Getting a footing as a plus-sized climber

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I was worried as I entered the gym. I had no idea what to anticipate. I had spent an hour the night before investigating the question, “Can a huge person climb?” on the internet. I was 300 pounds at the time. I was wearing a size 46 pant. I didn’t resemble any of the other climbers I’d seen so far. While there was some debate, the advise was inconsistent, and I couldn’t get the feeling that the people writing in were lighter and more capable than I was.

I had been waiting in my car for 20 minutes, trying to get out of it, when I decided to go to the gym. I emailed Sarah, who immediately replied, “Just go in and ask.” Until you do, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.” I wasn’t sure how I’d be treated, though. What they’d say about me. I got out of my car, knowing Sarah was correct.

As I reached the counter, the woman smiled.

“Can those who are taller climb?” I paused before asking. “Will the rope hold?” says the narrator.

“Yes, the ropes can hold thousands of pounds,” she answered. She motioned for me to sign the waiver.

I’m not sure if this is a common occurrence in the climbing world for smaller people, or if it’s even a cause for concern. Is the rope going to hold up? Will the restraints hold? Is it possible for me to achieve this? The week prior, I had seen the film Free Solo, which was my sole exposure to the climbing world. That film introduced me to a whole new world: the community, the rocks, and the full van life. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I walked into the gym.

The gym included short routes that were just approximately 25 feet tall, but they appeared to be a long, terrifying 25 feet. My first route was a decent jug haul, but everything looked so difficult: I said “I can’t do it” at least three times. I kept going, despite the fact that my hands hurt and I was sweating profusely, until I reached the top and went from doing nothing to a full-fledged workout. I took another path, and then another. I’d start one and then question why I was on the wall in the first place. But with each attempt, it became less terrifying and more exciting.

I knew climbing was something I wanted to do after that first experience. I was having a good time, progressing even in a single day, and participating in a sport—something I had never done before. I’d dabbled in various sports in the past and was stereotyped because of my size. For example, I was viewed as a lineman on the football team, but it was not who I was or wanted to be. I’ve always been a large individual. From the age of eight, I donned “husky” clothing. There has never been a point in my life when I didn’t feel large. My body was capable of far more than what others thought it could.

Hulsey cruises one of his favorite warm-ups. (Photo: Matthew Cunningham)

My enthusiasm for climbing got stronger during the weeks and months that followed, but comfort was not one of the words that came to mind while I was a beginner constantly surrounded by buff men grunting on the wall. In the strong-person scene I was engrossed in, I didn’t really see myself reflected. It’s scary to be surrounded by athletes while feeling like you don’t fit in. The looks, comments, and unsolicited counsel, no matter how well-intentioned, hurt. These actions upset me and made it difficult for me to develop my climbing identity. Would I ever be able to identify myself as a climber if others didn’t think I was capable? I was already enamoured with the sport and eager to find my position within it.

When I had been at my gym for almost a year, people would ask, “Are you new here?”

When I was physically unable of doing so, they’d say things like, “Keep your hips to the wall.” Even after I’ve been doing this for nearly two years, I still receive these comments.

Furthermore, most people believe that if you are overweight and physically active, your goal is to reduce weight. That isn’t always the case. I’m frequently asked what my fitness objectives are, and other climbers frequently comment on how they’ve dropped weight. Climbing has brought me health, not weight loss, in my experience.

My initial goal was to become more active rather than lose weight. However, as I learned more skills, I grew disappointed when I couldn’t advance to the next grade or stick a difficult manoeuvre. I had to leave the gym several times because I was being too harsh on myself. “What am I doing here?” I’d ponder as I compared myself to folks who had been climbing for years.

After a few months, I had to change my mindset and start appreciating climbing for what it is. I understood and still know that I want to love this sport for all of the benefits it provides, not just for the strength it requires. I’ll be fine climbing easy things for the rest of my life. I can enjoy this sport at my own speed and without having to conform to a specific body type. This is a realisation that took a long time to arrive at. I used to have panic attacks and anxiety attacks at the gym before I changed my mindset about climbing. When I was on the wall, the negative thoughts about myself and my physique were so loud in my head. Any failure I had was merely proof in that time that all of my faulty assumptions about myself were correct.

Hulsey with his wife, Sarah. (Photo: Matthew Cunningham)

My strength was beginning to plateau, and I was finding it difficult to climb as hard as I had been. I couldn’t figure out why this was happening. I’d have to deal with this problem if I wanted to keep rising. This was especially evident while I was battling to keep my composure during a panic attack in a crowded gym. On one of my routes, I was terminated. There were so many powerful folks around me who were having a good time. My buddies were close by, and I knew I had to leave. Following that night, I began to notice that there were several things my body couldn’t accomplish at the moment. I met with my therapist to go through this and change my perspective on the situation. Since then, those comments and ideas that used to sting like salt in the wound of my self-esteem haven’t bothered me as much.

