Marc Langley speaks to Emma Twyford about all things climbing and route setting...
Emma Twyford needs little introduction. She is one of the most accomplished and well-respected all round climbers currently operating in the UK climbing scene. Her CV of hard routes under her belt includes some of the most influential lines in climbing, such as Once Upon a Time in the South West E9 6c and Mind Control 8c to name just a couple. Emma is not only known for her hard climbing, though; she works as a route setter across the country for various climbing walls. She also runs workshops designed to help teach and inspire more women to work in the route setting industry. I caught up with Emma in Wales to discuss her recent spate of hard ascents and to see what's next on the cards for her.
You climbed Mind Control 8c in Oliana this year, which is considered a bit of an endurance testpiece. You have also climbed a significant string of hard trad routes including flashes of E7 6a and more recently Dave Birkett's Once Upon a Time E9 6c and Nightmayer E8 6c. However, we only tend to hear about the hard sport routes being climbed by women, thinking of, for example, the recent rave on social media about Margo Hayes' ascent of Biographie/Realisation (5.15/9a+). Do you see the hard trad routes being climbed by women and if so, why do you think we hear less about there achievements compared to sport?
I think a lot more people can relate to and understand hard sport ascents. Trad climbing is a little bit more niche and complicated. Obviously you have the likes of Hazel Findlay and Katy Whittaker pushing hard on trad. You also have some strong international ladies like Babsi Zangerl and Caro Ciavaldini making impressively quick ascents of hard trad routes too. When you think about it though, if you were to equate most trad routes to a sport grade they wouldn't be super hard with the odd exception and the E grade is a bit messy. There are many competent female trad climbers but very few pushing the mental limits into the high E numbers of E7 and above. Trad seems to be less popular as it is the more expensive area of the sport to kit yourself out for and then you have to find competent and reliable partners, so the pool of climbers that are able to push their limits quickly becomes smaller.
A recent trip to the South West saw you climb Dave Birkett's Once Upon a Time E9 6c. What drew you to this line and how did it compare to some of your other hard trad ascents ?
To be honest I wasn't initially drawn to it. I'd seen the Spice Girl film clip of Hazel Findlay on it, which makes the gear look awful and the rock quality a bit mixed. I was surprised to find the gear was better than I thought it would be, the rock quality pretty amazing, the climbing incredible, but trickier than I thought it would be. My climbing isn't geared towards trad that much this year so I went because Caff had organised this trip and I thought it would be fun and sociable if nothing else. It's a weird one because it felt fairly serious but also not at the same time because there was a group of us trying these routes together.
It took me a while to change the gears in my brain to trying hard above gear that I'd placed instead of clipping bolts as I'd only done two trad routes earlier in the year. It was fun, though, to brace myself for a different mental challenge and it's hard to compare it to other trad routes of similar difficulty as they are all in different styles and situations. For me it felt difficult because I wasn't in trad mode and I was struggling to remember the gear. I guess the closest comparison for me would be another Birkett route in the Lakes called Impact Day (E8 6c) which is the same technical difficulty of about F8a. It's very serious at the start on the 'easier' bit which is height dependent but safer when you get into the technical crux, though it's a lot shorter. Once Upon is so long and my feet were in pieces by the end, but the aesthetics of the route are truly stunning.
In addition to your recent trad successes, you also made a successful ascent of Mind Control 8c in Oliana. It seems that you are working hard towards 9a which seems to be the next logical step for you - do you have your sights on this and if so what could that look like ?
I guess it's no secret that I've been trying Big Bang (9a) at Lower Pen Trwyn. I've been trying this route intermittently between work and other projects. I like to mix things up as I think it's important keep your mind psyched on a project and not become worn down by it. I'd been psyched to try Mind Control after hearing that it came highly recommended so I decided to use it as a motivating stepping stone. If I could do this quickly and early in the year then it would set me up well. I achieved this which put me in a good head space, but it also means if I don't achieve my bigger goal this year then I still walk away having done Mind Control, which is pretty sweet. However, I'm not resting on my laurels as I also want to do Big Bang! With it being tidal and conditions dependent it's a bit more tricky to get everything to align at once, especially once I throw work into the mix. It has gone from feeling like a pipe dream last year to very possible this year. I can now do all the moves consistently and am making big links on the route…
You run ladies' route setting workshops and are a major advocate for female route setting. What is your motivation for promoting all-female route setting and where do you see this going in the future?
