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An Introduction to Routesetting with Emma Twyford

At the climbing wall, a well set route is a pleasure to climb. It keeps us engaged, challenges us in different ways and gives us a kick when we top out. We may not realise it at the time, or even think about it, because when it’s good, it flows like a dream. We all enjoy a well set route, but where do you learn the skills to be a Route Setter and how do you get started? In fact, what even makes those routes so good? Womenclimb writer Caitlin Ripley caught up with one of our favourite climbers, Emma Twyford, to find out more and bring you the lowdown. 

You may have seen Emma Twyford in the news recently, as she finally succeeded in climbing Big Bang (9a), being the first British Woman to do so. But when she’s not pushing the boundaries of climbing, Emma can be found route setting – touring the UK’s climbing walls to treat us to our next challenge. She’s one of the UK’s leading female routesetters and is running her business Creative Climbing offering setting courses to women with fellow setter Evie Cotrulia.

Caitlin caught up with Emma for a cuppa after a hard day of comp setting in Southampton and here’s what she’s got to share with you….

Hi Emma, so you’re obviously setting here.  How did you first get into setting?

So I’d just broken up with my ex-boyfriend at the time, in Sheffield and I was moving to North Wales and I asked Rob Napier who sets at the Foundry Climbing Wall if I could come in and do a couple of days for free and learn how to set. And then he kinda showed me all of the rope work stuff and let me in at the deep end – basically on the steepest part of the wall!

One of the things he always said, was that you can be a good climber, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a good setter. But my first routes seemed to go down pretty well. It took me a long time to set it though – it took me most of the day!

“you can be a good climber, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a good setter”

So, I let that seed develop for a little bit. I moved to Wales. I worked at the Beacon, set a little bit there, and then kinda took the plunge and decided to go full time freelance. Climbing’s such a small circle, that word of mouth, it spread like wildfire. Basically. I think as climbings become more popular over the last few years, it’s definitely noticeable now, that if you set well, then the climbing walls want you. Like, my calendar for next year is already nearly full. I’ve got dates booked up until the end of December next year, which is great. But it’s really hard to plan everything around, figure out what I’m doing.

So, how do you balance everything with training and home life?

Sometimes aspects of that suffer. Especially through the winter months, my housemates and my boyfriend haven’t seen very much of me. But I don’t tend to train that much when I’m route setting. If I do train, I either do finger boarding or core. If I’m in a really big heavy stint of setting like I am now, where I’ve been setting five days a week, the last thing I want to do is train. So if I’m doing three or four days of setting, then I’ve got a bit of time off, sometimes I do a bit, but I don’t want to end up too destroyed, basically. I need to be able to test or set the next day. 

I think there’s only so far you can push your body before it breaks. So I just try and play it by ear and if I have the energy for a session, I do it and if I don’t, I don’t.

The harder bit is to know what trips i’m doing throughout the year. So I actually have to try and think about that already for most of the year next year. I did end up cancelling some work last year for Big Bang, which is the first time I’ve ever done that and I felt really bad, but sometimes it’s necessary – it’s really hard to plan that far in advance.

Would you have any advice for people who want to get into setting. How do you choose how you set a problem?

Obviously, we run our courses [Emma co-runs Creative Climbing] – shameless plug right there – so at the moment, they are women specific workshops, which is myself and Evie, head setter at White Spider, Red Spider and Green Spider. So I think between us we have quite a lot of experience. We’ve both been doing it for about the same amount of time, but she also has the perspective of what goes on behind the scenes.

The main bit of advice I would always say is: your volumes are your starting point. That’s the creative starting point for your setting. You have to think about what angles you’ve got and what you want to do. Especially in the harder stuff. Obviously if you put a big high profile volume flat on a slab or a vert wall it becomes a big foothold or handhold for every boulder problem. You have to think about how you angle the volumes and how you  stop that. Then the next bit is thinking about the grade that you’re setting for. If you’re setting easy, think about having obvious sequences and nice left and right hand holds and lots of good footholds. And then from about V2, 3 upwards you kinda can get a little bit more creative and can try and force the moves. I always try and think about – and I know this isn’t true for all setters, some setters go with how you force a move – I go with what I want to teach someone on a boulder problem. Whether that’s a heel hook, whether that’s a drop knee, whether it’s … I think about what I would like someone to get out of that boulder problem.

Comp style blocs are my worst nightmare, mainly because I’m the least dynamic climber in the world. 

“I always try and think about… what I want to teach someone on a boulder problem”

The main thing that you see is that when someone is starting out, they spend too long thinking about what they want to do. And I always.. That comes with experience, but I always say to people just get it on the wall, you’ve got testing at the end to try and tweak it if it hasn’t quite worked. And it’s OK to try something that isn’t necessarily in your style, because that’s how you get better. And if you didn’t work it out this time, maybe next time you’ll have a better idea of how that move works.

And the other thing is, ask walls for experience, do days at a discount rate or for free, that’s how I started: working at the Beacon as one of their members of staff and then setting at a discounted rate.

And be honest with how much you can do. There’s nothing worse than sandbagging yourself or a team you’re working with.

Thanks Emma, and keep an eye out for some Womenclimb-set routes!

Emma is sponsored by: Patagonia, DMM, Scarpa, Friction Labs, Sea to Summit, Edelweiss, Climbskin, Hardbar and V12 Outdoor

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