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An Interview with A Fat, Old Climber Article

© Gordon Robb

Gordon Robb is overweight and pushing 60. He's also a climber. His refreshingly matter-of-fact Instagram handle distils these three essential facts into an unflattering but amusing moniker: @fatoldclimber. With Gordon, there's no room for sugar-coating; he gives dishonesty a wide berth and shares unfiltered accounts of trying to progress as a late-starter in a sport where gravity is especially unforgiving for the larger frame. In our carefully curated online world, perhaps Gordon is the anti-sponsored hero we need right now.

Gordon Robb, AKA @fatoldclimber.  © Gordon Robb
Gordon Robb, AKA @fatoldclimber.
© Gordon Robb

'In my fifties. Been climbing 5 years
Have some skill/strength, but eat too much.'

Gordon's social media posts are as candid as his Instagram bio, and provide inspiration for anyone looking to get fitter, stronger and improve their climbing - no matter their weight or age. Gordon is a 57-year-old, newly-appointed granddad based in Ayr, where he is a self-employed management consultant, but he climbs mostly out of Glasgow.

During lockdown, Gordon was forced to try outdoor climbing for the first time, which tested both his mental and physical capabilities (especially the dreaded top-out). Never one to give up and not one to fear failure, Gordon's determination to improve and cracking sense of humour have seen him through this latest tricky period and he's now more motivated than ever to climb his goal of 7A.

We sent Gordon some questions to find out more about his climbing, his no-nonsense approach to telling his story on Instagram and how the COVID-19 lockdown has impacted his health and fitness.


How and when did you discover climbing?

I discovered climbing, or bouldering to be more specific, totally by accident five years ago. I split up with my long-term partner and realised I didn't really have a social life, so joined Meetup.com to find some groups that I was interested in. I joined a cinema group, and for a laugh a great group called Scottish Hillwalking and Activities Group. Through that I went to a few meetups before discovering The Climbing Academy and immediately fell in love with the sport.

Gordon Robb - AKA Fat Old Climber.  © Gordon Robb
Gordon Robb - AKA Fat Old Climber.
© Gordon Robb

How do people respond to you when they see you at the wall? How welcoming is the climbing community?

I haven't really had any responses that I would say are due to my age or weight. In general, I found the climbing community incredibly welcoming. It's one of the things that I find amazing - generally everyone speaks to everyone. There is no expectation of what you have to be to be 'one of the group'. The TCA meetup group is particularly welcoming and great for anyone to join, regardless of experience, or level.

Have you always struggled with your weight?

Not really. For most of my life I was very light (less than half the weight I am now). I then started weight training and Tai Kwon Do, and was really quite fit. However, injury stopped me doing TKD and my weight began to balloon. But to get to the state I'm in now took a long time, maybe 15 years, and a lot of dedication to enjoying food. I found running about 10 years ago, and that was the best thing I found to help with my weight. I've dabbled at getting back into it, but need to lose some pounds first as it is a lot of stress on the knees.

How has climbing helped you physically and mentally?

Physically, climbing has changed my body composition dramatically. I was never small up top, but climbing has built my strength incredibly. I know this is because I am 'lifting' a lot more weight than most people. But the result is still that I feel very strong and fit. Mentally, all I know is that I am happiest when I'm staring at a bouldering problem and trying to figure out beta that works for me and my body type. I feel at home at the wall and with the friends I climb with there.

What made you decide to chronicle your climbing journey on social media in the last year or so by sharing videos and thoughts from when you first started 5 years ago?

I decided to create @fatoldclimber for a couple of reasons. One, I discovered a guy from the States on Instagram called @sleepeatclimbrepeat, who is my size, and I found him quite inspiring. Then last year, there was a German girl climbing with our group, who sat down with us after a climbing session. She said, "I wish my father could meet you", and I thought, that's nice. Then she said, "because he's also old and fat, but would think he couldn't do this". I found her bluntness hilarious, but then realised that she had hit on what I liked about @sleepeatclimbrepeat. So I thought, if he can do it I can do it, and created my Instagram account. I'm from Glasgow, so I decided the more descriptive, and hopefully funny, username was more appropriate. If I can inspire anyone to take up climbing, either because of my age, or my weight, then that'd be great. But there's also something self-motivating about committing to chronicling your own progress. It will drive me to improve.

If I get fitter and/or lose weight, I'll be delighted to share that. But I'm also going to share my failures.

You are very candid about your weight and age on Instagram. Do you think it's better to talk more openly and positively about body weight and health?

