Becky Coles has a PhD in Glacial Morphology and works as a qualified mountaineering instructor and expedition leader guiding soldiers, school children and everyone in between. She has summited peaks up to 7000m across all seven continents and likes to take herself on remote expeditions to try to climb mountains which haven’t been climbed before. Last Autumn, she lead a team in the first ascent of a 6250m peak in the far west of Nepal which she says was a real honour as it was such a beautiful peak.
Do you feel that menstruation has ever impacted upon your participation in adventure, either positively or negatively?
Having my period on my first overseas expedition when I was 17, I just thought: ‘‘how is this going to work?!’’ There was no one to ask so I just muddled through and luckily it didn’t put me off going on that or any future trips.
How do you manage/ have you managed menstruation in adventure, including dealing with menstrual waste?
The biggest thing I hadn’t thought about on my first expedition was dealing with menstrual waste. I teach minimum camping and so am also really keen on toilet paper being brought out the mountains too (if it’s not buried). All sanitary waste should definitely be brought out the mountains as unlike toilet paper this won’t decompose sufficiently even when buried. Nappy sacks solve the problem of bagging it all up and now I never go into the mountains without some. The MMiEEP discussion has made me think a bit more about my menstruation on expedition, and I might try out the mooncup as everyone seems to rave about them and I’m keen to reduce my environmental impact! I promise to try as a newbie and report back! (see our blog on making your period more sustainable on adventure here).
Do you have any menstruation and adventure related horror stories to share with us?
Not really: I’ve always had the attitude that periods aren’t much of a problem as it’s just a bit of blood! Your own blood, unlike poo, isn’t going to do you any harm. I’ve got plenty of poo horror stories though – that can cause loads of health problems!
Do you feel comfortable discussing menstruation during an adventure? Are there any factors which influence how comfortable you feel when talking about it?
As I work with young people (as well as adults) on expedition, I like to talk about anything and everything that they may have questions about before the trip, especially the questions which they may not feel they can ask. We used to take the girls aside and only talk to them about managing their periods, but now I feel it’s important to talk to everyone in the group. This is for many reasons, but especially to make sure we are being inclusive of those that don’t identify with a gender and to also create an open atmosphere on expedition about menstruation. It shouldn’t be something secretive that people are made to feel ashamed/embarrassed about! I’d say the main factor I consider when planning for a trip regarding age and menstruation is when I’m working with young people I have spare sanitary towels as opposed to tampons as they tend to use these more.
What do you think about the culture surrounding menstruation here in the UK and is there anything you’d like to change?
I think it is much better than it used to be. I now see male outdoor instructors having no problem giving advice to people regarding menstruation in the outdoors – there is much less just taking the girls aside to talk about ‘women’s problems’. However, I feel that in our progressively sanitised world in which people are increasingly disconnected from the outdoors, spending an extended amount of time in remote environments away from a flushing toilet is a completely alien concept to some. I think women nowadays feel uneasy having a period whilst taking part in any outdoor activities let alone in remote environments: I’ve found that it can also be the same for peeing/ pooing in the outdoors too.
Have you had any experiences of menstruation in different cultures around the world, and do you think this has an impact on how you feel about your menstruation now?
I’ve travelled extensively and am aware of the challenges women can face in other countries which makes me extremely grateful for the access to all the sanitary products and other options for managing our menstrual cycles we have here in the UK. The only impact for me when I travel is that some religions do not allow people to visit religious buildings, for example Hindu temples, when on their period. This restriction can be difficult for me to understand and even frustrating at times as it’s not something I’m used to.
Do you think that any women find menstruation a barrier to participating in adventure and, if so, do you think it needs to be that way?
Yes, without a doubt, and it is incredibly restrictive! I tell the young people I work with that it is a very useful life skill to be able to pee/ poo/ manage their periods outside – you never know when you might need to do it!