In rock climbing and mountaineering, there are few acceptable excuses. Accountability is high. Other than dangerous weather or rockfall, if you flail, it’s really between you and the rock. So where, exactly, does PMS fit into that?
I began to wonder, high up in New Mexico’s rugged Organ Mountains, as I grunted and hollered my way up a short offwidth, about 200 feet up an easy trad route. Most days, I would have gritted my teeth, puffed some deep breaths and slowly figured out a way up. But that day, fear was an unusually intense weight pushing on my shoulders, pulling me away from the rock, out of the crack. I tried to pull myself together and push on. I reminded myself that was an easy grade and I was on toprope. But my body seemed dead set against it, my eyes threateningly full of moisture, the birth of a sob deep in the back of my throat.
Instead of giving in to tears, I bellowed ferocious, angry growls and yells with every awkward upward move, not caring if anyone heard my shouts echoing off the cliff walls. Thinking back on that unusual reaction later that day, I put two and two together and realized I was in the thick of PMS hormonal swings.
For weeks, I held the fear and emotion of that afternoon within me, like a tumor. This sensation didn’t feel like part of me. It wasn’t normal. And it worried me. As I moved on with my climbing, eventually feeling like myself again, though still with a healthy little hint of fear, I began to wonder about the effects of my period on my body – more specifically, its effects on my body when it’s high up on a rock.
The innate difficulty with a “syndrome” like PMS, whose indications largely manifest in subtle emotional, psychological ways, is that it’s easy to dismiss. Everyone knows a woman on her period can be moody and likely has cramps, but no one talks about the other documented PMS symptoms, the less-obvious kinds that could seriously affect her climbing ability: clumsiness, anxiety and panic attacks, fatigue, and concentration and memory problems, just to name a few, according to Brown University’s Health Education Department. A British study even showed that women are more likely to injure muscles and ligaments during PMS because ligaments loosen to allow the menstruation process. Essentially, we’re physiologically prone to flail and break down during that time of the month.
Courtenay Schurman, a Seattle-based certified strength and conditioning specialist who helps clients train for mountaineering and snow sports objectives, breaks it down this way: “Several studies demonstrate reduced reaction time, neuromuscular coordination and manual dexterity during pre-menstruation and menstrual phases…a woman’s hormonal cycle is not to be taken lightly.”
It turns out, pre-menstrual fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone also affect production of a slew of neurotransmitters, jacking with emotions and fight-or-flight reactions.
So it turns out I was a little justified about my emotional disintegration on the offwidth in the Organ Mountains. There was a reason it was so difficult to just “sack up.” It felt better to frame my actions in terms of PMS symptoms, but I still wasn’t at peace. It still felt like somehow I had failed, and I was afraid it might happen again.
Menstruation isn’t something we talk about much. A Google search for “menstruation and mountaineering” pretty much just turns up how-tos on logistics of packing out tampons when backpacking or arguments about whether it attracts bears.
However, one wonderfully brave female climber wrote a thoughtful, vulnerable blog post a couple of years ago about how her emotional PMS symptoms affected her climbing. An experienced climber, Sara has a voice of authority. She’s tough, and would not make excuses for herself. “I noticed that around PMS time, my climbing was strongly affected. It’s almost like my survival instincts kicked up to 11,” she wrote. “I felt weaker, less confident, and way more afraid for a few days a month.”
In an e-mail, she assured me that I was not alone-that this is something many female climbers deal with. “It’s possible to navigate all that,” she says. “It’s just not necessarily easy, and there’s not much written about it, because of how charged the gender issues around climbing are.”
So how exactly should we go about navigating it?
Surfer and filmmaker Leah Dawson said in a recent interview, “As a woman, I’m learning when to go in the sea, and when to stay out…When our intuition says, ‘Nope, not feeling it today,’ it’s usually a sign to stay out, especially if it’s at the beginning of our cycle. This is the time for rest and rejuvenation for the body, and most of my injuries I have had while surfing have come in/around my cycle. Listening to ourselves is vital as we adventure in the sea.”
That sounds wise. But climbing in the mountains is a different story. Climbing icon Steph Davis knows a little bit about it. “I’ve noticed feeling abnormally cold-not nice when climbing, lacking power when climbing or in the gym, sometimes being irrationally scared on lead, and any combination thereof,” she blogged in 2011. She admits to the appeal of escaping alone into the backcountry with her dog for a few days each month, and even ponders whether hormonal changes could have affected her first ACL tear.
Davis explains, “I’ve noticed that if I’m in an extreme situation (for example, freeing El Cap in a day-no joke, talk about bad timing), I’m able to use mind over matter and not be held back by those side effects. Which is pretty interesting, not because the effects of PMS are any less powerful, but because it shows just how much more powerful the mind can be.”
That day in the Organ Mountains, I topped out above the offwidth to find my belaying boyfriend’s eyes dinner-plate wide. I was finally quiet, after a half pitch of grunts and howls. Pulling in the last of the rope, one eyebrow cocked, he asked if I was okay. Then, both of us laughing at my cacophonous ascent, he said, “Dude, why can’t you yell ‘off belay’ that loud?”
Well, it’s complicated.
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