Totally. One of the things I dislike about Instagram in general is most people are showing their best self, often after making it look better. If I get fitter and/or lose weight, I'll be delighted to share that. But I'm also going to share my failures. People who might be struggling with their weight, or their fitness, or their climbing or anything really, need to understand that they are not alone in that struggle.

A shot form yesterday. First a fail and then an easy top. I'd done it before, but this demonstrates well the world of the 'heavy' climber. Firstly, these holds are tiny for my. Not just because of my sausage fingers, but because of the weights they're holding up. And, just this slip, ended up meaning I have a really sore knee and shoulder today :) The struggle is real :) . . . #Bouldering #boulderer #boulderinglife #boulderinggym #climbing #climber #climb #climbinggym #climbharder #rockclimbing #loveclimbing #climberslife #climbon #climbinglife #rhinoskin #indoorclimbing #indoorrockclimbing #climbing_videos_of_instagram #weightloss #fitness #toughmudder #toughmuddertraining #healthandfitness #bouldering_pictures_of_instagram #climbing_pictures_of_instagram ##fail #failvideos #climbfail #climbingfail

A post shared by Gordon Robb (@fatoldclimber) on

Do you feel pressure to conform to a certain body shape and weight, given the - at times - unhealthy emphasis on weight loss and being 'skinny' in climbing? At what point does body positivity/being happy with your body intersect with having a healthy body?

I don't feel that pressure, and don't really think of it that way. I know, from recent medicals, that I am too heavy. It is affecting things now that would not be the case if I were lighter: blood pressure, wear and tear on knees/hips etc. And more recently, my weight puts me in the 'at risk' group for COVID-19. So there is that motivation. But honestly, my motivation for losing weight is climbing. I have been climbing for longer than some of the best climbers I know, and am stuck at a low grade. And this is mainly due to my weight. My crimping ability is dramatically hampered by my immense bulk conspiring with gravity to pull me off the wall. Every pound I lose makes that 7A target I have more realistic.

I feel like I'm good at finding alternative beta: sometimes the way the route has been set will just not work for me, so I have to be creative.

What are your strengths and weaknesses in climbing?

I think my strengths are mainly mental. I will not give up easily. I will throw myself at a problem (sometimes literally) for a long time to try to just make one move further. I also feel like I'm good at finding alternative beta: sometimes the way the route has been set will just not work for me, so I have to be creative. I also try to do a lot of drills mainly as part of my warm up. I tend to do 'silent feet' and '3 second delay' almost every session. But I'll also play on easier grades, trying to do them in two moves etc., just to get to know my limitations.

Has your diet changed since starting climbing? You say you eat 'too much.'

I wish I could say it has, and at times when I was focused on improving it did. But I am not good at staying focused on eating right. With climbing centres in Scotland opening now, I can get back on track and focus on eating right too. I just try to not eat carbs or snack between meals, and that tends to work for me.

Gordon training on the Beastmaker.  © Gordon Robb
Gordon training on the Beastmaker.
© Gordon Robb

You posted that you put on weight in lockdown and that you're the heaviest you've ever been. How did lockdown affect your physical and mental fitness and health when walls were closed? Were you able to stay active at all in lockdown?

When lockdown started, I was full of plans to continue to get fit and lose weight. I had a trip planned with friends to go to Font in September, so wanted to be at my best. I joined with a group of friends to work on our pullups a few times a week, and was determined to stay focused. Unfortunately, this did not work. I wish I could say why. If I knew why, I'd maybe have been able to stop it. I think part of it was money worries as my income was seriously affected and my business at risk. But I accept that that is just me being a victim, and I should have been able to still be active and eat right. Living on my own definitely did not help. Not climbing or spending time with my climbing friends did not help. So I spent most of my time on Netflix, Xbox and eating things I shouldn't have eaten, all of which made me feel worse about things. Fortunately, I think I'm out of that spiral now, and back to being focused on improvement.

Ok, with indoor climbing and gym opening up on Monday, it's time for me to stop being a lazy ass. The stats speak for themselves. I've put on so much weight during lockdown, and I'm now the heaviest I've ever been. Interestingly, I'm 70 lbs (32KG) than the lightest I've climbed. Man I'd like to get back to that. . So the plan is this week is about changing eating habits drastically. Next week I'll introduce going to gym and climbing. Once I lose a couple of stone I'll add running to the mix. . It's time to get serious. Wish me luck folks. . . . #Bouldering #boulderer #boulderinglife #boulderinggym #climbing #climber #climb #climbinggym #climbharder #rockclimbing #loveclimbing #climberslife #climbon #climbinglife #rhinoskin #indoorclimbing #indoorrockclimbing #climbing_videos_of_instagram #weightloss #fitness #toughmudder #toughmuddertraining #health #healthandfitness #bouldering_pictures_of_instagram #climbing_pictures_of_instagram

A post shared by Gordon Robb (@fatoldclimber) on

You started climbing outdoors post lockdown since the walls were closed. How did you get on with rock, and do you enjoy it?

