yesterday. Much to my surprise, I felt great and ended up hiking around 5 miles round trip with a couple thousand feet elevation gain, making it to the 13,000′ shoulder of Quandary Peak. My Achilles did not hurt and my hip felt okay. A few times along the way I just stopped and listened to the beautiful sounds of being on a remote mountainside again. I could hear the wind in the tree branches and the snow crystals hitting my jacket and it felt amazing to be out there. I actually pinched myself a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The feeling of happiness felt so similar to those first wilderness hikes after my ostomy surgery when I realized that I would still be able to do an activity I loved so much.

Returning from a post-lunch ostomy pouch swap. With the deep snow, I use closed-end pouches instead of drainables and then pack out the full one.
Returning from a post-lunch ostomy pouch swap. With the deep snow, I use closed-end pouches instead of drainables and then packed out the full ones.
Nope. I am not dreaming and pinch myself just to make sure!
Nope. I was not dreaming and I pinched myself just to make sure!
We reached a high point of 13,000' on the shoulder of Quandary Peak. The summit can be seen in the distance.
We reached a high point of 13,000′ on the shoulder of Quandary Peak just as another snow squall came in. The summit can be seen in the distance.

I look forward to the many mountain trips on the horizon as I start to train for Rainier again. If If I end up not summiting the big peak due to all the recent training hiccups, I will be okay with that. If the fun I had today is any indication, just being on that massive and beautiful mountain is going to be a breathtaking experience in and of itself.

Relaxing in the hot tub after our hike with a perfect view of the peak.
Relaxing in the hot tub after our hike with a perfect view of the peak.

Lessons from a winter hiking trip

Sometimes after a busy summer season of packing and unpacking for an outdoor trip practically every weekend, I need a break. October and November were quiet months. I did some trail running, but didn’t go on any major adventures. The rest from the hectic pace felt wonderful and much needed.

Another reason I have been taking it easy is that I developed some unusual pain in my left shoulder in mid-October. My shoulder did great on my two-week climbing trip, but a couple of weeks after returning, the joint started to throb and hurt constantly. Ever since I was a teen, I have had off-and-on trouble with tendonitis in that joint and had even been working with my physical therapist over the summer to get my shoulder stronger and resolve these issues. Things had been going splendidly with the therapy, and before my climbing trip, my physical therapist thought I might even be close to not needing another appointment.

Unfortunately, that is not how things worked out. The new shoulder pain is different than what I had come to expect with my occasional bouts of tendonitis. Because of this, both my PT and doctor thought it would be a good idea to get an MRI. The test results showed tendinosis (a chronic form of  tendonitis) and also bone-marrow swelling in the head of my humerus. What this means exactly I do not know. My primary care doctor has referred me to orthopedist, but my appointment isn’t for another week. Of course, my mind once again wants to run to all the scary what-ifs of the situation. What if the marrow swelling isn’t from the tendinosis and is instead  being caused by… (fill in the blank with numerous frightening conditions here). What if I can never rock climb again? Ahhhhhh……

However, if there is one thing UC and having an ileostomy has taught me, it is that dealing with uncertainty is part of life. Instead of letting myself fall into my usual pattern of worry, I am going to try to forget about my shoulder until my appointment next week and focus on the activities I can do. One of these is hiking. Even with a backpack, hiking doesn’t seem to bother my shoulder at all. And on the plus side–hiking is the most important activity I need to be doing right now to train for Rainier.

So on Sunday, I set out with Doug and his dad to hike up a peak. Our original plan was to hike James Peak (elevation 13,294′). However, just before exiting the freeway for that destination, we had an idea. Let’s do a 14er instead! The road leading to Grays Peak (elevation 14,270′) was just a few exits up the road. Colorado is experiencing a very dry winter, and with the trailhead access snow-free and avalanche danger minimal, it was the perfect chance to get to the top of this peak.

