The Big Bang: An Interview with Emma Twyford

After redpointing The Big Bang at Lower Pen Trywn (North Wales), Emma Twyford has become the first British woman to climb 9a. Known as Wales’ hardest sport climb, Emma’s ascent is only the third of this route. We sent Faye Latham, a member of our blog team, to talk to Emma about her success and any advice she might have for female climbers.

Q: What attracted you to the climb, ‘The Big Bang’? Pushing the grade or the line itself?

A: It was a bit of both, really. My friend James McHaffie got the second ascent of this route. We climb together a lot and have a very similar style, and he encouraged me to give it a go. At first it was nails, but I was really curious. The hardest climb I had done before was 8c, and I didn’t know if 9a was possible. I wanted to know what 9a felt like.

Q: How did you train and prepare for the climb? Do you find it better to have a more specific programme or best not to be too structured?

A: I changed my training a bit to fit the climb and did some more power sessions, but because of my route setting, I can’t train too specifically. If I try to up my training, I find that I don’t set very well in the week. I used to compete and had a strict training plan. This structure never really worked well for me. I would be stressed about not improving or being tired. I know my weaknesses and tailor my training to that.

Q: On the route, did you find mental or physical barriers to be the biggest setback?

A: Initially I was incapable of linking up the separate moves, so definitely physical. Once I got used to the movement, the challenge became more of a mental one. I kept falling off the top and there were loads of times before my final ascent that I could have completed the climb. The bad conditions or my tiredness from setting made me unable to stay calm at the crux. On lots of routes you can be forgiven for making mistakes since the holds will still be good enough. Here, I couldn’t mess up my bodily positions and had to be perfect. I tried this route last year and got really close to finishing, but fell on the last hold. I had to put off the climb because of the winter season, and with the additional pressure of an injured shoulder from setting, I didn’t know how far behind I would be in terms of strength. When I tried the climb again this year, I was able to link the crux together. This gave me the boost I needed and ‘The Big Bang’ became my main focus.

Q: How do you deal with disappointment? Do you find failure on a route frustrating, or does it give you more psych?

Swings and roundabouts. On the harder days, I came off and was annoyed and felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough. The mistakes I was making were silly and could easily be avoided. However, I generally try and take something positive away each time I visit the crag. Some of the biggest frustrations actually came from people trying to photograph me finishing the climb – I perform much better without a crowd!

Q: You document a lot of your achievements on social media. Do you find social media encouraging, or can it be damaging to female athletes?

There are lots of different extremes in climbing, ranging from traditional climbing to indoor competitions. I see a lot of young female climbers getting into dieting and nutrition, often influenced by their role models. Regardless of social media, this has always been an issue in a lot of sports. For example, gymnasts are often told that lighter = stronger. This doesn’t have to be the case. I was careful not to diet for this route. In my opinion, a climb is never worth that kind of strain on your body. When I come back from weeks of setting, my boyfriend says that I practically inhale food! The job I do is so physical that it doesn’t really matter what I eat. I bake a lot in my spare time and if I want to have something, I never feel too guilty about it. I am careful not to post provocative pictures of my body. It would be easier to get sponsorship if I were to wear less clothes at the crag, but I don’t think this is good for young girls to see. On the flip side, I think it is important to be body confident. Used correctly, social media can be a positive platform and does inspire a lot of girls to take up climbing.

Q: You are certainly an inspiring female role model - do people turn their heads when you arrive at the crag? How does this make you feel?

A: Ha! Everyone around here is pretty normal and we constantly take the piss out of each other. My friends and family keep me grounded and I’d like to believe that if anyone wanted to talk to me, then they could! If anyone does have me as a role model, I hope I’m a good one.

Q: Climbing is undoubtedly becoming more popular. Do you think this is a good thing?

Competition climbing and traditional outdoor climbing are now just two different sports. I’d like to see the next generation get into climbing for the right reasons, not to ‘look good’ but because they enjoy it. The good thing about climbing becoming more popular is that the people who might not have known about climbing can get into the sport and are able to choose how and in what way they want to enjoy it.

Q: There are many aspiring ascents being won by women at the moment. How have you seen the female climbing scene change over the past few years?

A: The balance in climbing is now pretty 50/50. There are loads of young girls pushing it to the next level. Since it is an extreme sport, it doesn’t have the same gender bias, and lots of women are starting to see their potential in the climbing community. Unlike other sports, the gap between men and women is much smaller. I have a good group of girlfriends to go out with, but I grew up climbing with men, so this has never been an issue for me. It’s a great place to be a woman in the climbing scene right now and since men are generally climbing at that higher level, they have to keep pushing the ultimate grade in order to get sponsorship. However, with so many female specific events being promoted, I do think there is a danger that people will pander to negative stereotypes and that women might play into being the weaker sex. These events are about inspiring women and giving them the confidence to perform to the best of their ability.

Q: If you had to give advice to a girl who wanted to start climbing, what would you say?

I’ve been very lucky – my dad has always been into the outdoors and he introduced me to trad. Chances are that your first experience of climbing will be at an indoor centre. Just give it a go. Don’t be held back by fear, and don’t be scared to fail. I’ve noticed that guys usually start with more confidence. I’d like girls to know that, when you start climbing, everyone is in the same boat. Once you get over the fear barrier, you start noticing that all the other insecurities are fairly irrational.

Q: Do you have a female role model?

A: Rachel Farmer. First British woman to climb 8a. She was famous back in the day but died in her early 20s. The first climbing related book I ever read was about her, and it stuck with me.

Q: Odd question, I know, but what’s the difference between a holiday and an adventure?

A: A holiday means no climbing. I recently went on a three day trip to Portugal with my girlfriends and mostly chilled, drank and paddle boarded – that was definitely a holiday! I sometimes forget that when I go on a sport climbing trip, I’m still pushing my body to its absolute limit. It’s not really a break from the usual stuff my body goes through. Having said that, sport climbing is generally safe and doesn’t have the same sense of uncertainty as a trip to the Alps. Anything I consider ‘type 2 fun’ is an adventure. If I'm really suffering or don't know the outcome and at the end ask my partner, 'when are we doing that again?' - that's an adventure!

Q: I can’t really avoid asking the classic question – what’s next?

A: I’m enjoying having no specific goals right now. I’ve spent the last week answering emails and giving my body a rest! The only thing I do know is that I am keen to go back to the Dolomites. I recently went there with Matt Helliker and we climbed Camilotto Pellisier (8a/+) on the Cima Grande. The current plan is to go back and try to climb Panorama. At a grade of 8c it is technically harder than the route we did before, but there are only two really hard pitches of climbing. I suffer a bit from what I call the ‘sponsored climbers conundrum’. I try to take only two flights a year and find it hard to justify long haul flights for what is really quite a selfish pursuit. I like making the most of what’s on my doorstep. The routes in the UK are hard work but there is so much variety. In North Wales alone, there is enough rock to keep any climber occupied for a lifetime. For now I just want to have a moment to enjoy what I’ve achieved and chill out a bit.

You can follow Emma on Instagram at @emmatwyford and visit her website, to see what she's getting up to.