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!

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!

Hand jams and high steps: outdoors on the rock (feat. new video)

Five days ago at our local crag, I stood at the base of a short, easy (5.6) route, looking up and assessing the possible moves and thinking about how my body might handle them. This outdoor climb (on real rock!) looked easy and had obvious holds, but it was still much different than the indoor routes I had been training on. In the gym, the wall is peppered with holds and any time one of the routes (marked with colored tape for various difficulty levels) would get too hard for me, I would simply grab a hold marked with another color to make it easier. It was a different world outdoors. Here, the holds were spread out with far less to choose from than in the gym.

Until that moment, the last time I had been outside on the rock was in July of 2010. Doug and I had taken a nine-day trip to a climbing area called City of Rocks in Idaho. Amazingly, this trip fell right in the middle of the only true remission I ever had in my 10-year history with Ulcerative Colitis. I remember walking to the outhouse in the dark to administer my maintenance dose of Rowasa and wondering if I even needed it. I would check my toilet paper whenever I went to the bathroom, certain there would be blood on it. Astonishingly, for the first time in a very long time, it looked normal. Every time I got to the top of a cliff on that trip I remember pondering how amazing I felt. I seriously thought I might have somehow been spontaneously cured.

Enjoying remission on top of a route at the City of Rocks in July 2010. This was one of the last climbs I did before falling ill with the final severe UC flare that led to my surgery.

Sadly, that joy didn’t last. Two months later my final raging ulcerative colitis flare came on and I found myself lying in a hospital bed instead of sitting on top of a cliff. When I was ill it took a ton of effort just to bend over and pick something up off the floor. I sometimes thought my climbing days were over for good.

But they weren’t. One of the main reasons I chose to have a permanent ileostomy surgery was because I felt that it would give me the best chance of returning to climbing. Still, it was a long road to get back to the rock, and the strenuous nature of the sport made me apprehensive and cautious. It took a lot of time to heal, get strong (I’m still working on that) and gain confidence, but the moment had finally arrived to attempt my first outdoor route after the operation.

Many months had gone by since I last sat at the base of a cliff lacing up my rock shoes in anticipation of an ascent. This time, as I began to climb, I barely recalled what it felt like to dance up a route with the sun warming my back and the wind gently blowing my hair against my face. I had forgotten how amazing it was to have my mind focused only on the cracks and crimpy holds in front of me and nothing else. These things had once been so beloved and familiar to me, and though they now felt foreign, I could sense my body waking up and remembering with every reach, jam, and high step. My passion for climbing had been rekindled, and this was only the beginning.

If you’re new to Ostomy Outdoors, don’t forget to check out all the other adventure videos we’ve put together for you.

When to be patient? When to push?

It is obvious when reading my blog that I am happy with my ostomy and super thankful for the surgery. However, there are still days on which the fears capture me. This morning when I woke up, my abdomen was unusually sore to the touch in about about a 3-inch perimeter around my stoma. It has been a while since I have had ostomy-related pain of any sort, but I was instantly taken back to those days after surgery when I was desperately trying to sort out what was normal pain and what might be something serious. I had a short period of intense anxiety issues after my surgery due to some complications (I hope to write a little more about this in a future post), and this morning I was back in that place for a moment.

My stomach clenched up and my head spun in a storm of worry thinking about all the things that the pain could be from. I knew the pain had nothing to do with a blockage, my output was completely normal in consistency and quantity. In a moment of rational thought, I remembered all the exercise I had done during the week. Two nights ago, I had upped my workout at the climbing gym. It was the first time I had ventured onto more vertical routes– still easy but slightly more strenuous than the slabby ones I had been doing. This week I also went from running every few days to running 30-45 minutes each evening. The runs I had been doing previously were short mileage-wise and slow, but last night, I felt carefree and energetic, and I ran faster than at any time since surgery. It was invigorating to fly down the trail at a brisk pace and with no rests. I couldn’t wait to go again today.

But now this pain. I really hope I didn’t overdo anything and cause injury. Tomorrow is my appliance-changing day, and I will get to take a better look around the area. In the meantime, I am actually relieved that the muscles on the other side of my abdomen are starting to hurt as are my calves. That means that the pains around my stoma are likely nothing more than sore muscles too. I am going to guess that they just came on sooner and fiercer because that side is much weaker. I canceled my run for the day and went for a speedy walk instead.

One would think that a year after surgery, especially with all the hiking I have done, that my body would be ready for such a workout. When I am feeling so well and healthy, it is incredibly difficult to know how hard I can safely push myself. The little pieces of colored tape marking even the 5.7 rated routes (an easy-to-moderate grade) at the climbing gym keep tempting me, as do the steeper trail runs. How will I ever know when I am ready for these? I wish that there was some kind of manual that said 365 days after surgery you should be able to do A, B and C. Seeing that there is a much higher likelihood of going downstairs and finding a sloth sitting at my dinner table holding a fork in his three toes than acquiring such a publication, I will have to continue to proceed through trial and error.

