Mollydog was always full of crazy antics on our outdoor trips. She liked to hike with 3-foot-long logs in her mouth and knock us off the trail when she passed by. She managed to sneak up to our food stash and wolf down that one special dessert item we were saving for the last day of a trip. Molly loved to sleep between Doug and me with her four legs fully extended so that we were mushed up against the outside walls of our tiny backpacking tent. She relished going for swims, rolling in the mud and then curling up in my sleeping bag.
This summer, there is an inescapable void. I no longer look over my shoulder when I am hiking to keep from getting whacked, guarding my food at dinnertime is now unnecessary, there is too much space in the tent and my sleeping bag is unusually clean.
Last year on this day, our beloved Mollydog passed away.
Molly joined our small family unit when she was 7 weeks old and took to the trails immediately. For the next 13 1/2 years, we were a party of 3 and were pretty much inseparable. Molly came along on just about every skiing, hiking, backpacking, climbing and canoeing trip we went on. She would often jump in the car as we were packing up, fearing that we might leave her behind. She need not have worried– adventures were always ten times more fun with her along. There were only rare instances when Molly didn’t join us– usually when we were doing long multi-pitch climbs or traveling to an area where dogs weren’t allowed like national parks.
On a three-day backpacking trip this past weekend, my husband and I finished our fifth and sixth 14ers (a peak above 14,000 feet) since the beginning of July. Most summers before this, I was lucky if I did one or two. I have definitely caught the 14er fever. Hiking these peaks has provided me with the perfect opportunity to get outdoors and challenge myself physically while still babying my abdominal muscles. Indoors, I do a battery of physical therapy exercises that safely strengthen my core. In concert, these two activities will prepare me for the more rigorous demands of technical rock climbing in the future.
While hiking these peaks, I have been amazed at how quickly I am progressing and getting my strength back. While I walked the first one at a turtle’s pace, I am now hiking the peaks briskly and with little fatigue. All these successful peak hikes have also made me realize how well I have adapted to my ileostomy. Managing my appliance on the trail using both closed-end and drainable pouches has become second-nature. Moreover, changing my wafer outdoors, which is one of the things I was most fearful of, has proved to be very similar to doing it indoors except that I must pack out the trash (and the views while changing are more spectacular).
However, one aspect of my ileostomy that still baffles me is figuring out how much water to drink. One function of the colon is to absorb water. When it is removed, the small intestine is able to adapt and take on some of this role, but not as well. Because of this, ileostomates must drink more water to avoid dehydration. It has not been unusual for me to drink 8+ quarts of water on some of my all-day hikes. Up to this trip, I have not had any issues with dehydration. However, conditions were different on this excursion. The temperatures while making the strenuous uphill hike to camp were in the 80s which is warm for the elevation we were at. Despite drinking almost 3 quarts of water (some of which included a sport drink mix) and eating plenty of snacks along the way, I got to camp with a headache and bad nausea. Before we proceeded to empty our backpacks and set up our tent, I sat in the shade and drank some more fluids. In about an hour, I felt better. I upped my water intake over the next two days and did not run into the problem again.
“How about going ziplining,” our friend suggested. My first thought was, Absolutely! That sounds fun, I have always wanted to try it. My second thought was, Wait, what about my ostomy? How will my pouching system hold up to zipping through the air in a harness attached to a cable? Not to mention that there won’t be any restrooms for three hours. What if my pouch explodes or leaks? Maybe I should hold off.
Some fears keep you alive– like being afraid to climb higher on a route because it is above your ability, or being terrified of a river crossing because you know it might sweep you off of your feet and send you into the rapids. But there are also those fears that don’t have such dire consequences. The ones that pop into our heads and stop us from doing things that would actually be rewarding and good for us.
I recognized that the fears that were trying to stop me from going ziplining were of the latter variety and purged them from my head. I knew I could go 4-5 hours before draining my pouch– even longer if I pushed it a bit and let my appliance fill up a tad more. I knew the harness would likely cause no problems and that I was strong enough for the adventure. There was no reason not to give it a try.
We signed up for a 5-stage tour through the tree tops at the Crested Butte ski resort. One of the rules was that you couldn’t carry anything in your hands, so I guzzled a bunch of water to avoid getting dehydrated. Then we met with our guides and harnessed up. Much to my delight, the bulky, adjustable one-size-fits all harnesses still worked fine with my pouch. The upper part of the hip belt sat well above my stoma, and the harness barely touched my appliance.
