The air was thin; the cold biting. After nearly two weeks of climbing, our team had arrived at high camp on Denali, seventeen-thousand feet above sea level. Climbers tended to stay in this Spartan camp for as little time as possible, stopping only to rest a few hours before the final summit push.
The lone woman on a team of men, I searched for a corner of the tent where I could pee without anyone catching a hint of butt crack; a flash of ungroomed skin. A dribble of red swirled into the clear, plastic pouch, now yellow with urine. Blood. Of course. The most important day of the climb, and Aunt Flo had decided to pay me a visit. Cursing under my breath, I shuffled on my knees to my backpack, fishing around until I extracted a silicone disk.
A snore gurgled out of my tentmate, signaling his departure to dreamland. Relieved to have secured a moment of privacy, I dropped my pants, angling my hips to insert the disk so it could catch the inconvenient flow. It slid into place, and I wiped the blood from my fingers on a scrap of toilet paper.
My tentmate’s snores were a reminder of what really mattered now; precious moments of rest before our ascent to twenty-thousand feet and beyond. I popped a sleeping pill, chasing it with a swig of melted snow, and tried to fall asleep.
Only a few hours later, we were awake and moving, crampons digging into the ice as we fought against skin-blackening cold and winds that threatened to knock us sideways. Our summit—that blissful, triumphant moment—was a joyful blip before the winds reminded us that there was no safety in rest. We snapped our photos, clapped each other on the back, and kept moving.
We stopped back at high camp, just long enough to pack our belongings and boil a pot of ramen.
“We can stay here another night,” Jay, our team leader, said between mouthfuls. “Or we can pull an all-nighter and get the hell off this thing.”
Weeks of living in the snow had hardened our resolve. We were frozen, exhausted, and hungry; the bright ecstasy of the summit already faded to pastel. What was one more day of sleep deprivation, when a hot shower and a home cooked meal were within reach? We unanimously opted to keep walking.
We started down the mountain, watching the sunset morph into a sunrise, as night never fully falls on Denali during the summer. The kaleidoscope of pinks and purples and oranges was breathtaking, a beautiful distraction from the aches and pains spreading throughout my body.
Finally, hours upon hours later, we arrived at base camp. Our summit felt like ages ago. The sub-zero bliss of standing on top of Denali was a blur of fatigue and dehydration, the thrill of victory a fuzzy memory. I unslung my pack, unclipped from the line, and collapsed in relief to the snow.
“We’ve got an hour, maybe two,” Jay said, checking his watch. “Let’s set up a tent and try to sleep for a bit.”
The Talkeetna Air Taxi, a small De Havilland prop plane, was our only way back to civilization. Flights were weather dependent, and there was often a line of weary climbers waiting to disembark the mountain—some with the glory of a summit, others humbled by failure—all in need of a shower and a stiff drink.
Though it would’ve been prudent to stay awake and ensure our team was the first in line, exhaustion had taken hold. Our bodies sagged under the weight of it. Even the thought of setting up a tent and bedrolls seemed momentous, but a cozy nap was too tempting to turn down. We hastily erected a tent and piled inside. Within minutes, I was fast asleep.
Just as quickly, I jerked awake.
“It’s here, it’s here! Get up!” Jay’s voice was a splash of ice water. “Oh shit,” he muttered. “It landed at the upper airfield.”
Somehow feeling even more tired than before our nap, I crawled to the tent flap and peeked outside. Sure enough, the plane—a splash of crimson against the glacier—sat at the farther of the two airfields, a good twenty-minute walk above where we currently sat.
“C’mon, pack up and let’s move!”
Shaking my head to try and clear the fog, I scrambled out the tent, yanking the poles from the ground and folding them into a neat bundle.
My stomach gave an angry lurch. I grabbed my side, trying to ease the cramp. Would I have time for a bathroom break? I glanced up at the stream of climbers running for the plane, some from my own team. Probably not.
I shoved the tent into my sled, strapping it into place. My backpack had weighed over a hundred pounds upon first arriving at the mountain. It was probably closer to seventy now, but still enough to elicit a groan as I lifted it onto my back. The weight settled onto my hips, cutting into my stomach as I fastened the belt. Another jolt of pressure erupted from my gut, this one accompanied by a wave of nausea. I glanced up at the plane. A twenty minute jog, followed by a forty minute flight with zero bathroom access…I would never be able to hold it that long.
“I’m going to be sick,” I called to one of the last few teammates in camp with me. “Tell the others I’ll be there in a sec.” Panic descended as I scanned base camp for somewhere—anywhere—to hide. We were far above the treeline, with no exposed boulders or rock outcroppings for privacy. Nothing but a flat expanse of snow, broken up only by small dugouts here and there; the makeshift kitchens of larger teams.
I dropped into the deepest hole I could find; a three-foot depression that featured a cooking area and benches carved into the ice. While my upper body was still visible, I hoped the worst of what was about to happen would at least be hidden from passerby.
