Emma Twyford recently climbed her third E9 - Big Issue in Pembroke. Sarah Stirling catches up with her to find out how it went, her trad-climbing tips, and what motivates her.
The first British woman to climb E9 was Hazel Findlay - the route was Dave Birkett's Once Upon a Time in the South West and the year was 2011. Back in 2013, Emma became the second British female to climb the grade (see this interview: Emma Twyford: how to climb E9). She climbed Leo Houlding's Rare Lichen in the Ogwen Valley. That year, Hazel climbed another E9: Chicama on Anglesey. Then, in 2016, Eve Lancashire surprised the climbing world by climbing Rare Lichen, too. Since then, Eve has stayed out of the press, and Hazel has focussed more on sport and big wall projects. Out of the three, Emma seems to be the one consistently pushing hard British trad at the moment. What drives her and what's next?
SS: How many E9s have you done now, and was this the hardest?
ET: I have now done three E9s and some hard E8s. I’d say that Big Issue is definitely the hardest of the three for a few different reasons though perhaps not the boldest. I think Once Upon a Time in the South West (E9) or Nightmayer (an E8 on Dinas Cromlech) would win that award.
This one was hard because it’s about 8b to place the gear and the conditions are fickle so you’re constantly fighting a mental battle and when you go for the lead you have to make the most of the window of opportunity and really try hard to succeed. I think it’s the first trad route I’ve ever power-screamed on or fallen from on the headpoint!
How many times did you try the project before succeeding?
Over the last year I think I actually only managed to climb on the route six out of the eight or nine times I went down to Pembroke. Out of those times I only tried to lead it twice ground up and twice on headpoint attempts (one of them being the successful ascent).
Why this route?
Once I’d tried to climb it and knew I could probably do it and the seed had been sown! The climbing on it is absolutely immaculate and when you look at the wall it is just begging to be climbed. It’s one of very few routes I’ve been on where I knew I would have to dig deep into the 'try hard bank' to get it done!
Best sequence of moves on it?
There are two really amazing sequences on this route, the first one of which is the technical crux. It is really involved with tenuous feet and specific body positions. It can be done a few different ways so you just have to find the right one for you. The second crux is big moves between side pull pockets with bad feet. This is the moment where I was a little pumped and had to power scream my way through to get it done.
WATCH: Emma Tywford climb Rare Lichen (E9) on BMC TV
Did you have any big falls off it? What's the gear like?
I had a reasonably good fall off the route last year when the gear was in-situ but nothing major. It’s more of a fun route to fall off, the gear is pretty bomber with some exciting run-outs so it allows you to get completely immersed in the hard moves!
The gear on the route is good except the peg but you do have to run it out between the good kit. I found the hardest part was placing the kit just after the first crux. I had to start the next hard sequence to place the wire, which made it tricky to seat it properly and be quick. I had to just carry on then, being sure it was in well enough to hold a fall.
Emma on Big Issue, E9. Photo: John Bunney
Any tips on the head game of trad climbing?
I think it is always important to build up gradually and learn the value of placing gear well so you can assess and trust a good placement. The most important lesson I learnt over the years was to only go for a route if my head was truly in the right place and to be able to back off and come back another day if it wasn’t.
The game of onsighting is very different to a headpoint as you are taking a leap into the unknown. I think you have to be constantly on the ball eyeing up your next potential sequence and building nests of kit to be happy to go for it.
How interested are you in the history of routes versus the beauty of the moves?
I like a route to have both. it’s really fantastic when you climb routes that have historical value and great stories surrounding them - it really adds to the aura of a route for me. Aside from that though the route does have to get me psyched so the moves and the beauty of the route are also important. If the route has history but it’s total choss then I’m less likely to want to climb it!
You've been down to try this route a few times with various friends / people from the climbing community. Thoughts on the British trad climbing scene?
It’s a funny one because climbing, especially bouldering and indoor gym climbing, is growing at a rapid rate now. I think trad still holds some interest but it’s more complicated to get into. I try to get involved in the youth meets if I am available to encourage the next generation.
Many of the mountain crags have been fairly quiet even with the stunning weather but it has been great to see Pembroke super busy. I’m lucky that the partners I tend to climb with are experienced and have a great love of trad climbing so I think in certain areas the scene is still alive and kicking. I hope it stays that way.
What's your opinion on whether really hard routes like this should be bolted or left unbolted?
I think we have such a strong history of trad climbing in the UK. I am aware that Big Issue was bolted at one time but then John Dunne got the first ascent in 1996 with some in-situ kit, and also placed some of it. I think routes like this in an area that is primarily trad climbing should be left unbolted. There is good kit to be placed so there is really no reason to bolt it.
I think it’s important to get it right, for example it makes sense to bolt Malham but it would be wrong to bolt somewhere like the Cromlech. I think there is great value in sticking to the ethics of an area. We have such fantastic diversity in the UK and it would be great to keep it that way so we can appreciate every aspect of the fantastic climbing on offer here.
What's next on your trad ticklist?
I’m really not sure just yet, the crazy thing is I did all the trad routes I really wanted to do this year so now I need to find a new adventure! I think I’m going to savour the success a little first before I begin to plan my next trad goals but I know there will be plenty.
Have you been to Yosemite - are any of the routes there on your ticklist?
I actually haven’t been to America at all. I toy with idea on and off but there are a few factors that make me question it. I know there is some amazing granite in the Alps and the idea of being up in the mountains without seeing too many people appeals to me more. However, it is Yosemite, and the scenery and climbing looks truly stunning. One day soon it may appeal to me to make a trip there but I’m also happy having fantastic adventures closer to home.
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