Emma Twyford talks about Big Bang – the film
- Wednesday 22nd April 2020
Following the Big Bang premiere and online Q&A last week on BMC’s Facebook page, the star of the show, Emma Twyford, talks to Climber about the film, her ascent and "what’s next" (sic).
It’s widely recognised that Emma’s ascent of Big Bang was both remarkable and truly significant. Yes, it was only the third-ever ascent of Neil Carson’s 1996 testpiece but, more significantly, Emma’s ascent was the first by a woman as well as the first time a British woman had climbed F9a. Arguably, it is the last point – i.e. that it was the first time a British woman had climbed F9a – that was hugely momentous because when Emma climbed Big Bang she broke through the grade barrier.
The same was said when Hazel Findlay repointed Fish Eye (F8c) at Oliana in 2014 and prior to that when Lucy Creamer did Kale Borroka (F8b+) at Siurana in 2009; both those ascents were the first time that routes of those grades had been climbed by British women. Going back farther still, Ruth Jenkins will be forever remembered as the first British woman to climb F8b when she repeated Zeke the Freak at Rubicon in 1995, having previously done Cavier (F8a+) in 1994. Both of Ruth’s ascents came relatively soon after Rachael Farmer repeated Raindogs at Malham in 1992 to become the first British woman to climb F8a.
These were hugely significant milestones and only achieved by the top climbers of their day putting in the graft. Without a doubt, Emma’s ascent of Big Bang was one of the sport climbing achievements of 2019; a massive achievement which rocketed Emma firmly into the top pantheon of climbers operating in the UK and beyond. As Steve McClure said in the film: “F9a is pretty much the cutting edge here in the UK”.
Big Bang – The Emma Twyford Story by filmmaker David Petts, diligently captures Emma’s attempts on Big Bang as well as Big Issue (E9 6c) and Mind Control (F8c) which Emma used as ‘stepping stone’ routes as she zeroed in on the biggest prize of her climbing career. It’s an amazing film recording the highs and lows of the two year period that Emma was battling to achieve her dream.
Originally shown at the 2019 Kendal Film Festival where it won ‘Best Climbing Film’, Big Bang was to tour the UK this spring. However, given the current lockdown measures which have been introduced to combat the coronavirus pandemic the film tour had to be cancelled. Finally, though, Big Bang had its public premiere on the BMC’s Facebook page. Soon it will be released online for those that either missed it or want to watch it again.
Thousands, literally, tuned into the BMC’s Facebook feed last Friday eager to watch Emma battle with Big Bang. The film didn’t disappoint! “Really, really good! It captures the epic that is limit redpointing so well. Best film for a long time” was how Steve McClure summed up the film. Given he’s had a few battles himself he knows pretty much all there is to know about life inside what he’s called the ‘Performance Tunnel’. More on this later, however.
Many viewers were equally bowled away with Big Bang. Chris Hailey’s comment was typical: ‘Incredible filming and inspirational drive for climbing, well done Emma!!!!’ Likewise, Denna Be said: ‘Epic! So inspiring... and making me miss climbing A LOT.’ Phil Homans sounded like he might even be converted to sport climbing as a result: ‘Don't normally care for sport climbing vids but that was great.’ Jamie Mackinder, echoing the thoughts of many said: ‘fantastic climbing fix during the lockdown! Great motivation to get out and try hard when back to normal. Awesome edit & great determination and dedication towards a goal!’ Samantha Dicken commented on the inspirational element of the film: ‘Reaction at the end is fantastic. Fierce climbing woman and a proper inspiration. Amazing effort Emma.’
Emma’s determination and commitment and David’s film touched a lot of people and both Emma and David faced a barrage of questions after the premiere which we’ll dig into next. The questions and answers below are only a selection but collectively they paint an amazing insight into Emma’s Big Bang mission. Whilst reviewing the text for this piece Emma, in a few instances, has extended the answers to some questions. Such additions/clarifications are noted.
The Q and A
For starters, and for anyone not familiar with Big Bang and how the numbers stack up, John Maskell and Katerina Petkova asked a couple of background questions which are good to set the scene with…
John Maskell: Great film, congrats all round. Maybe I missed it but was Neil Carson actually mentioned in the film? I would have preferred more detail about the route, description of the sections, bouldering grades etc. but maybe that is just for redpointing geeks and not for a wider audience.
Emma Twyford: so we really tried to find Neil, that would have been great to have him in the film but he’s disappeared! I think we didn’t want to make it too climbing heavy! It starts off easy (F6c) then from second bolt to the shakeout is F8a+ V7/8 although the roof section depending on your height. From the shakeout to the pocket is F8b+, then turning pocket to setting up into crux is F8c. The crux is V9/10 (I found it bloody desperate to start with). Top isn’t physical on the vertical bit but the footholds are a bit shit. I think Caff gave it E6 for the top instead of a sport grade!