I crouched and yanked down my trousers, unsure of which end my stomach’s contents were about to appear from. I waited for a moment…nothing. I bent over, trying to force myself to retch. Nada. I relaxed against the cooking area, pretending I was in the bathroom of my dreams; candles, a summer breeze through the window, a stack of thick, fluffy towels on the marble countertop. My bowels refused to play along, holding their rumbling contents inside.
“What the” I whispered. If it wasn’t stomach-related, then what could possibly be causing so much pain? Not to mention the nausea and cramps…
“Oh.” My eyes widened as the horrible realization crashed over me. “Oh no. No no no.” I reached between my legs. How long had the silicone disk been inside me? We’d summited what? A day ago? Two days? I’d put it in the day before our summit, so…oh shit. It had been up there for three whole days. Was this toxic shock syndrome? Was I going to die? I glanced at my underwear. No leaks. How could it have possibly not leaked in three days?
I looked up in horror. Could the change in altitude have affected the pressure of the disk’s seal? Like a water bottle sucking in on itself as an airplane descends. I was now sitting thirteen-thousand feet below the summit. The air was noticeably different. Thicker, heavier. What if I was now sealed up so tightly, I’d need a corkscrew to free myself?
I fought against the vision of myself, spread eagle in the snow, pants around my ankles, trying to pry the disk loose with my ice ax.
I hooked a finger inside, searching for the rim of the disk. It was definitely higher than normal. “It’s fine, you’re fine,” I whispered, trying to will the thought into reality. I peeked over the snow wall. My entire team was now gone, en route to the waiting plane.
My finger scraped the edge of the disk, sliding off. I tried once more, finally gaining purchase on the edge of the rim, and pulled.
The result was instantaneous. Blood cascaded out, a gushing spray that coated the floor of the dugout. It poured over the edges of my boots, turning their bright yellow a neon red, and soaking into the bottoms of my pants. I retracted my hand, now dripping with crimson, holding a full-to-the-brim disk of menstruation blood.
I stared at the murder scene before me. In a landscape of pure, stark white, the swath of scarlet was a garish, hideous stain. I peeked over the dugout’s edge. It seemed nobody had noticed yet, but how long until a well-meaning camper wandered by and tried to save this blood-soaked damsel in distress?
The urge to run and leave this horror show behind was overwhelming. But the beauty of the mountain demanded more respect. Denali had strict rules about what could be left on the mountain—urine was okay in designated areas, poop was a no—but what about blood? Even if it was allowed to be left behind, surely painting the floor of a tent site in your own fluids was frowned upon in polite society.
Still, what was I supposed to do? Scoop it all back up? The proverbial genie was out of the bottle, and there was no putting it back inside. All I could do was try to minimize the visual impact.
I dumped the disk on top of the other mess. In for a penny, in for a pound. Pulling a wad of tissues from my pocket, I wiped up well enough to rebutton my pants. Looking toward the airfield, where a small crowd was gathered around the plane to load gear, I swore I could feel the accusatory glares of my team. If we missed the flight, it would undoubtedly be my fault.
I hastily scraped my hands along the ice walls, scratching a dusting of crystals free, pawing them over the bloodstains. My heavy mountaineering boots became bludgeons, slamming the ground to release the fresh white snow beneath. I patted it into place over the bloodstains; layer upon layer to hide the shadow of red below the surface.
A streak of red caught my peripheral, and I turned to see that the walls were now speckled with bloodstains. “What the…” I lifted my hand, now dripping with melted snow and rivulets of blood. I glanced at the ground, where my pants were also leaking a trail of blood across the ice, each step leaving a fresh streak. A childhood memory surfaced, one of the Cat in the Hat stories, where the Cat tries to mop up a spot in the carpet, only to spread the stain with every attempt at cleaning.
I bit down a scream.
I jerked at the sound of a man’s voice. Jay. Headed my way, and quickly. I waved my clean hand, motioning that I just needed a minute. Panicked, I grabbed a chunk of ice and frantically rubbed it over my palms, hastily wiping them on my hiking pants. Tucking the bloody ends of my pants into my boots, I kicked fresh snow over the remaining stains, then clambered out of the dugout.
I surveyed my work. One might suspect a spill of pasta sauce, maybe a bloody nose not caught in time, but certainly not a menstrual outpouring to rival The Shining.
I grabbed my gear and jogged over to Jay, thankful that the cramps had vacated my body with the blood. “Sorry,” I called out.
“Another team beat us to the first flight, but hurry up and we’ll get on the next one.”
I nodded. The urge to leave Denali behind was overwhelming. To return to civilization. To privacy. To bedrooms we didn’t share with strangers; bathrooms with proper plumbing and fluffy towels. Hell, at this point, I’d settle for a bucket of soapy water, so long as it was away from prying eyes.
But most of all, I wished for the company of other women, climbers who would empathize, understand, and later share a tear-streaked outpouring of laughter at how such a routine body function had gone so horribly awry.
“You okay?” he asked, eyeing the red streaks along my fingernails.
“I’m fine.” I hurriedly wiped my hands on my jacket, fighting back a delirious chuckle. “Just girl stuff.”