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.

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Mollydog’s Lesson

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.

Muddy Molly on a backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

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.

A young Molly heading to the river for a swim.
Backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

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A Case of 14er Fever Requires a Lot of Water (feat. new video)

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.

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