Interview: Emma Twyford

We catch up with Emma one of the most accomplished all round climbers in the UK to chat lockdown, the Big Bang, Black Lives Matter and more.

Feature type Interview

Read time 12 min read

Published Nov 20, 2020

Base editorial team
BASE editorial team BASE writers and editors who live and breathe adventure every day. We love adventure storytelling as much as we love adventure itself.

Photography | Patagonia

Growing up in the Lake District, it didn’t take long for climbing to become a major part of Emma Twyford’s life. Competing on the GB team in her teens, she was crowned the British Junior Bouldering Champion. Leaving competition behind, she embedded herself in the North Wales climbing community. Today, famous for mixing sport, trad and alpine with some of the most iconic lines in climbing under her belt, she’s known as one of the most accomplished all round climbers in the UK as well as working as a route setter for climbing walls around the country.

On Monday 23rd of November, with Emma, Patagonia is hosting the rock climbing night as part of the virtual Kendal Mountain Festival. Ahead of the night, we caught up with Emma to chat lockdown, the Big Bang, Black Lives Matter and more.

Where did it all begin for you in climbing?

I started climbing at the age of seven with my dad and his friends – my introduction was to trad climbing in the Lake District. I fell in love with the challenges and the beauty of climbing straight away. Though it ebbed and flowed, at the age of 17, I contracted glandular fever and gave up climbing for a year to focus on school. It took a long time to re-find my passion for climbing and to get my focus back. This came when I gave up competitive climbing and returned to my love of the outdoors.

Most of the key achievements in your climbing career so far have been in the UK. Why is that? Do UK crags hold a certain appeal for you?

There are a few factors, perhaps the most simple one is time. Due to work, I can’t always travel away for long periods. But I have also developed a love for UK climbing, it’s where I grew up and my heart belongs in the mountains. There is so much rich history to UK climbing, it is hard not to admire it and to be in awe of some of the bold first ascents. It may not always be wild and remote, or have stunning Alpine scenery, but the diversity of climbing we have in the UK is truly incredible. I love promoting what we have on our doorstep, I think it is important we don’t take it for granted. Yes, we can have terrible weather here but we do not need to travel abroad to have incredible experiences.

The completion of Big Bang, and the film that followed, represent big moments in your career. Do you feel like that’s had an impact and how do you feel about being recognized outside UK climbing circles?

It’s hard for it not to have had an impact on my career. I’m hoping it means a little more freedom to pursue the goals and dreams I now have, but we are facing challenging times ahead with Covid and the aftermath. And that’s before you think about climate change too. Fundamentally, in the grand scheme of things, climbing projects and success are a drop in the ocean compared to the issues we are currently facing.

In the grand scheme of things, climbing projects and success are a drop in the ocean compared to the issues we are currently facing.

For me, Big Bang was such a personal journey and I still find it hard to sum up all of the emotions that come with the success of completing a big project. Being recognised outside of UK climbing circles is nice but I didn’t do it for validation or recognition from others. All I really care about is that it hasn’t changed my core values, and the recognition I care most about is from family and friends, who mean the world to me.

You’re a bit of a lynchpin in British climbing. What’s it like being so engaged with the UK climbing community?

It feels so surreal to be in the limelight and to have played a part in British climbing history. I’m quite introverted until I get to know people so I find it tricky sometimes, but I also really enjoy trying to inspire and motivate people. It’s why I love coaching and doing talks – even if I get nervous. If I can inspire just one person to push themselves beyond what they thought was possible, then it’s worth it to me. I hope that, by being engaged with the UK community, people realise I’m just a normal person like anyone else, who works hard to push for my goals.

Do you have any objectives elsewhere in Europe, short term or long term?

I have a few in the pipeline but not for this year because I don’t want to risk it. I imagine not all of them will come to fruition but I’m hoping to make some of them possible.

I’d love to visit the Verdon – one of my dream routes there is Tom et Je Ris – but also to sample some of the spectacular multi-pitch climbing on offer. Another dream route is Paciencia on the Eiger, that one has been on my mind for a few years now.

I have sport climbing goals too, perhaps to return to Oliana or to Céüse. I’d like to think about doing these goals with minimal impact or making them longer trips to be worth the travel. I’m reluctant to fly back and forth to get them done

On the back of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world, the topics of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are in the public consciousness. How are you engaging with these issues?

These are such important issues and it is just a shame that it takes something as horrific as George Floyd’s death to get people to take note.

We need to focus on being more supportive of each other, more kind and more aware of what is going on, rather than making one-off statements and moving on. Instead, we should keep the issues in our consciousness, remain open to conversations and continue to support those who are pushing the debate forward.

You could compare this to Lockdown. There are those of us for whom the situation has made us rethink all of our actions, who are making positive changes. Then there are some people who ignore the issues and just carry on as normal. For example, in the Lake District, where my family live, the number of tents and rubbish left behind by people wild camping recently has been awful.

You became an ambassador for Patagonia this year. How does being a part of the company impact your thinking on broader environmental issues?

I’m excited to be part of a company that cares about the environment and other important issues outside of climbing.

I have some very good friends who work within Oceanography, so we tend to have long chats about climate change. In my 20s, and perhaps being slightly naïve, I always wondered how one person could make a change and impact big corporations. But then you look at YC or Greta and that is exactly what they have done.