Today Doug, his dad, and I summited the 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park via the classic Keyhole Route. This was an important ascent for me. I had climbed Longs Peak once before in 2007 and had loved the route. When I was hospitalized for 16 days with my final severe UC flare last fall, I would often walk down to a common area that had huge picture windows facing west and gaze at Longs Peak in the distance. I thought back to the day I stood on its summit, and wondered if I would ever be strong enough to be up there again. Today, I answered that question as I successfully hiked 15 miles with about 5000 feet of elevation gain to reach the summit. This peak was different than the others I have done this summer, as it is graded a class 3 climb. This means that the route has some sections that involve scrambling, or using one’s hands to ascend the rock, yet the terrain wasn’t technical enough to require the use of a rope. There are also areas of exposure where a person wouldn’t want to fall. It felt wonderful to move over rock, and the experience made me look forward to the days when I can climb technical routes again. I just want to heal up a bit more first.
Everything with my ostomy went well during the hike and there is not much to report. I once again used closed-end pouches to eliminate the need to take time to dig a cathole and empty my pouch. This helped ensure that we were on the summit before the afternoon lightning storms came. This ended up being an important detail on this trip, as we dealt with one of the largest lightning storms I have ever witnessed in the mountains later in the afternoon. Fortunately, we had just descended to tree-line when the storm reached its peak intensity and avoided being caught out in the open.
The day before our trip, I discovered that our summit attempt would fall on the United Ostomy Association of America’s (UOAA) second annual Ostomy Awareness Day. I was thrilled! UOAA’s call for this special day is to have “Ostomates Unite and Help Others See Ostomies in a Positive Light!” This is a message that is very dear to me and is one of the reasons I created Ostomy Outdoors.
However, I have to admit that I have not always been as open about having ulcerative colitis or an ostomy as I wish I would have been. Truth is, when I was first in the hospital with my severe ulcerative colitis flare last fall, I hardly wanted to tell anyone about it. Sure, I shared the details with my family and closest friends, but I was less open with others. My coworkers were all curious about why I had suddenly disappeared into the hospital. I sent out vague emails to them telling them I had an auto-immune stomach condition. I was too afraid they might look up ulcerative colitis and see what the symptoms were. Once my hospital stay became lengthier, I did fess up and share the name of the condition. Surprisingly, it felt really good to not have to keep everything to myself, and I found that the people in my life were very supportive.
I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend. In between working full time, I have been planning, packing up for and carrying out successful hikes of a few of Colorado’s famed 14ers. This hasn’t left much computer time for blogging. Stay tuned for an entry and video highlighting these ascents soon!
Until then, suffice it to say that so far my ostomy has caused me no issues in returning to the things I love again. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and at home during recovery wondering how in the world I was going to get back into outdoor activities with a stoma and appliance. I have finally discovered the simple answer to this question: just get out there and do it! Of course, you must keep in mind what is sensible in your healing progression, but beyond that, the answers of how to how to deal with your ostomy while you are out there will present themselves as you go. The will to succeed and enjoy your favorite activities again will go a long way in helping you overcome any challenges you might have.
What an amazing week of outdoor adventure it has been. We are still working on the video for our backpacking trip last weekend, as there is a lot of footage to sort through. We hope to get it on the site in the next week.
Until then, we created a short film covering a fun day-hike Doug and I completed along with Doug’s dad and our good friend. Shadow Canyon, leading to South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak in Boulder, Colorado’s famed Flatirons, has always been one of my favorite hikes. It is a challenging ascent that links up two peaks, and has around 3000 feet of elevation gain in a little over 3 miles. I have been day-hiking a bunch to get strong again, and figured I was finally up for something more strenuous. And was I ever! I could not believe how great I felt on the entire hike. Everyday I realize more and more how my diseased colon had held me back. Now that it is gone, I am blissfully getting used to my new “normal” and loving life!
There were a couple of new things to deal with on this excursion. One was scorching temperatures. The high today was 90 degrees–definitely my warmest hike since surgery. I had to really stay on top of hydration and ended up tanking up on water before getting to the trailhead, drinking about 4.5 liters of water on the actual hike and then guzzling another 1.5 liters when I returned home. I am finding that avoiding dehydration on the trail is not that difficult. It just takes planning to make sure you carry enough water, and then some self-discipline to make sure you drink, drink, drink.