Emma Twyford becomes first British woman to break 9a barrier

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 19/09/2019
Emma Twyford climbing Big Bang (9a). Photo: Marc Langley.

Emma Twyford has just made history, by becoming the first British woman to break the 9a barrier with her ascent of The Big Bang at Lower Pen Trywn. Sarah Stirling caught up with Emma who went straight back to work routesetting for the BMC British Lead Climbing Championships yesterday - with a bit of a prosecco hangover.

The Big Bang at Lower Pen Trywn was first climbed by Neil Carson in 1996. It has steadily turned away suitors over the years and gained quite a reputation, with James McHaffie being the only other person to climb the route in 23 years. 

We've been filming Emma's journey on the route, so look out for a BMC TV film - coming soon. 

Emma's climbing CV gets more impressive all the time. Last year, her incredible trad season made plenty of headlines. She has now climbed more E9s than any other British female - three of them, in fact - Rare Lichen, Once upon a time in the South West and Big Issue. She has also flashed several E7s.

This year, Emma dedicated herself to her sport project, but also stepped over into a relatively new genre for her - alpine climbing. Along with Matt Helliker, last month she made the first British free ascent of Camilotto Pellissier (8a/+), a testpiece in the Dolomites.

Even more impressive is the fact that Emma works as a route-setter, a physically demanding job which makes specific training difficult.

SS: Congratulations! First British woman to climb 9a! How did it feel when you topped the route? First thing you said? 

ET: Thanks! I'm not sure it has actually sunk in yet. I'm still in a state of disbelief that I didn't fall off the slab! I think I swore a lot but then asked my belayer, Angus Kille, "Did that actually just happen?"

WATCH: The heartbreaker high-point that spat Emma off a few times:

 

How did you celebrate?

I celebrated with three bottles of Prosecco and a hangover to go with it this morning!

Why this route?

The Big Bang somehow always drew me in when I was at Lower Pen Trywn. I was intrigued to find out if I was capable of doing the moves. With all the work I do away from home I wanted a challenging project that was close to home. Picking a tidal and conditions-dependent route wasn't the best move, though!

When did you realise the route would go?

James McHaffie always told me that if you could link the pocket to the crux, about three-quarters of the way up, then the route was possible. I first checked it out a few times in 2017, then at the beginning of last year, on my first session on it, I managed that link. It went from being a pipe dream to a serious goal at that point.

Tell us about the start of the route?

At the second bolt, the route really kicks in with some big, powerful shoulder moves through a roof. This bit is my anti-style. I had to cut loose to leave the roof and then move into an OK rest but it is still on your arms with average feet. Up to this point the route is maybe 8a+, then you have hard moves to leave this shake-out. It's crimpy, techy and really body-position intensive up to the pocket with no shake-outs. Up to here it is maybe 8b+ to get the pocket and the hard bit is that you have to arrive at this point pretty fresh and not pumped!

And the crux?

It's about V9. The first move is a big lock-off to an absolutely awful, crimpy non-hold - then you have to quickly sort out your feet and lock the body position in to press to backhand. Then the big crux move comes with a high rockover to a small crimp, with one more heartbreaking move to pop your left foot on a micro-foothold on the slab with just a few tricky moves on bad, small and sharp holds to the top.

"It was heartbreaking to get a whisker away from climbing 9a a few times"

Last moves?

The last move for me was a bit of a stretch on tip toes! There were a few times I thought I had done it when I got the crimp crux move but I kept blowing the step up onto the slab which was heartbreaking to say the least as I was a whisker away from climbing 9a a few times. The problem with the crux was that the holds are too bad to slap for: everything had to be static and in control. The slightest false move in body position and I was off. Or I didn't have enough lock-off power to hit the hold on the first crux move. It could be very frustrating sometimes.

Who belayed you?

A lot of people came down to belay me on this. The ones I really have to thank for the partnerships are Sophie Wilmes, Natasha Lucas and Angus Kille for the lucky belay! The Lower Pen Trywn climbing scene has been great this year.

How did you train for this route - did you build any replicas of any sections? 

I don't build replicas or train very specifically. With so much route-setting work going on, I don't have the energy to train much so I kept everything very short, sweet and basic! I worked out the number of hand moves on the route and how long I rested for. I would add 8 - 10kg weight and hang on a fingerboard, 5 on 2 off, in the hand sequences, with my feet on a chair.

I also did some basic core workouts and very occasional weighted pull-ups in recent months, along with a board session if I wasn't setting. I know that setting keeps me pretty fit, it's a workout in itself, but just not specific to a route. I need to be fresh enough to know how hard the climbs are that I have set so it's not an easy juggling act and sometimes I've just taken the financial hit in order to get on the route.

How long did it take to work the route?

In total it's taken me about two years to do the route. I've lost count of sessions but I made it my main focus this year, unlike last year where I had other goals, too. The route isn't always accessible and for about four months through the winter it's unclimbable.

"I approached the route without dieting to lose weight or changing who I am, that was really important to me"

Did you ever almost give up on it?

I had some moments where it was hard-going this year. I wondered if I was crazy or too obsessed but I couldn't back down knowing I had come so close. I injured my shoulder while setting earlier this year, so I was worried about that, too. I learnt a lot from repointing this route about what I am capable of both mentally and physically. I approached the route without dieting to lose weight or changing who I am, that was really important to me.

You’ve climbed more E9s than any other British female ... how does your psych for trad compare to your psych for sport routes?

I love them both! Sport challenges my physical limits but also makes me a better climber and compliments my trad climbing. Trad can give me some of the best moments of pure joy, but both are my happy place, with friends or in relative solitude I am most calm and at peace when I'm climbing in beautiful locations.

WATCH: Emma Twyford climb E9 on BMC TV:

What do you enjoy ... and dislike about working a sport route?

I enjoy the fact you can break it down. Initially the route may feel impossible or you can only just do the moves. You have to work out your own personal beta and finetune it. You unlock the pieces of a puzzle and it suddenly feels possible. Then the mental battle begins! You may be capable but everything has to align. You have to learn to hold it together and also just let go and enjoy the process. Finding that place where you have the adrenaline to fight on the route but also feel calm and don't care about the outcome is pretty special. I got to experience that feeling of being completely in the zone and at peace with the outcome on Tuesday.

"I got to experience that feeling of being completely in the zone and at peace with the outcome on Tuesday"

I hate how it can be all consuming sometimes. You start to question your sanity and sometimes the belief in yourself. Wondering if your beta is correct! But also missing out on fun times with friends other potential routes to climb or just going climbing for the hell of it. But mostly I love it! Though I wouldn't choose to work a route all the time, or to just focus all my energy on one.

What’s your next goal?

I don't know for sure. I have a lot of routesetting work coming up. I also have some potential trips lined up and I'm psyched to go back to the Dolomites next year. I imagine a return to more trad will be on the cards.

Last month Emma and Matt_Helliker made the first British free ascent of Camilotto Pellissier (8a/+), a testpiece in the Dolomites:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Emma Twyford (@emmatwyford) on

WATCH: Our great interview with Emma by Niall Grimes on BMC TV

Read more BMC articles about Emma

Emma Twyford climbs her third E9

Emma Twyford's Storming 2018

Emma is sponsored by Patagonia, DMM, Scarpa, Frictionlabs and Climbskin. 


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