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!

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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!

The New Year: looking back and looking ahead

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2012 brings health and many blessings.

As I set out to write my first post for 2012, I couldn’t decide if it would be best to look forward and write about my goals for the coming year, or if it would be better to reflect on highlights from 2011. As you are about to find out, I like to juggle a lot of things. I might as well keep up with that tendency and write about both in the same post!

I have never been a fan of creating a formal list of New Year’s goals. I have a lot of interests and love them all… everything from activities at work, working on projects involving ostomy awareness, artistic endeavors, fitness goals, to trips Doug and I want to go on. I get a little frustrated when I try to make a formal goal list because there is so much I want to do! I soon discover that it is probably unrealistic to accomplish it all. That said, there are a few things that are a high priority this year.

  • I want to do a better job of keeping in touch with my friends and family. To all my family and good friends who are reading this: did most of  you get a Christmas card from me??? (Rhetorical question!) I didn’t think so. The same busyness I mentioned above sometimes keeps me from answering emails, writing or calling people, and spending time with my loved ones. I want to be better about making sure these people know how much they mean to me.
  • I want to continue sharing my thoughts on this site. No need to elaborate much more on this one. I have a huge passion for showing people what is possible after ostomy surgery and hope to keep writing and creating videos.
  • I want to get back into working on art. My creative endeavors like drawing, painting, blockprinting and keeping illustrated journals are also big passions for me, and I keep another website covering some of those pursuits. If you visit the site you will see that my last post was completed in August. Not so good. And there is a printmaking project that has been gathering dust on my art studio table for over a year. Art needs to be part of my life again. I realize that may mean a few less posts here, as there are only so many hours in a day, but I am going to try to balance both…. all while working and doing outdoor adventures and exercising. Whew! It is going to be a busy year.
  • I want to go on a climbing road trip.  Two weeks, camping near the crags, waking up and firing up the camp stove, climbing routes all day and then coming back to camp to relax with a beer only to do it all again the next day — that is what I am longing for this year. When Doug and I were in college we spent a summer living out of the back of our truck and traveling the west, climbing pretty much non-stop. I am psyched to get back to that, even if it is only for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t strong enough for this type of trip in 2011, but I will be in 2012 and look forward to doing it with an ostomy!
  • I want to run in the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Team Challenge Half Marathon next December. I am only up to running about three miles right now. However, I have almost a year to train and it seems like I am finally getting off the plateau I have been stuck on. I am feeling so much stronger on runs lately and plan to inch up the intensity a bit in the ensuing weeks.

Now to rewind and reflect on 2011– the first full year of living with my ostomy. There have been so many highlights this year and most of them have already been covered in posts. Great times with friends and family, fun outdoor trips, stellar surgery results– I could write a book on all the amazing things about this year. To keep this post from becoming as long as a large novel, I will cover just a few major categorical highlights. Here are the best of the best for 2011:

