How one cold night at 9,000 feet taught Outdoor Research Climbing Ambassador Megan Banker that she wanted to help foster belonging in the outdoors.

*Trigger warning for negative self-image talk*

“Just leave me here. I’ll take a nap. I’m so tired; I feel like I can’t breathe,” I said as I sat down in the snow, exasperated and defeated.

“Babe, you can’t take a nap here, we are at nine thousand feet” my then-boyfriend, future husband, and climbing partner, Andy, said with a little laugh. He was right. It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the night and we were climbing at around 9,000 feet on Mt. Hood (Wy’East) near Portland, OR. I couldn't nap there.

“I’m just so tired and I can’t breathe. I should have gone to the gym more before this climb,” I said between breaths as I started to cry.

“Let’s take a little break, we have plenty of time,” Andy consoled me as my tears transitioned to full on sobbing.

“I” inhale

“Can’t” *inhale*

“Breathe” *sob* “I’m so fat. I have no business being up here. You came all this way and I’m going to be the reason we turn around.” My crying had turned into a full mental breakdown.

Andy took my head in his hands and said: “Megan, unzip your jacket.” I looked up and blinked: “What?”

“Unzip your jacket,” he said again. I unzipped my hard shell jacket and my puffy layer and took a deep full breath.

“You can’t breathe because your jackets are too tight, not because your body is too fat,” Andy confirmed.

“Let’s get you a bigger jacket when we get home.”

“These were the biggest ones I could find,” I said in between sobs. Andy hugged me and we sat there for another few minutes. The air was cold, the sky was clear, and the only sound was my crying as I tried to calm myself down before deciding to turn back.

My failed attempt to climb Mt. Hood came after a year and a half of diving headfirst into the world of outdoor adventures.  My life up to that point had become a series of goals and checklists. I graduated from chiropractic school and moved to Portland in 2015 where I continued to work toward becoming an “outdoorsy girl boss” that I saw on my social media feeds. I was setting goals, achieving them, and setting new ones.

I took beginner and intermediate mountaineering and rock climbing classes back-to-back over a period of a year. I systematically started crossing mountains I climbed off my bucket list, treating them like prizes to collect. I went from knowing nothing about rock or mountain climbing to learning intermediate level skills like rock self-rescue and crevasse rescue. I learned how to build rock and snow anchors and travel on a rope team on glaciers. I collected an arsenal of new gear like ice axes, crampons, tradition rock protection, and climbing ropes. I was becoming immersed in the mountaineering culture while learning that it meant comparing summits and always preparing for the next climb. People would ask what routes we did and how long it took. I never got asked if it was fun or what I learned. I climbed 11 mountains and countless rock pitches that first year. 

Throughout all of this, I was constantly aware of my body size. I never experienced overt fatphobia in the different classes and climbs I went on. People didn’t say cruel things to my face or refuse to climb with me, demonstrating that the systemic way that fatphobia exists in the world can be subtle and ever present. This type of fatphobia exists in the lack of access to gear, the perceptions that only small people make good climbers, the surprise people would exhibit when they saw my body doing hard things, and the underlying stigmas surrounding body size. 

I learned quickly that the women’s section of outdoor stores was not for me. Instead, I would beeline for the men’s section and hope that there was an XXL available. It took a painfully long time at a mountaineering shop to find a climbing harness that fit just enough to be considered safe. When learning crevasse rescue, the presenter made a reference to a kilonewton equaling 224 pounds or a “big burly dude.” I whispered to my boyfriend: “I’m 300 pounds with a pack on… guess I’m an extra big burly dude.” At that time, making jokes is how I dealt with my body insecurity.  

When going on group hikes, the group would hike ahead and wait for me to catch up. Instead of continuing to wait so that I would also get a break, they would continue on once I reached them, a behavior jokingly referred to as the “f*** you break.” I would spend the day playing slinky without a break because I was worried about holding the group back. I didn’t want to be the lazy, slow, fat girl. I would hike with people and listen to them talk about the latest diet trend they were trying. I was constantly smiled at and told “you’re almost there” or “keep at it!” in a way that feels like encouragement from the person saying it and like demeaning daggers to the heart for the person receiving it. People said “good for you!” when I finished a hike or climb that they had also just finished, insinuating that the objective must have been more difficult for me than them. 


