Yes, I’m In My 50s And Weigh Over 19st. But I Can Still Climb Mountains

I became the person I always wanted to be not by losing weight, but by learning to carry it.
The author, Sean McBride, at Stella Point, Mount Kilimanjaro
The author, Sean McBride, at Stella Point, Mount Kilimanjaro

I was panting, heart pounding after my slow, steady climb when a dream occurred to me: I could climb Everest.

Surely that would have to be far more exciting than my life of weekly weigh-ins and tearful confessions about fish suppers and chocolate. And, after all, massive challenges, far-flung travels and adventure is everything I love in life.

Then, the reality of the moment interrupted my dream. The climb I had just completed was the two flights of stairs to my front door. The reason I was panting? Because I was obese, nearly 50 and had hardly been off the couch in weeks.

I didn’t let any of that stop me.

In the five years since that dream came to me, I’ve yet to reach the top of Everest, but they have been amazing: I’ve summited 54 Munros (Scottish mountains over 900m). I’ve completed the Great Glencoe Challenge (26.2 miles across rough terrain from Glencoe to Fort William in Scotland) twice in under 12 hours (11:22 and 11:52). I’ve reached Stella Point (5,685m) on the rim of Kilimanjaro. I’ve reached the highest point in North Africa, the summit of Mount Toubkal (4,167m) in the Atlas Mountains. And I’ve completed three trips to the Himalayas, reaching Everest Base Camp and a height of 6,140m on Mera Peak.

“When you lose yourself in the utter beauty that surrounds you high in the mountains, you feel as far removed from obesity as you are from the 9 to 5 or the city streets.”

If you’re waiting to read how much weight I’ve lost in that time, here’s your answer: I didn’t lose any. In fact, I’ve actually gained some. I took the person I thought I would be once the weight was gone – fit, healthy, sexy, adventurous – and I became that person. Not by losing weight, but by learning to carry it.

The confidence and sense of achievement I got from these adventures was incredible. I’ve stood on a glacier over 6,000m above sea level and looked across at Everest in the sunrise, something I once believed only gods and elite mountaineers would ever get to see.

And when you lose yourself in the utter beauty that surrounds you high in the mountains, you feel as far removed from obesity as you are from the 9 to 5 or the city streets. You become humble, thankful for the simplest of things and feel accomplished simply by being yourself.

Then there’s the respect you get from others. All my treks have started with those who’ve doubted my ability to cover the ground – you need to be thick-skinned enough to accept the looks of surprise or even concern.

I tend to leave perceptions and doubt to the doubters while I focus on the solid physical ability that I’ve nurtured through regular training. There’s nothing I need to say to convince anyone what I’m capable of. Sooner or later, to push on as much as you can despite what others think tends to earn their respect.

I remember catching up with the group on a mountain high above the small settlement of Dingboche on the route to Everest. They nicknamed me The Terminator because, whatever happened, I just kept on coming.

“If you’re waiting to read how much weight I’ve lost in that time, here’s your answer: I didn’t lose any. In fact, I’ve actually gained some.”

When I first met the others in my group before climbing Mera Peak in Nepal, I remember the looks of surprise as I came out of the bar to meet them with a beer in each hand. They tried to be nice and to hide it, but I could see on some of their faces that they thought I didn’t belong there.

By the time we returned to Lukla at the end of two weeks in the mountains, their initial surprise had been replaced by admiration and encouragement. I was slow, but my progress was steady. By the end of the trek, a lot of the group were walking beside me, quite comfortable walking at my pace.

The nicknames are not always flattering. When one journalist interviewed me about my experiences, to my initial horror I saw the term ‘Mountaineater’ appeared atop his article about me in a national newspaper. I guess he’d been more amused than inspired by what he saw than what he’d heard. In the end, I had to smile – metaphorically speaking, I do tend to ‘eat up’ the mountains.

Our world has a perception of overweight people. They think we are lazy, irresponsible, and impulsive, that exercise and hard work are beyond us.

But we can be adventurers like anyone else.And we all have our dreams too. And, if experience has taught me anything, it’s that dreams can come true if we make them.

Sean McBride is an adventure travel writer

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