I hope tomorrow when I poke around my stoma that everything feels great, and that I can slip on my running shoes once again and hit the trails… albeit with the pace turned down a notch. Patience, Heidi, patience.

A dot marks the spot

It was a gorgeously sunny October day last year when I packed up my harness and backpack and headed out the door. No, I wasn’t going on a hike or climb. In fact, the place I was traveling to wasn’t even outside. As I arrived at my destination, I walked down the sidewalk and through the double sliding door of the building. I made my way to the check-in line by the front desk and felt somewhat self-conscious with my huge backpack sticking out of a bag slung over my shoulder. A few moments later, I entered the crowded elevator, where people gave me quizzical glances. Such gear would be expected at a trailhead, but it was not the norm here. However, today, having my pack and harness was as important as it would have been on any hike or climb. As the elevator door opened on the ninth floor, I nervously walked to the department down the hall to meet my wound, ostomy and continence (WOC) nurse for the first time. It was time to have the site of my stoma marked.

I had been told to wear my favorite pants to the meeting so that the location would match with my clothing. However, I also decided to bring my harness and backpack. With outdoor activities being a huge passion in my life, I wanted to make sure that my stoma location would work as well as possible with my gear.

The paper cut-out shows where my stoma is. The location between the waist belt and leg loops prevents the harness from rubbing on my stoma. My belly button sits right under the waist belt.

At the meeting, the nurse shared important information about what to expect with output, eating, activities etc. Finally it was time to get the location marked. I felt a little funny explaining to her that along with making sure the spot worked with my belly and with my clothing, I also wanted to test it out with my harness and pack. Fortunately, she didn’t make me feel silly about my request at all, and soon I had a big blue dot on my abdomen about two inches to the right of my belly button and two inches below. This was a good location because it was below my belt line. This meant that gear or clothing waistbands would not rest on my stoma or prevent output from reaching the bottom of my pouch.

When I got home, I stood in front of the mirror and looked at the mark. I tried to picture what it would look like with a stoma there instead. Suddenly, my decision to have the surgery seemed very real, and I felt excited and nervous at the same time. To further discover how my new stoma spot worked with my clothing and gear, I filled up the ostomy appliance my nurse had given me with applesauce and taped it on top of the blue dot on my belly. I then went out to the garage to dig out every backpack I owned. The one I had taken to my nurse visit was my favorite overnight one, but there was also the brand new day pack I had just bought before I got sick again. I had only used it once. And then there was the large load-monster of a pack that I took on very long trips. Would that one work with the ostomy? One by one, I tried on the packs and they all seemed to rest well above my stoma. I was encouraged.

Continue reading “A dot marks the spot”

Permanent ileostomy or j-pouch: that was the question

One of the questions I get most often from readers of my blog is why I chose to have a permanent ileostomy instead of trying j-pouch surgery. Though I have mentioned a few of the reasons in other posts, I decided to address this topic in a little more detail. The point of this post isn’t to tell you that one surgery type is better than the other. They are both very good options. My goal in this writing is to share the thought process I went through to make my choice.

In the course of my illness, all my symptoms, colonoscopies, and genetic testing pointed to Ulcerative Colitis and not Crohn’s. This made me made me a candidate for either surgery type. At age 38 during the time of my surgery, why would I choose to live with a “bag” for the rest of my life?

It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, and I gathered all the information I could. This began when I was still in the hospital, facing the possibility of emergency surgery. The very kind and helpful general surgeon who would have done my surgery had I continued to decline, visited my room almost every day to check in and patiently answer my seemingly endless questions. He introduced me to the words “ileostomy” and “j-pouch” and gave me a great foundation of information to build on.

Continue reading “Permanent ileostomy or j-pouch: that was the question”

Back to climbing

“The scariest thing for me through this whole ordeal has been the rapid weight loss over the past two weeks. My muscles are gone and when I squat down to the floor to pick something up, I can barely get back up. I feel like I am doing the hardest move on a rock climb just to do some simple movement. I try to do a couple walking laps in the hall everyday to stay strong and keep my legs moving. I just want to be healthy and well again.”

Around this time last fall, I emailed the above update to a couple of good friends while I was in the hospital with my UC flare. I was so weak that it was difficult to do even the most basic things, like stand in the shower or walk up the stairs. I seriously wondered if I would ever be strong enough to rock climb again.

Last night, thanks to the health I regained through surgery, I made my first trip to the rock climbing gym in over a year. At first it felt foreign to put my harness on and tie my figure-8 knot, but once I placed my hands and feet on the holds and began ascending the wall, the movement felt natural to me.

On my first route in over a year

Continue reading “Back to climbing”