Well settled and experienced in my Portland life, I was pushing myself both professionally and in the climbing world. After my first year in practice, I bought the clinic I was working at. At 28 years old, I became a business owner and employer. I was responsible for my livelihood and the people who worked for me, as well as the health of patients who trusted me for their care. I started volunteering with a local mountaineering organization and was teaching new climbers. I felt pressure to keep climbing and improving. I felt pressure in my office to keep producing. I started battling with crippling anxiety and depression that I was hiding from everyone. I wanted to show the world and myself that I could do it all. Because if I didn't, that would prove that I was just a big, fat failure. 
And then all that pressure maxed out and I had a breakdown at 2am at 9,000 feet on Mt. Hood. 

That experience was a turning point for me. I started looking at the systems, external pressures, internal demons, and choices I was making that got me there. I took a step back from volunteering with the climbing organization. I started unfollowing elite climbers on social media and started searching for people who looked like me in the outdoors. I started posting more about my experiences and cultivating a community of other plus size adventurers who shared my struggles. I met other adventurers like Jenny Bruso, the creator of Unlikely Hikers, and my friends and fellow Outdoor Research ambassadors Sam Ortiz and Bennett Rahn. 

We shared stories of gear not fitting or being non-existent. We commiserated about how competitive and toxic attitudes can be in the mountaineering world. I shared about my negative self-talk and how it was causing me to put unnecessary pressure on myself. I slowly started unlearning decades of diet culture and began learning about struggles that other marginalized communities were facing. I untied my self-worth to both my body and my productivity. 
Throughout all of this, the mountains helped me soul search. I learned to listen to my body and how to ask teammates for what I needed instead of pushing through pain and fatigue alone. I found strength, perseverance and humility on my climbs. I learned patience and how to simply exist in the mountains without it needing to be a competition. I tried talking to myself in a more loving way. I gave myself grace. 

I started to reframe what a successful day outdoors looked like. Did we have fun? Did we learn something about ourselves or the land we were on? Did we return safely? Were we good stewards to the land? I made these things matter more than if we reached the summit or not. 


It was with this attitude that I attempted Mt. Hood again in 2019, two years after my first Mt. Hood meltdown. I told my climbing partners that I was nervous but that I would just try my best, and if I needed to, turn back. My then-fiancé Andy and friend Joe have always been my biggest support system in the outdoors and I’m forever grateful to both of them for that. 

This time around, I was not attached to reaching the summit. I approached the climb from a place of curiosity and adventure. I was curious about how my body and mind would feel on this second attempt. I told myself that I knew I could do it, but also gave myself permission to know when to stop if I needed. I was also armed with a bigger plus size jacket that fit and protected me better than before.   

We reached the summit shortly after sunrise and I sat in peace and gratitude for the mountain, my body, my mind, and my climbing partners. 

Since that climb, I’ve been on a mission to support people, organizations, and companies that want to foster belonging in the outdoors. I now fill my social media feeds with diverse outdoors people who face similar but different access issues. I’ve joined and helped create affinity spaces where people with similar lived experiences can find adventure buddies and discuss their needs in a safe place. I’ve been brave enough to show the vulnerable, less glamorous parts of outdoor recreation, including a video of me crying that went viral on TikTok. My hope is to continue to shift competitive attitudes to curious ones and to keep having conversations with people who have diverse perspectives about improving access to the outdoors. 

I’m so proud of all these things in their own way. I still have days or moments where I catch myself falling into a negative self-talk pattern, but now I recognize when it’s happening and can shift back to a place of acceptance. I became my own best climbing partner. I no longer see my body as a detriment, but rather as an asset to explore this big, fat world. 

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