Being part of Patagonia is a platform to make these changes and to be involved with a fantastic support network. There is no Planet B, we have to make changes to take care of this one, or suffer the consequences.

The pandemic put paid to a lot of climbers’ travel plans this year. Did it change how you looked at objectives close to home, and do you think that the same can be said for other climbers?

I hope Covid has changed the way we think. It’s Mother Nature’s way of sending out a big alarm bell that we need to change the destructive path we are on. There are already enough warning signs out there.

I guess most of my objectives have always been close to home and I’m happy to continue down that path. We can have great adventures on our doorstep. It’s so hard because part of being a climber is to explore wild places and being locked up, for many of us, is not natural, but we can adapt to making the most of what we have – even if it is not what we once had.

Perhaps there is a time now when our freedom to explore remote places will become more limited, if we wish to slow down climate change. This doesn’t mean we have to limit ourselves, it may just mean we follow our passion in a different way. Perhaps the next great adventure is to explore the areas of home that we have never been to, to appreciate what we may have always taken for granted.

I think many climbers have struggled, I know some that have taken a pause and changed objectives and thought more about how we can be responsible in the pursuit of doing what we love. For me, lockdown brought a much-needed break from climbing. I didn’t train much but saw it as an opportunity to recover and focus on learning new skills.

What role do climbers have in protecting their home crags and being more aware about the natural areas they climb in?

I think we have a responsibility to be respectful anywhere we climb. Many crags are in beautiful locations and we should leave as little trace as possible by respecting the places we climb at.

The UK has a rich history of traditional rock climbing and it is important to keep the climbing as natural as possible, with minimal use of pegs, for example. Bolting should be saved for the sport climbing areas. We also have a responsibility to respect other outdoor activity users and locals, by not overcrowding, respecting the access rules and minimising noise.

Thinking about the natural habitat in the UK, some bird restrictions are in place so climbers should always double check crag restrictions on the BMC RAD access app. We don’t have priority to climb at these places – we have to respect that they are home to endangered species or can be sites of scientific interest. These climbs will be available at certain times of the year and so we have to be patient. If one person ignores these rules then it sets a precedent for other climbers to do the same.

It’s important to read and research; to educate ourselves and also to be honest to the fact that we might not understand all the issues.

Any positive influence we can have is a step in the right direction. What we eat, how we travel for our projects, the clothing we wear and promote, looking after the environment and standing up to projects that harm natural habitat – they are all important factors that we can have an influence on. I really value that we can learn from each other within Patagonia. I’m far from perfect but I like that we can listen to each other’s ideas and opinions and work together to make positive changes.

As a climber, in light of factors such as Covid and the realities of climate change, how do you think about the trips you’re planning in the year ahead? 

It is tricky because there are always potential opportunities, which can be hard to turn down, it’s important to weigh up these trips and the duration and potential of them. As climbers, we pursue our passion, sometimes quite selfishly, travelling across the world to climb.

As a climber with some influence, I have to think responsibly about the message I want to convey and what the trip means: if we carry on flying everywhere for short trips, is that really ok? I’m not sure it is.

If I can limit myself to one flight a year and then use other means of travel, like going by train, then that would be an improvement. I’m trying to plan out my trips now and make the most of any time away, for example, tying certain projects together so my travel is minimal. It isn’t the only factor we need to change but it’s a start.

For me, it’s important to read and research; to educate ourselves and also to be honest to the fact that we might not understand all the issues. I realise I am in a position of privilege. I haven’t struggled, I’ve always had work and a home to live in, I’m not afraid of being stopped by the police, so I can’t say I fully understand the experiences of many people of colour but I can bring a certain level of empathy and I can take time to listen, learn and show my love and support.

I am hopeful that things are changing for the better but it all takes time and unfortunately, a horrific, violent act as the catalyst.

You know well the challenges of making a living in climbing. How’s that worked for you in recent years?

It’s not easy. I learnt early on that to carve my own path to independence, it is hard to rely solely on sponsorship to make a living. Over the years, I have contemplated the security of a full-time job, but I’m not cut out to be sat behind a desk. I love variety in my work and new challenges.

I decided to become a route-setter. Most of the time, my projects aren’t too physically demanding but it can be hard to plan projects around work. The only project this heavily impacted was Big Bang – a little more freedom to try it, and not be tired, would have been useful. But I can’t complain. I’m in a pretty lucky position in general and I’m willing to work hard for my goals.

Is there a favourite piece of Patagonia clothing you’ve had for a long time? And why have you kept using it season after season?

I suffer from the cold quite a lot, so I love a good, warm jacket. I really like the Micro Puff jacket, I wear it most days. It’s lightweight, warm and also perfect to layer with a bigger jacket if it’s very chilly. I found it the best of my jackets to climb in so far. It doesn’t spill out any feathers because of the Pluma Fill, so even if I do end up catching it, the jacket is easy to repair. If it gets too warm, this jacket packs down pretty small, so it is easy to carry when climbing.

Final question: Limestone versus Gritstone… Which is it?

Haha, well if it’s a choice between just those two, then limestone, of course. I struggle with bad circulation which doesn’t lend itself well to a winter on grit and I just love a good crimp too much.

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