Katerina Petkova: Well done and great film!!! Do you know how many sessions you had on the route overall?
Emma Twyford: I lost count! Maybe about 40 – 50 days.
Emma adds: I should really have written it down but I didn’t want to get swamped down by session numbers because some days I would turn up and the conditions would be so bad I’d maybe only have one go.
One of the biggest question themes for Emma related to her physical conditioning and mental game whilst trying Big Bang; remember that Emma first tried the route back in 2017 and didn’t clip the chains until late 2019 over two years later and during that period she had “40 or 50” days trying the route.
It’s normally pretty obvious to most experienced sport climbers when they start projecting a route how long (roughly) it’s going to take and signing up for a long-haul as Emma did on Big Bang is no small commitment. Once fully embroiled with a long-term project the energy and drive can be sucked out of a climber so staying committed, keen and hungry for success becomes central to the outcome. The tenacity to stay focused on the process during a long-term project doesn’t exist in everyone but clearly Emma has it in spades; a point which her Dad makes in the opening scenes of the film.
On the question of physical conditioning Matthew Willson pitched in with…
Matthew Willson: How much of the year are you in peak or near peak condition, climbing fitness-wise?
Emma Twyford: I think I spent most of my time at near peak condition trying Big Bang, until I got injured. I learnt a valuable lesson then to rest a little more after big route setting stints. At the moment lockdown is giving me some time to ease off, it’s hard because route setting takes its toll as I have to be on form for that and then performing for my own personal climbing.
Emma adds: I was surprised at how long I could stay in shape for in 2018 and consistently be coming close to the route. I think I was climbing 8c/8c+ nearly every session to my high point which kept me fit but I neglected to rest during the winter due to route setting every week, so I had no downtime.
And what about headspace? Jordana Adams and clinical psychologist, Heledd Davies, drilled deeper into that critical aspect of long-standing projects…
Jordana Adams: Do you have any suggestions for getting and staying in the right headspace when you’re climbing and getting shut down? I struggle to stay motivated, calm and particularly when outside not to freak myself out, so any tips would be much appreciated.
Emma Twyford: Hey, so myself and a friend are writing an article on me getting shut down on an E4 (I reversed it to the ground). I'd love to know the reasons why you struggle to stay calm and motivated outside to give you a better answer.
To me, it's OK to have bad head days, or to say a route isn't right for you. But then that can hit the ego hard. Be kind to yourself, no one can climb at their personal best every day. When I was trying Big Bang and falling off the same place it felt pretty disheartening so I tried to take a positive away each time, even if it was just consistently getting to the same place!
Emma adds: Sometimes I would take falls off the bits I got scared on just too get used to it. Sometimes if my head wasn’t in try-hard mode I would grab the draws. But I really think communication and trust is key. When I start off on a route I will discuss with my belayer the bits where I need them to closely pay attention or give me rope quickly. Or if I’m on the onsight and getting scared I’d always tell them to watch me. This way I can zone in and focus on the climbing and trying hard. It’s ok to have days where you just don’t feel it but don’t let them override and impact your climbing.
Heledd Davies: Watching with Efa - 13-year-old sport climber. We are in awe. Amazing achievement. As a clinical psychologist just really keen to find out what motivates you or keeps you going when things aren’t going your way? PS love your macaron recipes! X
Emma Twyford: Thank you! :) I think this really tested my motivation unlike anything else. At first I had stepping stone goals like Mind Control and trad goals to keep me motivated. As I got close to the route, I would sometimes feel frustrated or disheartened. So I took the step of just going for a look at the route but taking a positive away each time, no matter how small that was. Something like being consistent or climbing it better even if I fell off below my high point. Afterwards, I took some time to let it sink in and I just went climbing for fun, now I'm trying to set new goals for motivation.
Emma adds: In the week leading up to climbing it I was making macarons for a friend’s wedding (about 200) I think it took my mind off the route.
Heledd Davies: thanks Emma. Sounds like you have a number of different criteria apart from highest points reached which you set as goals- which sounds really useful. Sounds really balanced and grounded. Also really useful that you only seem to compete against yourself I would guess... Climbing for fun is always a good thing and helps with flow and motivation. Will relay to my little climber. Stay safe xxx
Glyn Davies asked whether having an audience when she was climbing affected her performance at all…
Glyn Davies: Hi Emma - awesome achievement. I was struck that during the narration, I think Angus said that there was no one there filming or photographing you on the day you did it, or certainly at the point when you first knew you 'could' do it - so do you find having an audience, especially an audience there to shoot you succeeding, is actually more of a put-off than a benefit? Thanks for the vid and for your inspiration ;-)
Emma Twyford: thank you! I think we just went with how I felt. A few days before when I got close there was a friend taking pics (photos with this article). Dave lives in London so it was impossible to be there all the time, on those days I filmed off my phone (top out clip). I think some days it was fine, but other days when my head wasn’t on it I struggled. It definitely felt harder when many people were there and stopped to watch. I think it felt more natural the day I did it, I was climbing and performing just for myself, no one else.
