The Ups and Downs of Menstruation on the Mountain
“Because it’s there.”
This is the most concise answer a mountaineer will give to the question of why mountains must be climbed. There is no logical explanation as to why humans chase elusive summits at the risk of frostbite, broken bones, and death.
The history of mountaineering (written mostly by white men) is teeming with stories of struggle: muscles aching, migraines from a lack of oxygen, cravings for cooked food, and just sheer exhaustion. However, there is an unspoken dimension added to the challenge for women and trans men trying to survive in high altitudes: menstruation.
I used to be terrified of getting my period out on the mountain, but it’s super manageable if you come prepared and are ready to recognize when you need to take the day off. I always bring two menstrual cups so I have an extra for emergency situations, and vegan chocolates, though you should bring your own go-to, treat-yourself food. A menstrual cup is unbelievably simple to clean in the outdoors, or at least as simple as it is to use the restroom, wherever you are. I heat up some water on the camp stove and use that water to clean out the cup—if it’s safe to drink, it’s safe for your menstrual cup. Here’s what you do when you’re dumping it out in the backcountry where the world is your toilet: dig out a cathole (if you haven’t already) at least 200 feet from any body of water, trail, or a camp—a basic Leave No Trace practice!
The most difficult thing about having your period on the mountain is the temptation to shrug it off. But sometimes that’s just really hard. All you want are cuddles, chocolate, and a warm bed, not gale force winds slamming into your tent and sub-zero temperatures! I used to struggle with ideas of self-worth; I thought that because I didn’t want to drag myself out of my sleeping bag when Mother Nature called with cramps and backaches, I was weak and could never compete with others on the mountain. This, of course, is nonsense.
Climbing mountains requires a fine balance between recognizing when you need to stop to take care of yourself and when you need to push for the summit. Treading this line is a dangerous mental game to play that becomes even more difficult when I’m on my period. Last May, I joined an expedition team in the Himalaya for three weeks, which provided my period just enough time to crash the middle of the grueling trek. I wish I could say that, in that moment, I pushed through with the strength of mind over body, but in reality that is incredibly difficult to do. It took me a long time, but now I realize that taking time for myself is perfectly fine and not some sign of inherent weakness. One day, a few hours before the sun set, I turned in early and spent time reading poetry and eating sweets in my tent.
Even when you aren’t on your period, mountaineering is extremely taxing on the body and mind. Poor nutrition can be a question of life or death and it can be tempting to take in as many calories as you can in any form—Hot Cheetos and Pop Tarts are fan favorites on the mountain. But being vegan is exactly what my body needs in high altitudes, if I’m only willing to put in the time to plan ahead with climbing partners and a nutritionist. In the Sierras, climbs take a minimum of two days; for a one day 24-mile hike up Mt. Whitney in the summer, I had oatmeal in the morning and veggies, dried fruits, nuts, and avocado sandwiches the rest of the day (more or less exactly what I eat at home).
When I’m planning my meals, I always take into account how much waste I’ll have to bring down from the food I bring up the mountain. This is important not just for zero-waste, but to minimize how much weight I’ll be carrying—each pound matters when you’re at an altitude of 14,000 feet. I remind myself when I consider taking any food with packaging: if this falls out of my backpack when I’m physically exhausted, I might not have the energy to climb back up to pick it up and I might not be able to pick it up without risking my life. Entering any plan with this mindset has drastically decreased the amount of waste I find myself with at an expedition. It’s not a perfect solution, but is helpful to protect the ecosystems we love so much.
It is an ironic tragedy that the diet of mountaineers so easily contributes to the destruction of places they couldn’t imagine living without. My obsession with mountains began years before I saw the remnants of a once beautiful tropical rainforest in Central America or first encountered the term “conflict palm oil.” Making the connection between my diet of meat and foods containing palm oil and the melting of glaciers necessarily broke my heart. Climate activism begins at the dinner table. Because I have come to love the mountains and wild places on this planet so deeply, I changed my diet to consider palm oil and carbon emissions in every meal and joined the climate movement to protect these lands for future generations. I am continually reminded of how important it is for all of us—not just mountaineers or environmentalists—to think of the planet as we eat.
I must admit I still have no rational response to the question of why I climb mountains. (I’m often asked if I should instead dedicate the time I spend climbing to increasing the amount of environmental work I do). Part of my answer can be found in a desire to explore the sheer beauty and strength of the mountains as I work to protect them. Because it is there and I have come down from beautiful summits, I love sharing what I have learned and what I continue to learn from my adventures and what it is to be a young woman in a sport that is still largely male-dominated.