Twyford fires Strawberries
- Sunday 5th October 2014
Interview: Emma talks Strawberries
Emma Twyford has just etched her name into the already long and colourful history of Strawberries (E7 6b), the iconic Fawcett route on the Vector headwall at Tremadog. On Thursday 2nd October, Emma recorded what is reckoned to be the first female ascent of Strawberries placing all of the gear on lead and adding another top tick to her ever-growing 2014 haul bag which already included an impressive redpoint of Unjustified (F8b+/c) at Malham, and flashes of Bucket Dynasty (E7 6b) at Dove Crag and Yukan 2 (E6/7 6b) at Nesscliffe.
Emma’s current form is no fluke either coming as it does on the heels of her previous successes; Rare Lichen (E9 6c) which she headpointed in 2013, Predator (F8b) which was dispatched redpoint in 2011 the same year as she flashed Statement of Youth (F8a). What makes her current form all the more impressive is that it is a remarkable turnaround from her injury-induced poor form earlier in the year when she had a shocking time on a trip to Scotland - “I think I cried my way up most of the route [an E4 5c on Mingulay called Ray of Light] on second and didn’t enjoy the climbing”. Her recovery from this earlier low point, as well as her steady progression up through the grades in both trad and sport climbing, clearly demonstrates a steely tenacity that drivers her onwards to every more impressive targets.
Keen to get more detail about her ascent of Strawberries, we fired a list of questions over to Emma…
First of all, congrats on nailing Strawberries - that's a very big name and a very big reputation. Bet you're feeling pretty darned chuffed right now?
Thank you, it’s definitely a nice feeling to have done such a notorious route. Maybe not the highest grade I’ve ever done but definitely one of the most famous.
I'm guessing that you're like a lot of climbers who have been thinking about this one for a while and saving it for 'the right moment'? So why now?
It’s such an amazing line, having done Cream and Void it was hard not to look longingly at Strawberries and I stopped being precious about the onsight. I felt pretty fit at the end of last year and Dave Pickford suggested going and trying it together so I thought I’d give it a go.
Although Strawberries was on-sighted by Stefan Glowacz back in the late 80’s and a couple of times since, it only had its first on-sight by a Brit a few months back by Steve McClure. Steve admitted to being “petrified” by Strawberries’ reputation when he tied-in before the start. I’m sure you’d heard about that but take us through your feelings as you tied-in and committed to the journey?
The first time I tried it and got close on headpoint it didn’t really faze me mentally but this time I’d changed my sequence and I’ve never been so nervous tying on to do a route. I don’t know why it got to me, I knew I could do the route but I think this one meant a lot to me, I mean it’s Strawberries!
Did you do any special training - physical or mental? Any sneaky sessions on a cellar crack—machine al la Randall and Whittaker?
Ha, hell no! I’m not that dedicated on my crack climbing but I’m a better climber than I was last year. It’s funny how you start to understand your mind and body a bit better as you get older. I’ve been training bouldering more and trying to become more dynamic and better at shouldery stuff – I had an ‘easy’ session at the Indy the day before trying compression problems.
Strawberries is one of Ron Fawcett's and the UK's famous routes and there's loads of published images abound. Did you soak up the beta or have you been 'looking the other way' for a while thinking there might be a chance of an on-sight?
Originally I looked away thinking it would be so good to onsight or flash this route but you can’t save everything. Maybe I was impatient in wanting to do the route but at some point you just have to give these things a go, sometimes they go smoothly and sometimes they turn into a bit more of a battle.
So just for the record let's get the dirty details out of the way; how long did it take you and how many falls did you have?
I first had a look at it with Dave Pickford sometime last year, it was so cold. We figured out gear and sequences then came back the next day. Dave did it and I fell off near the top unable to feel my hands. I then came back with Dave Evans and I was so close, I did the big move at the top and was moving into the jugs but my foot popped. The next time it was cold again and I put hand warmers in my chalkbag thinking I was being clever; I wasn’t and was fighting the entire way up trying not to sweat out of the crack. That was at the end of last year so it had been about 9 months. I had a re-acquaintance session last week after feeling tired from the Brute and then came back this week and lead it. I think I maybe took 5 or 6 lead falls of the route in total.
The finish is well-known as being run-out. Did that stress you at all or was there another section that caused more trouble?
Funnily enough the top bit didn’t bother me and the fall was a fun one to take. I had the fitness to place a fiddly wire at the end of the crack so I’d made it a pretty safe fall. The bit that got to me the most was initially entering the crack as the gear is not so bomber and you hit a hard shouldery move at the start with tenuous footholds. I got calmer the higher up the route I got as the placements became less blind and less consumed in the crack.