Emma adds: I would also like to add that Dave really helped take the pressure off, even though he’d put a lot of effort into filming there was no pushiness from him for me to climb the route. If I’d decided to call it quits we would have changed direction.
Glyn Davies: thanks for the reply. When I go climbing I love quiet and solitude (well me and my buddy anyway) and I’m not very focussed when others are climbing nearby - I always wondered how pro climbers cope with the ‘expectation’ to perform or just to be ‘studied’ by other crag goers. I guess some may get fired up by adoration but also wondered whether the more successful you get, the less chances there are to just do your own thing and enjoy the peace of the crag and have no distractions. It was just interesting that you seemed to break a mental barrier when you were there nearly alone (albeit after your Dolomite success).
Emma Twyford: no problem! I think success from the Dolomites gave me fresh motivation. I was more fired up. I came agonisingly close the session before with a few more people there. But I made silly mistakes.
Many of the stand-out climbers have totally solid movement skills as well as being in top physical condition and super confident. Lisa Dickinson asked Emma about how she thought these blended together to influence the outcome…
Lisa Dickinson: Huge well done Emma. I’ve always loved climbing your climbs at the Basildon wall. They flow so nicely in a technical way. Especially for someone who has a small physique. How much do you think strength and fitness plays a part in being able to progress through the grades? Confidence is a real issue for me too in holding me back. But that’s a whole other story!
Emma Twyford: thank you! I think they definitely play a part. But to me movement, technique, climbing efficiently and the head game are so much more important. It depends really on where your weaknesses lie, if they are strength and fitness then focus on working on those aspects. If not then still train them and focus at times but it is so important to be honest with yourself and not shy away from the true aspects that need some improvement. It is easy to focus on strength and fitness because they are quantifiable elements to train. You can see yourself get stronger or fitter when training, e.g. your recovery improves or you can lift heavier weights. You can never have too much strength or power, this and the ability to recover are important to climbing. The other elements are less quantifiable and more of a feeling, though you can clearly still see improvements. If you just focus on training your strengths then improvements to your climbing will be much slower, pushing through any plateaus will take longer and be much more difficult.
Lisa Dickinson: cool, thanks for the reply. The head game is probably my biggest barrier to be honest. I totally let that take over. Might look to get a coach to help with some of the movement/technique stuff though. That’s why I guess I found your climbs so helpful.
Emma and David were also asked questions which related to the feminine angle; Caitlyn Hagin first then Anonymi Topher…
Caitlyn Hagin: Have you ever experienced sexism in climbing? If so could you share your worst experience or an experience that really stuck out to you? (Whether this be at the crag, when you have spoken about this film etc.?)
Emma Twyford: I think the one that stuck out to me was climbing at Carlisle or Kendal wall as a young girl. Some older guys commented that the route must be easy because a teenage girl had climbed it. They then proceeded to fail. I've been very lucky growing up that all of my male climbing friends have been very supportive. Now it doesn't bother me anymore, I just climb for myself. If a guy gets drawn into trying the route because a girl has just done it, more fool them.
Caitlyn Hagin: Thank you for the reply. Unfortunately, I have had similar experiences. It hasn't happened from any of my friends but older guys have seen a climb I have done, thought it was easy (by doubting my abilities as a woman) and also given unwanted beta when I haven't asked for it or been struggling and then failed to do the routes themselves. I've then been told to 'take a joke' when asking why men have given me beta rather than my male friends I have been climbing with. I also stand by climbing for yourself!!
Anonymi Topher: Great achievement Emma! Great unfiltered ending sequence when you finally sent it! Interested that, while the ascent was a milestone of female climbing, Emma was the only woman interviewed in the film. Was this a conscious decision, or just based on who you found willing to be on camera?
David Petts: It wasn't a conscious decision at all; I did want it to be told from her perspective as it’s her story and her achievement alone. The others were selected based on their knowledge and experience, Jerry for establishing most of the routes down at LPT, Steve for being one of our most successful sport climbers and Neil for his expertise and wide experience both coaching/projecting. This is also true to Emma’s upbringing with climbing. She was surrounded by male role models growing up and a lot of her climbing partners are male so it just naturally happened this way. I believe her story is powerful enough. Thank you for your question.
Anonymi Topher: Cool, thanks for the thoughtful response!
Emma Twyford: Thanks Anonymi, basically what David said. I climbed a lot with Sophie who features in the film. But it felt more relevant to feature people who knew the history and had climbed a lot at LPT and tried that route.