I hated it at first. I'm not sure if I've mentioned, but I'm overweight! When I drop to the mat, my legs are under a lot more stress than normal folks. At the wall this is OK as they have big thick mats. Outdoors, the mat is tiny and thin and landing on it from even a foot up hurts. So I had to climb very cautiously, as I was very scared of what might happen if I came off. This in itself makes you climb badly, so as I got more comfortable I improved a bit and have even managed to work on my most hated aspect of climbing - topping out.

A lot of really cool photographs and videos taken today, but I think this might be my all time favourite. Thanks to @nnaesk for taking it. A very unusual position for me to be in as, until last weekend, I had never topped-out on a boulder outside. Today I did it 4 times. I was still shit-scared, but I'm getting less and less so as time goes on. I guess the learning point is, face your fear and keep facing it, eventually you might grow to love it. . . . #Bouldering #boulderer #boulderinglife #boulderinggym #climbing #climber #climb #climbinggym #climbharder #rockclimbing #loveclimbing #climberslife #climbon #climbinglife #rhinoskin #indoorclimbing #indoorrockclimbing #climbing_videos_of_instagram #weightloss #fitness #toughmudder #toughmuddertraining #health #healthandfitness #bouldering_pictures_of_instagram #climbing_pictures_of_instagram

A post shared by Gordon Robb (@fatoldclimber) on

You mostly seem to boulder. Do you have any interest in roped climbing?

When I first started it was at Glasgow Climbing Centre with ropes. I liked it, but finding a partner was hard, and the inevitable weight difference wasn't ideal when someone had to belay me. That and my fear of heights was an issue. When I discovered TCA's bouldering-only centres, I realised I had found my sport.

Your aim was to climb 7A this year. How far off it are you, and do you think you could still make it this year?

The 7A target was based on me thinking to myself "If I didn't have all this excess weight, what grades would I be climbing?" and 7A was my answer. So that became my target: to continue to work on strength and technique, but focus mainly on losing weight to achieve it. I currently am stuck at about 5+ and my project grade is 6A. I was working on some 6Bs before lockdown and think I would have climbed them too. To put that in perspective, I'm doing oranges at the wall, and need to get through blues, greens and pinks to get to blacks (the >7A circuit). I suppose it's possible that I could still get there this year, but more realistically, it's a goal for next year now.

Working hard at the bouldering wall.  © Gordon Robb
Working hard at the bouldering wall.
© Gordon Robb

Walls are opening now in Scotland, which must be motivating for you! What are your plans for the coming weeks and months?

I will be at the wall the morning that it opens. And my plan is to quickly get back to the 3-4 times a week I was doing before lockdown. I plan to start off very easily and do short sessions. But as soon as my finger strength is back, I will be tackling the harder problems. I'll also get back to my pull-up training and once my weight drops a bit, get on the Beastmaker a couple of times a week.

Climbing is one of the best things to do. It's far better than a session at the gym or a long run, and you'll meet some great friends there.

What advice would you give to other people who might consider themselves to be too fat or too old to climb?

My advice would be to try it. Find a local climbing group and join it. Take it slow and easy. For bouldering, just climb the easiest stuff for a while. When you are as heavy as I am, climbing the easiest grade is still hard work and therefore a great workout. Climb down as much as you can and try not to climb things that you might struggle with until you are used to jumping off and landing safely on the mat.

Regarding age, I may be the fattest climber I know, but I'm certainly not the oldest. Same advice though, take it slow and enjoy it. Even if all you do is only ever climb the lower grades, you'll love it. When you're old or fat, be careful not to get too competitive and push yourself too far too fast. It's very easy to pick up a shoulder or finger injury when you begin, and trying things that you are not ready for, is a sure way to do that. But honestly, climbing is one of the best things to do. It's far better than a session at the gym or a long run, and you'll meet some great friends there. I wish I'd discovered it a lot earlier in my life.

UPDATE: Gordon is back at it from today and having fun:



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31 Aug

Good man!

Think many of us struggling a bit with increased weight after lockdown.

Keep plugging away and I’m sure you’ll reach your goal ( wish I had your motivation!).

31 Aug

Enjoyed reading this lots. Keep it up!!

This is refreshing, articles about ordinary extraordinary climbers rather than celebrities and/or wannabees.

Keep at it Gordon.

31 Aug

Pushing 60 old?? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

31 Aug

Brilliant.

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