It’s generally reckoned to be E7 6b or a strenuous F7c to place the gear. What’s your take on the grade?
It’s a tricky one I was determined to place the gear every time I tried it, which meant it took longer to do the route. I definitely think it adds half a grade to place the gear and makes it pumpy 7c as you can’t just breeze through the moves. It’s easy to get wrong handed in the crack and no move gives you any respite. On the whole it’s a safe route but you still feel on edge the whole way up, it’s yet another route the highlights the bizarre but endearing UK British Trad grading system.
Doing hard routes is often a mental challenge - especially if they take a while - but now that Strawberries is in the bag and you can look back on it are you pleased with the whole process/experience? Is there anything that you do different in hindsight?
Hindsight is just wishful thinking in my opinion. Once you’ve done something it would be easy to go back and say I should have tried to flash it. I’m just pleased to have climbed such a historic route with a variety of cool moves.
Hazel Findley has been reported as having tried to on-sight Strawberries. How did the knowledge that she’d tried and failed – along with lots of other well-known rock stars – sit with you before you set out?
I think Hazel and Caroline both tried it on the Odyssey tour and I think they both fell off, it’s the nature of the beast though and some routes have that reputation of chewing up the big guns and spitting them out. Hell’s Wall is another good example of a route that has kicked some good climbers into touch. As with anything it’s a personal battle, I knew I was good enough to climb the route and that was all that mattered.
You broke the news of your send on social media with the tag "FFA". Obviously an ascent of Strawberries is significant for anyone - and (assuming you're right and it is the First Female Ascent) why do you think that it's taken nearly 35 years for that to happen when there is a number of female climbers that have been climbing so hard for so long but no-one has been successful until now?
It’s the same as it taking so long for British male onsight in that it should have happened already but for some reason it just hasn’t. I’m surprised there hasn’t already been a female ascent as there are many talented trad female climbers capable of doing it. Sometimes you just need to get on with it and stop being precious; it’s sometimes why we are so far behind in the UK.
You've had a cracking year this year and have a 2014 tick list that is very impressive. Well done on that. So, from all the routes you've done, which was the stand-out route and why?
I’m proud of each route for different reasons. It would be easy to say Strawberries because it is a historic route but I think Bucket Dynasty is the one I’m most proud of doing and I think it was a big breakthrough in my climbing because I had to fight hard to do the route. I stayed on and dug deep which I don’t do very often, normally everything is very much under control.
What's impressive is that you're scoring great results in both trad and sport and had a pretty good time at the recent DWS comp taking a podium position in that to! Do you have a favourite discipline and if so what are our drivers?
I find it hard to choose between sport and trad climbing, they definitely take precedent for me but I find that each discipline compliments the other and I enjoy the variety. I find it keeps me interested dabbling in each of them and enjoying each of them for different reasons.
The year isn't over yet so it might be a bit premature to ask but out of your '2014 experiences' I'm guessing you've added a few tricks to the Emma Twyford kit bag that will help shape you as a climber going forward? Would you like to share any with us?
I think if you frequently push yourself outside of comfort zones then you inevitably add to your bag of tricks. I’m not necessarily learning anything groundbreaking but I’m constantly learning how to fight in a variety of ways. I think for me the biggest one is being confident in your own ability whichever discipline you do and testing the limits constantly. Though if it is trad you have to choose carefully, I’m more confident in my gear placements now so I’ve started pushing my climbing more.
And finally, the $64million dollar question, where to and what's next?
I would say that I want to chill out for a bit but that wouldn’t be true. I’ve got lots of setting and coaching work coming up then I’m escaping to Spain for a couple of months. I will probably open another Malham account as I’m a sucker for punishment and the long drive as now become a hazy blur, I think I’ve convinced myself that it wasn’t so bad. I enjoy having a project on the go as a challenge and to push my limits.
What’s noteworthy is Emma’s belief and commitment not only to her climbing but also in what will surely be the final chapter of Strawberries (save the first solo ascent- sic!); the first female on-sight. Emma’s thoughts on that are exactly what you’d imagine…
“I don't see why a woman couldn't onsight or flash Strawberries it's just the lack of self belief that holds us back sometimes. The moves are the same on it for most guys as they are for women it's just hard to read but maybe one day a woman will get lucky on the route and read the moves well or just be so strong and fit that it doesn't really matter. So yes it’s important for Strawberries to have a FFA ascent to get the ball rolling but isn't really that significant in terms of grade and style that I did it in”.
You can read more on Emma’s blog here
Emma is sponsored by RAB, DMM and Five Ten