Sport and Trad – Mixing it up
Emma, unlike some top climbers, climbs both hard traditional routes and sport routes. There are plenty of reasons why mixing it up is a good idea just like there are plenty of reasons for specialising in one or the other aspect! Both have their difficulties and bring satisfaction when completed; Andy Farnell asked Emma which had given her the biggest buzz…
Andy Farnell: In the film, the Big Issue section, Matt says that trad climbing is somehow deeper than sport. Emma, which gave you the deeper feeling, Big Issue or Big Bang?
Emma Twyford: Andy Farnell good question! I think they felt so different for me. Normally I would say a trad route gives me a deeper satisfaction but I worked so hard for Big Bang. It tested me both physically and mentally, I learnt a lot about myself so in this case I would say Big Bang gave me the deeper feeling. I’m never going to forget clipping the chains and how that made me feel.
Keeping David on his toes Jake Webb asked him about how/when he decided to accompany Emma or if there’s an upper limit on trips to the crag?
Jake Webb: The ideal end to a film like this is for the climber to send the route as Emma did in this film, but obviously there is always a chance this may not happen. As a filmmaker do you put a limit on how much time you are willing to put into a project like this or are you in it until the climber calls it themselves?
David Petts: As a filmmaker I, of course, have a film to make but most importantly I never put any pressure on Emma to send her route. I wanted her to approach it as naturally as possible without worrying about my needs. You should always have a back-up plan but I believed in Emma’s ability just because she is as her Dad describes her as "tenacious". I was happy to carry on and just see where the story would take us. You have to be willing to adapt as a documentary filmmaker as the story can change within a moment, so always be conscious of that.
And finally…the question of ‘what is next’ lures beneath the surface of just about every interview! Climber, as many others do, often swing by this old chestnut towards the end of an interview. It’s an obvious question and yes it is perhaps something of a cliché but we thing that many climbers are interested to hear if the interviewee is keen to give projecting a break and/or if they fancy a change of pace or direction or whether the interviewee’s success has lit an overwhelming desire to push on hard in the same manner. Maybe, some interviewee’s might even be offended if we couldn’t be bothered to ask!
So when Climber interviewed Emma after success on The Big Bang last autumn we – in true style – ended that interview with the ‘what’s next question’ albeit somewhat wrapped up in another!!
Climber asked: You did your first F8a, Call of Nature at Raven Tor in 2010. Nine years later, you’ve done F9a. What’s next for you in sport climbing?
Emma replied: I’m not sure just yet, consolidate a bit more I guess. Maybe try and push it further if I can though that would maybe mean going abroad or to Malham. But I’m psyched to do more trad and alpine stuff next year, I love to keep the variety if I can because to me that is what keeps it interesting and keeps my passion for climbing going strong!
Hmm, looks like Emma dodged that a bit so we took it she didn’t want to commit publically to any definite projects at that stage; no problem there then.
Interesting, Jesse Dufton, raised the exact issue in Friday’s Q&A – nice1 Jesse!!
Jesse Dufton: Em Twiddles awesome! Do you ever get sick of people asking you what's next!?
Emma Twyford: Jesse Dufton I sure do! I imagine you get the same. I think it's an inevitable question. At the time I just wanted to savour the moment but straight away I was getting asked what's next!
And right on cue, Mark Hetherington slide the question in – albeit maybe in a slightly different guise?
Mark Hetherington: Do you fancy trying Liquid Amber?
Emma Twyford: Hey Mark! Hope you're well! I'd love to try it, I mean Jerry is an absolute legend. I think it will be my anti-style but it's got so much history.
Often having time and space after closing-out a long-term project brings clarity to what a climber will try next. Emma has clarified her thinking on what she’s keen to try next: ‘It’s hard to truly commit to what is next until you find a route that motivates you in the same way, I invested so much time in Big Bang that I’m not sure I can invest in the same way again just yet. I have dream lines like Tom et Je Ris that I’d like to try and a potential new link up at LPT. I also have lots in mind at Pembroke but until I look at and try the routes I don’t know whether I’ll commit to them. What’s next is always fluid but when I get psyched for something I’ll lock into it and try hard. I’d also really love to boulder 8a, that’s the missing one in my climbing at the moment. I have to be motivated for the line and also know it is realistic, initially with Big Bang I thought it was a pipe dream but I worked hard to turn that around to reality. I really think after such a big goal it is important to have some downtime and go climbing for the fun of it.’
So, as we said earlier in this piece, Emma’s ascent of Big Bang was one of the defining sport climbing moments of 2019. David Petts’s film brings that alive for many and frankly was a much-needed tonic during the ongoing lockdown.
To reiterate, Big Bang will be released online in the near future.
Finally, BMC TV/Volo Digital wishes to thanks the film sponsors DMM, Scarpa, Climbskin and FrictionLabs. They also would like to give a big thanks to Patagonia for their support in helping us create the tour, even though it ended up being cancelled due to the Coronavirus.