I've been route setting for 7 years now and until recently it has been pretty rare to have another female setter on the team. It's not easy work, it can be big days and it's hard graft. One of the things I have noticed without being condescending or pandering to stereotypes too much is that women seem to lack the confidence to just dive in and give it a go because it is quite an intimidating and male dominated arena. For me it's not something that has ever bothered me because I've grown up climbing mostly with men. I also come from quite a lucky background where I knew the right people to ask and my name got me work pretty quickly. The female Creative Climbing workshops were Evie Cotrulia's (White Spider's head setter) brain child. The more we discussed it the more psyched we got to try and help women give setting a go. From my perspective I want to use my knowledge to help inspire more women to try out setting and maybe find their dream job or a passion that they can dip into.
Given the work that you have both put into the female Creative Climbing workshops, what do you think climbing centres should be doing to help attract women into the route setting industry and empower them to take in a more active role in route setting?
I think as we see an increase in female activity within climbing I would hope that it should develop more naturally into more women wanting to set. But I also wouldn't want to alienate the guys. It's not so much about women setting differently, but rather that regardless of gender every setter brings their own unique style of creativity to the table. It's important to have a mixture to suit every customer's tastes. I try to make the women on our workshops aware that it will be hard physical work and you can't slack off and let the guys do the hard work, you have to be willing to do everything. Evie has been very proactive in telling the women she will help them out with days of setting/experience at White Spider and some of the women from the first course have already gone on to set at other walls. It would be nice to see more women on setting teams at the climbing walls but I think it is as much their responsibility to actively contact the walls as it is the climbing wall's to help increase the number of women setting.
Recently you have been climbing with Maddy Cope, how does this dynamic compare from climbing with a more male dominated scene ?
Climbing with Maddy has been an absolute blast, she's strong but very down to Earth. I've grown up climbing with guys from a very young age because it used to be a male dominated scene and I think Maddy has also done the same. It's been great sharing beta but also I think whilst both of us are happy to push it we both have a healthy respect for the risks being taken. To me the dynamic is not much different; I enjoy climbing with Maddy because we have similar goals, she is fun to climb with, she doesn't have a massive ego and I trust her. The only slight differences are that we can share beta and I don't feel awkward going for a wee close by whilst out climbing.
What advice would you give to women who are wanting to progress their climbing and move into the more niche area of traditional climbing, and for those who wish to move up through the grades into the E numbers?
It's a tricky one because there are so many variables. I'd say for anyone thinking about it to make sure you know why you love climbing. If you're making that move you may well initially have to drop your grade substantially to safely learn how to place kit well. There are a few ways to learn; book a day with an SPA or a trad course at the Brenin, or have a session with mates who are reliable who already trad climb and know what they are doing. The most important bit is to learn to place gear efficiently and well; in dropping your grade you have time to do this. Now for the grey area: there comes a time when you push your grade where you have to be happy to commit to a move above gear where you might fall. I'm reluctant to encourage falling, but I would maybe initially go for getting your kit marked out of ten by an experienced trad climber. You could also set up a lead rope and top rope with the idea of the top rope being your back-up and practice falling onto the kit.
With this method you can start to assess which kit you would fall onto and which you can't fall onto. My motto is if in doubt back it up with more gear that makes you happy in your head to go for it. Don't push to chase the grade because it is riskier than sport climbing; it is better to consolidate at a grade and do a variety of styles to move on to the next grade. You may pick one you've seconded before as your first to try and lead to boost confidence. Make sure your head is in a good space and if you feel confident then go for it and don't let anyone hold you back.
Climbing has risen in popularity over the past 5 years, especially since it became an Olympic sport. With this in mind, more and more people are climbing indoors, either sport climbing or bouldering. What advice would you give people who are eager to transition outdoors?
I was incredibly lucky - I actually started climbing outside. It was three years before I did my first competition and I had great mentors (Mike Park, the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team and James McHaffie).
There are many pathways into outdoor climbing, you just have to pick the one you want to take.
Bouldering is the easiest and cheapest really, all you need is some boulder mats, a guide book and a few mates to make it fun and sociable. It's probably the one that is expanding the fastest.
For sport climbing you need some quickdraws and a clip stick is also handy along with your usual climbing kit and your own sport rope. Again a guidebook is useful, you could choose to go off with your experienced and trusted climbing partner, book an SPA to take you out sport climbing or go on an organised sport climbing trip to somewhere like Kalymnos to get started.
Trad is more awkward, you need a lot of kit and some experience or to be lucky and have a mate who knows what they are doing. If you don't there are courses with Plas Y Brenin or you can book an MIA and go from there. It's a real investment, so you might need to build up your rack slowly once you've got the bug. It's worth making sure you start off easy and learn to place trad kit and set up belays well. You can't get away with just giving it a go with trad, you really need to build up the experience with someone who knows what they are doing. If you have kids that are keen, get them on one of the BMC youth trad meets, they're well worth it. They are a great opportunity and are brilliantly organised.