It was my first day of proper climbing in Pembrokeshire. Not the first day that we had climbed – that was the day before, when I onsighted my first ever E2 5b – Deranged, at St Govan’s Head, with its famous battle-crack finale.
No, this was my first day of proper climbing because it was also the first day of my period.
I woke up in bed feeling sore and confused. For a moment I wondered which layback had left me so destroyed, before I realised. I dressed hurriedly – first dilemma – should I even put on climbing clothes? I poked my head out of the van. The sun was quivering just above the horizon, and climbers were emerging from their tents in brightly coloured trousers, looking dishevelled from climbing the day before, but fresh-faced and hopeful. I had to put on climbing clothes, surely, I had to climb – I hadn’t sat through all that wind and rain just to watch everyone else climb. I sighed and tried to avoid the resounding monthly question: just, why?
This is strange to say, but 2019 was the first year that climbing and periods ever came together for me. Of course, within my first 3 years of climbing I had experienced the imposed monthly “down” time. I’d been forced to reschedule training sessions, to leave the gym having paid my entry and achieved exactly nothing, and even gone through the thrilling experience that is mountaineering on a period. But in 2019 Mina Leslie-Wujastyk openly wrote for the UKC about her diagnosis of a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). She realised something was wrong when she stopped taking the contraceptive pill and her periods didn’t come back. I follow Mina Leslie-Wujastyk on Instagram, and I’ve watched her journey to effectively win her periods back, to win back the health she gave to climbing performance. I also follow an account called @optimal.period, aka Dr Natalie Brown, a research expert in climbers and the menstrual cycle. The link between periods and climbing were not new to me before 2019. But the open conversation was, and something about this open conversation had opened me to taking a rational, logical, considered approach to climbing on my period – rather than dismissing the possibility entirely.
Tentatively, I got dressed into the clothes from the day before, of course, and walked across the camp to the toilet trying to assess how I was feeing – did I feel bleary-headed, would I be safe?, how long would it be until the pain came on, the proper pain, and what kind of pain, how should I manage it, how should I manage my period, how much extra water do I need to carry, what food can I stomach… climbing on my period is a whole different ball game. Add to the constant interior calculations that go into leading trad a stream of sums including: time since last hit of ibuprofen (a graph show a diminishing line of effect of painkiller vs time), day and time when optimum output might be achieved (a graph related to the previous graph), time until next comfort toilet break (another graph), scales with food weighed against the potential to vomit, water intake, self-checks to measure clarity of mind. If you think leading trad is hard – if you think leading hard trad is hard – then try doing it on your period.
Getting back to my van, I realised I didn’t have any painkillers. I’d totally sandbagged myself, and I was suddenly 5 metres above a marginal piece of gear with nothing left on my harness. I looked out at our LMC camp. Harry was sitting with Will, making a coffee. Lukasz was stretching into the sunshine. I mean, I could take a punt on them having ibuprofen, but I … Ah, and like a shining gift from the gods, there was Hayley. I walked over and said, in a meaningful way, do you have any painkillers?
Hayley took me to her car Maureen (RIP) and rummaged in the glove box. Periods are the worst aren’t they? For some people it’s nothing, then for other’s it’s, she said. Christ, don’t even get me started, I said.
She gave me the whole box of ibuprofen, told me not to mention it, and watched as I dragged my feet back across the camp to lie down in my van. It was obvious that I was determined to climb, and obvious that she wasn’t going to mention it, that neither of us would. Where normally in the morning on a climbing meet we would talk about the routes we had planned, our aspirations, partners, gear, the clouds, the wind, the spats of rain, our conversation strayed nowhere near that territory. It symbolised our share in a different struggle with its own variable conditions, cruxes, tests and breakthroughs. Are you nearly ready, Penny?
I was climbing with Will and Harry that day. John had been my partner the day before – such a delight – and now I was lumbered with these two punters. Jokes aside, I obviously knew it wouldn’t be a particularly easy day. Will had onsighted War Crimes E2 5b the day before, and Harry had been steadily crushing E1s. Yeah, and not really knowing what to say, I added, shall I bring a rope? No, don’t worry, we’ll use mine, said Will. What cams have you got?
We proceeded to have the usual exchange about cams, wires, rope, quickdraws… It felt okay, actually, I felt okay, actually, maybe I would be okay, actually. Testing the weight of my bag, it felt a little heavier than the day before, but nothing unmanageable.
Seamus gave me a knowing and quizzical look, and twitched his ear as if to say, hun, are you really doing this? I’ll only second stuff, I told him.
He gave me another knowing look and a nose twitch. Fine, I’ll second stuff and then see how I feel about leading a route, but nothing harder than VS.
Nose twitch. HVS.
Ear twitch. You’re an annoying little dog do you know that?
I want to step out of the story for a second and make something clear. Periods =/= women. Not all women have periods, and certainly not everyone who has a period is a woman. So this is not a liberation tale about women climbing on their periods, or periods climbing their women, or climbers womaning the period, or women perioding the climb, or climbing periods womaning the. No. This is a story of me climbing on my August period, which was an okay one, in the grand scheme of things. My August period does not stand in for any or all periods experienced by me or by other people, be they climbers or not. So if you want to know about every individual person’s experience of every single period that they have ever had then stop reading this and stop being so nosey.