The high temperature for the elevation we were at was in the mid-30-degree range, but with 30 mph winds, it felt much colder. I had packed 28 pounds of gear, including lots of warm clothes, food and three liters of water (Doug also carried an extra liter for me). I was surprised at how great I felt hiking at such high elevations with this weight. I had been expecting it to feel much harder after not hiking any big peaks since July. We made it to the summit in late afternoon and enjoyed the gorgeous views, including those of close-by Torreys Peak, another 14er. Though we had earlier thought about trying to do both peaks, we realized that the late departure from the trailhead on this spontaneous trip would not afford us enough daylight to get in double summits.

Descending Grays Peak with Torreys Peak in the distance. So close but oh so far.
Descending Grays Peak with Torreys Peak in the distance. So close but yet so far.

My ostomy caused no issues on the hike. I had to swap out closed-end pouches (I prefer these to drainables on peak climbing days) twice during the excursion. At one point on the ascent, I realized that my pouch was getting fairly full. I was behind a ridge that offered some protection from the wind and there was also a tall cairn to duck next to. Doug and his dad were a little ways back on the trail and there was another party about 500 feet behind them. There was no one coming the other direction, so I decided to seize the opportunity to swap out my pouch right there on the side of the trail. I grabbed a small trash bag and fresh pouch out of my pack, ducked behind the cairn, pulled the waistband of my softshell pants down and quickly swapped out pouches. By the time Doug and his dad caught up, I had the used pouch and my other supplies packed up and was ready to keep hiking. I know that on Rainier, I am not going to have much privacy when roped up with teammates on a glacier. It is reassuring to know that I can swap out pouches so quickly and discreetly.

Ducking behind this cairn to swap out my closed-end pouch right along the trail was easy and discreet.
When no one was close by, I ducked behind this cairn to swap out my closed-end pouch right along the trail on the ascent. I also swapped out a pouch on the decent. For that one, I just walked off the trail about 50 feet and turned my back so that no one could see what I was doing. I continue to discover that using closed-end pouches on these types of hikes is a very easy and discreet way of managing an ostomy.

The big challenge for me on this particular hike was the cold and wind. It was even more frigid than during our winter hike up Grizzly Peak last December, captured here on video.

Fortunately, in preparation for Rainier, I had purchased several new clothing items. This was a perfect chance to test them out. One new addition to my outdoor clothing quiver is a super warm down jacket with a hood. I have lighter jackets, but only this one is warm enough for extremely cold conditions. As I stuffed the two pounds of down luxury into my pack before the hike, I really thought it was going to be overkill. However, as  I threw this jacket on at breaks and at the summit, I soon realized it was a lifesaver.

Despite taking part in countless winter camping and backpacking trips, ice climbs and peak ascents over the years (including several since my ostomy surgery), I have never been as cold on a trip as I was on this particular hike. I am not sure why this was the case as I was dressed well and eating and drinking plenty. Regardless, some combination of wind, cold, shade, and my body on that given day had me freezing. On the summit I was so chilled that I could hardly grip anything. I had to use my teeth to zip up my jacket. As I descended back to the car, I kept having the urge to lie down and sleep. I would pass a boulder and think wow, that looks like a comfy spot to snooze for a little while. But then I would see Doug and his dad coming up behind me and would realize I didn’t have time for a nap. I don’t know if I was hypothermic, but if not, I was close. I shudder to think about how cold I would have gotten had I decided not to bring that down jacket.

On the summit with Doug and his dad in my super warm puffy down jacket.
On the summit in my super warm puffy down jacket.

I realize that having an extra-warm clothing item like this during cold temperature activities is especially important with my ostomy. Even though it only takes a couple of minutes to stop along the trail and swap out a pouch, I do have to expose a small section of my belly to the elements. In extremely cold temperatures, it doesn’t take long to lose heat by doing this. Packing conservatively with plenty of warm clothes is of paramount importance.