  • Discovering my body’s ability to heal. There are many, many examples of this, but there is one that sticks in my mind the most.  Ten weeks after my initial surgery, I had to have an operation on my  incision, and my surgeon ended up removing some sutures that my body had reacted poorly to and then fixing things up. The resulting wound had to heal from “the inside out” with the help of a wound vac. Seeing that wound for the first time was a surreal experience. It was 13 cm long by about 3 cm wide and another 1 cm or so deep. I had to detach mentally to view it, and when I did, it reminded me of an interesting dissection project from biology class. Actually, my scientist-side was pretty fascinated– it was certainly not a part of me that I had ever gotten to see before (and hopefully never would again). Right before my eyes I could see my abdominal wall and the layers of skin tissue on the sides of the wound opening. What happened in the following six weeks was even more captivating (okay… except for the pain of the wound vac which was really bad for me at times). The wound filled up with healthy red granulated tissue and then sort of zipped itself up from top to bottom. How did my body know how to do that?  It was absolutely amazing! I thought I would end up with a heinous scar, but it actually looks pretty great considering the wound that was there before. Now whenever my body is healing, even from something as small as a pulled muscle, I think about that experience. The body’s ability to heal is truly amazing and something that 2011 will always remind me to celebrate.
  • So many firsts! After I was sick for a while and then started to feel better, life just got so exciting! In the beginning, the firsts are so small. There was the first walk after surgery, the first time output came out of my stoma, the first appliance change. Things progressed from there… there was the first time I got brave enough to eat a peanut, the first try at putting my favorite jeans back on, drinking my first beer. Then there were all the athletic firsts… snowboarding, hiking a 14er, running, climbing. I am still hitting firsts all the time. Yesterday was the first time I climbed a 5.9-rated route at the gym. It was a delicate climb that required more balance than brute muscle power. Still, it was the first time that I felt like I was back in my old climbing body, doing some of the more athletic climbing movements that I used to. What a way to end 2011!
  • A new outlook. I write often about how being sick and going through major surgery has changed the way I view things. This has been one of the biggest blessings of 2011. I find examples of this new outlook in even the smallest moments of my life. For instance, a few months ago I was getting ready to lead a campfire program at work. It had been a long week and I was feeling tired and “grumbly” and not into it. Suddenly I remembered how much I missed my job last year and how much I longed to be out in the parks leading programs again. I immediately changed my attitude, got excited about the program and fully seized the moment. I got up on stage and shared information about all the amazing changes animals were going through to prepare for winter. I told stories, sang goofy songs with the kids and had one of the best programs ever. On the drive home I was overcome with emotion because it had felt so good to be out there again doing what I love. Life had given me back all I had ever hoped for and here I had been sulking just a few hours earlier. It was a big reminder to live with a spirit of thankfulness for what I had. Gratefulness, the ability to live more in the moment, the capacity to deal with uncertainty and change– these are just some of the ways I have changed for the better I have made in 2011.

As soon as I am done with this post, I am going to go for a run. I love the thinking-time running gives me, and inevitably, I always start composing blog entries in my head. I am sure as my feet hit the pavement and my thoughts drift off, I will think of hundreds of other things I could have included in this post. Suffice it to say that it has been an incredible year of recovery, growth and change. I am so excited to see what the next year will bring!

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.

Happy holidays everyone! (feat. new video)

Homemade lasagna is about to come out of the oven, my wine glass is full, and my body is feeling wonderfully worked out after spending a glorious Christmas day flying down the slopes on my snowboard. Doug and I quickly put together a little Christmas video covering the adventure (and a special thanks to my hubby for editing it all during the short commercial breaks during the Green Bay Packers game). Basking in the Colorado sunshine, hanging out with my sweetie and being elated to do something I love so much became the perfect equation for the silliness in the video. It was an amazingly fun day, and I am blessed to be feeling so well again.

 

I hope you all had a joyous holiday season with those you love. I also send my thoughts out to those who are still in the midst of illness or recovering from surgery. May the upcoming year bring bright days for everyone.

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.

Continue reading “The long haul (feat. new video)”

Dealing with Output on the Trail (feat. new video)

Many new ostomates wonder how to deal with their output on hikes, as we usually have to empty our appliances every 4-6 hours. The answer is to dig a “cathole.” This is the term commonly used by backpackers for a hole to bury feces in. Because this is a very important skill for any outdoor enthusiast with an ostomy (or IBD) to have, I created a short video to cover some of the basics.

I am guessing that I have dug around 500 catholes in the backcountry in my lifetime. As an ileostomate, I am increasing that number at a rapid rate. Gone are the pre-ulcerative colitis days of having 1 or 2 bowel movements in a day. Now I consistently empty my pouch around 6 times in 24 hours. On the trips when I don’t use closed-end pouches, that equals 48 catholes on a 7-day trip! Knowing how to properly dig a cathole to protect the environment and water sources is crucial.

Continue reading “Dealing with Output on the Trail (feat. new video)”