The wind took the edge off the sun at the top of the cliff, as is the way with Pembroke, and a shiver worked its way up my sleeve as I attached Seamus to an abseil stake. I fixed a point on the ground, pulled on my harness and tightened it around my slightly less tender waist. I checked how I felt against the point on the ground. I wasn’t sway-y – the main concern. The ibuprofen was working on the pain, but I can handle a little pain. We all knew what we’d come to Chapel Point for: Untravixens, a classic E1 5b, which I know we’d all honestly say we wanted on the lead. It wasn’t a question of what; merely a question of who. Luckily Harry wanted to take the lead. I wouldn’t have liked to win that particular rock-paper-scissors, and Will seemed happy enough to hand it to Harry. I felt nowhere near leading…’
I decided that beyond the pain, I had to make sure that my head was clear. I told myself: if I set up a perfect abseil, I’ll trust my head and go for it. Even the smallest hint of the tiniest most miniscule error, and I’m sitting it out.
Harry disappeared around a fold in the rock, leaving Will and me at the bottom with the sea launching its first threat of the day. It felt good to joke around, it felt good to fear the sea, to chat about Harry’s moves, to discuss the sharp rock, and I was soon distractedly ploughing my way vertically with Harry bringing me up.
We topped-out Ultravixens and told Harry about the sea broaching the shelf down below. There had been talk of staying at Chapel Point, but we all agreed Harry had had the best of it, both in conditions and most likely on the route, and so decided to move on with the tides. Will suggested that we walk back along toward the parking and explore the relatively non-tidal area of Trevallen, making our way from west to east throughout the day.
It seemed natural that Will would take the next lead. I watched as he considered his options, looking out to the edge of the cliff and then back to the book in his lap. I tried to remember what lay beyond the edge. Endangered Species, Enter the Goat, Deadringer. Trevallen is a playground for a climber operating at E2. I wondered how tired Will was, how much of a day this was for pushing himself. I imagined myself anchored at the base of Sunlover with Will belaying Harry up towards him, knowing they would be setting up a pulley to get me up behind them.
As it turned out, Will was keen on The Hole, a route that had caught our eye in the guidebook, one of two silly but superb “vertical caving” E1s in Pembroke. I took myself off on a long comfort break, armed with hand sanitizer, topped up on ibuprofen, guzzled some water – generally “checked-in” with myself. I was probably being overly self-conscious but I felt like everything was taking me 60 times longer than for Will and Harry. They waited for me at the bottom of the cliff and I eventually came to stand next to Harry, who smiled and pointed up to a slot of sky showing through the eponymous “hole”.
Will was soon steadily cruising up through another of his “soft” Pembroke ticks for the week, leaving me and Harry chatting at the bottom. By the time I was whipping out gear, I was wondering how I would solve a familiar dilemma: eat something and get a heavy, nauseating pain, or go hungry and, well, be hungry. I felt pretty shaky on the hole itself at first – was I supposed to bridge this thing? I soon found a line of chalked crimps up one side, and followed Will’s ropes over the brow of the cliff.
That was alright, wasn’t it? he said.
When you’re swinging leads and you’re climbing in a three and you’ve done two routes, at some point around then, it becomes your turn to lead.
I knew it was coming – the decision.
Harry and Will seemed to sense my trepidation. They watched as I flipped through the book eating handfuls of trail-mix, pretending to study the topo whilst internally re-assessing my status.
Allow me to step out of the narrative once more, this time to talk about onsighting. I love onsighting – I love onsighting at my limit – but my limit has limits. I’m the first person to back off if it’s not worth it, and climbing if you are sub-par, well, it’s just not worth it. Compromising something about yourself for an onsight, not worth it. Onsighting just for the sake of it, to look cool, not worth it. Onsighting if you don’t trust yourself, not worth it. Onsighting for your ego, definitely not worth it.
I think I’ll do Callisto, I said.
Will seemed surprised. Perhaps he thought I’d be chasing down my E2 streak by now.
I’d seen a woman of my stature starting up Callisto the day before. It looked steady, the first move perhaps the most thought-provoking. And most of all: I wanted to do it. It didn’t feel like a compromise. It was just a route that I wanted to do that felt manageable on my period.
Me and Harry abbed in and Will stayed at the top to take photos. Stationed at the bottom of the route, the sea rising around us, we had plenty of time to contemplate fate whilst a nervous leader fumbled about at the start of Callisto. I felt surer than before of my decision. And I don’t know what it was – maybe I needed the assurance of someone else knowing – but I told Harry, I hope this goes okay, I said. This is the first day of my period.
Harry being Harry, he was polite and calmly responded, Wow, that’s impressive, and then carried on as if nothing had happened. I was grateful that it was “out there”. I guess I didn’t feel that a leader should keep something like that from their second.
The route was pretty unremarkable. Perhaps the best thing about it is the photo that Will took while I was climbing, which shows the storming sea bursting through its skin to get at my concentration whilst I hammer a wire into place. Does the photo feel like a metaphor? I’d be lying if I said so. It’s more like a document of my resolve and self-assurance. I like it for that. I don’t have any other photos of me that remind me just how much I really do trust myself.
Martin that evening came to the camp and I told him that I had done Callisto.
What’s that go at then?, he asked me.
It’s an E1 5b, I said.
He looked pleased for me and surprised. Wow, Penny, that’s great. Is that your first E1?
No, I’ve done a few E1s, I said out loud. And continued in my head, but I’ll take it.