I can’t wait to head out on our next training hike, and I am starting to compile a list of peaks to attempt that have good winter trailhead access and low avalanche danger. For future training hikes, I will have to progressively increase my pack weight to at least 40 pounds (the expected weight of my pack on Rainier). I guess this means I can bring an extra large lunch next time!

A winter ostomy adventure (feat. new video)

After a whirlwind summer of camping, hiking and backpacking just about every weekend, outdoor adventures slowed down for the two of us. Snow and cold returned to the high country and the ski areas weren’t open yet. Once they did open, the snow was abysmal and I didn’t want to risk getting hurt by boarding on icy slopes. We were running and rock climbing (indoors) regularly, but we were not heading out into the mountains. At first, this slow down provided a much-needed break from the exhausting pace we had been keeping up over the warm months. It was fun to stay home on the weekends for a change and watch movies, sleep in and make gourmet breakfasts, and to draw, sew and do some of the other quiet hobbies I enjoy.

However, by December, I was antsy. The period of rest had been great initially, but now I felt like I was spending too much time away from the backcountry. Here I was finally feeling strong and healthy again, and I was sitting around at home weekend after weekend. Last year at this time I would have done anything to be able to go outside and climb a peak on the snow-covered tundra. Now that I was able,  it really bothered me that I was not seizing the moment to do so. It was time to get out of the house and back into the high country. As I began to research possible summit ascents, one of my friends suggested that Doug and I try 13,427′ Grizzly Peak– a climb she and her husband had done several years ago in the middle of winter. It sounded perfect; now we just had to wait for a good weather window.

Favorable conditions for hiking above treeline do not present themselves very often in winter. Frigid temperatures and heavy snows can make the high peaks very inhospitable places. The safest winter peak ascents, including Grizzly Peak, involve staying on high ridge tops to avoid avalanche danger.  However, these places are extreme weather-wise. The high winds on  ridges can expose one to dangerous wind chills and, when mixed with snow, can create whiteout conditions that make the easiest hikes impossible.

I began to watch the forecasts in hopes that one of our days off from work would line up with good weather. Finally, the magical combination presented itself: a Sunday predicted to be 40 degrees at 11,000 feet with cloudless skies.

I knew that dealing with my ostomy on a winter summit attempt could be challenging.  Even when the temperatures are above freezing in the mountains, it is almost always windy which makes the air feel absolutely frigid. Because of this, I decided to use closed-end pouches instead of drainables. I knew that this would help lessen my exposure to the elements since swapping out closed-end pouches is super quick. This was a wise decision as the conditions on the hike ended up being far colder than we anticipated. My latest film covers this excursion and shares some of the important things I learned in managing my ostomy in cold temperatures.

 

There are times during the winter when it feels so good to just stay home and cuddle up with a book and some hot chocolate. But Doug and I love balancing out those slower-paced moments with adventurous trips into the winter backcountry. Yes, these excursions are often fraught with weather uncertainties, numb toes, wind-burned faces and, now, cold fingers from changing ostomy pouches, but they are also filled with immense beauty. It is during these times when life feels most vivid and when our best memories are often made.

Memories of harder times

Last year at this time, I was just beginning my downward spiral into my final severe Ulcerative Colitis flare. Each day of the next few months will be an anniversary of something UC-related, and the flashbacks to those harder times will be abundant: there are the dates of my multiple ER visits, the admission for my 16-day hospital stay, my first Remicade infusion, the day I came to realize that surgery was my best option. It seems like reminders of my past illness are lurking around every corner. But then so are reminders of my amazing recovery.

Healing physically and regaining strength follows a fairly logical and direct path; recovering emotionally is a bit more circuitous. Sometimes it is hard for my brain to grasp all that has happened in the past 12 months. How in the world did I make it through the tough events of the year to get where I am now? It all seems to have gone by so fast, and I don’t believe my mind has fully processed everything yet.

Waking up from surgery on November 8th, 2010

Continue reading “Memories of harder times”