At the same time, I came to a fork in my mountaineering adventure. Because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me participating in the sport, I began documenting my climbs and experience on social media. I wrote about climbs I sent, projects I was working on, and climbs I couldn’t send. I pushed back when commenters made cracks or slammed me. I wanted to create a space within the community to encourage others, regardless of size, to try climbing as well. I had only seen people doing amazing and wonderful feats on social media, so I wanted to create a space within the community to encourage others, regardless of size, to try climbing as well. My adventure has taken me in unexpected directions.

What began as a series of Instagram posts and videos of me climbing has evolved into a search for an online community where people discuss climbing and body positivity. Many folks have expressed gratitude for merely turning up as a larger-bodied person. These online discussions, which sparked more discussion at gyms and crags, provided me the assurance I needed to know I was on the correct track.

I’ve developed a sense of where change needs to happen as I’ve continued to share my climbing adventures on Instagram. I get a lot of messages asking for gear recommendations, because there isn’t a lot of information out there about what harnesses fit and what shoes are the broadest. I knew a voice was required for people who looked like me when I started sharing this portion of my life, but I never anticipated it to be mine. I never anticipated people to be inspired by what I was doing and attempt it for themselves.

I get letters saying things like, “You’ve encouraged me to attempt climbing,” or “I had no idea I could climb until now; I always assumed I was too fat to do it.” Seeing others try something they didn’t realise was possible reminds me why I put myself out there on social media in the first place. I’m hoping to be the kind of resource that I needed when I first started.

Parts of the community continue to tell me I don’t belong. That I shouldn’t be climbing in the first place. Climbers who believe they are the gatekeepers frequently remark on my blogs, especially when I discuss how I battle with self-image at times. They tell me I don’t deserve my sponsorships because I “don’t climb well” or that I should just give up because I’m too big. These climbers are adamantly opposed to change. I’m guessing these individuals don’t like seeing someone paving the way for people who don’t have the typical body type we see in climbing and climbing media. They appear to believe that climbing is just for individuals with visible muscles, and I understand that what I believe and stand for makes them uncomfortable.

(Photo: Matthew Cunningham)

Those statements are usually removed by me. I want my small piece of the internet to be a safe haven for newcomers to sports. For folks who haven’t recovered from a low self-image, the comments could be harmful and triggering. The climbing aspect of social media has a lot of opportunity for development. Maybe one day I won’t get any criticism about how sharing about being a fat climber promotes a “unhealthy lifestyle.”

Climbing can be so much more than just a physical challenge. It’s more than just swinging on teeny-tiny grips. It can make you feel like you’re a part of something. Everyone is welcome in this sport, as I witnessed firsthand during my first climbing trip with the outdoor community.

When my wife and I travelled to Kentucky for a weekend of climbing, I had been climbing for approximately eight months. I was both excited and nervous when I arrived in the Red River Gorge. This journey and the fresh experiences had been something I had been looking forward to. The Red was the nearest climbing hub to my home. It was the genuine article. When we arrived at the campground, we were greeted by a sea of muscular and healthy climbers. This would be my first encounter with the climbing community on such a grand scale.

I didn’t know what to expect, but we did know that some fantastic 5.3 and 5.4 climbs awaited us, as well as some internet buddies. Sarah and I shared a supper with our new friends Jessie Briggs and Molly Finch at Miguel’s Pizza at the end of a long day, and we spoke about our day’s events. We spoke the same language and had the same love for climbing. They were just as pleased for me as I was for simply showing up and climbing, no matter what the grade was. There was no expectation of continuing to raise grades. Something made sense to me. That was the first time I felt like a climber.

Climbing has no meaning is a phrase or thought that I frequently hear. What motivates us to do it? Why do we waste time and money hauling ropes out on 45-minute approaches just to fail? Why do we sit on a bouldering pad and stare up at rocks? I don’t believe it’s pointless. Climbing has a purpose. I’ve ended up in these rocky outcroppings. I’d been struggling to find a place where I could be myself while also continuing to develop as a person. Climbing has provided me with that, and now I aim to demonstrate to others that they, too, can try climbing and be a little adventurous.

There are folks who go to climbing gyms just for the purpose of getting a good workout. As the sport grows, more people will fall into the “here to workout” category, and their experience will be just as valuable as that of those who have been climbing for years. What they don’t realise is that they can be missing out on the community’s beauty once they start climbing for reasons other than fitness.

My initial goal was to just walk more and eat better. But it was the community that drew me back. For the times spent at the conclusion of a day of climbing around a campfire. We’re sharing pizza. For the 600th time, we’re discussing El Cap. Imagining what it would be like if we were to attain our objectives. And the fantastic sensation we get when we do.

In climbing, all you have to do is be there for yourself and locate your friends. Acceptance is the key. Arrive on time. Put in the effort. Consume the pizza. Repeat the process the next day.

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