Taking Charge To Reach New Heights
Route setters: Shauna Coxsey and Emma Twyford are leading the way in the UK to create opportunities for women in the climbing world
By Hannah Bailey
Even if you don’t know much about climbing (and there is a lot to know, including a whole dictionary of terms) the names Shauna Coxsey and Emma Twyford may ring a bell. They are two of the biggest current climbers on the UK scene; Emma known for her trad climbing and a record-breaking “Big Bang” climb in 2019. Whilst Shauna is a boulder World Champion who represented team GB in the historical Tokyo Olympic Games which included climbing for the first time this year.
They have set very different routes in their own professional climbing careers, which both span over 25 years. That’s half a century of experience, perspective, hard graft and passion between them. Their similarities go beyond simply their success in the sport of climbing, with both Emma and Shauna working tirelessly and passionately to create opportunities and space for more women in the climbing world. Whether you have never climbed before or you have set your sights on becoming a freelance route setter (a person who designs climbing wall routes), Shauna and Emma are two great spokespeople for forging your own route into climbing and up the wall.
As a professional climber, a Patagonia Ambassador and a freelance route setter, Emma is a unicorn in the industry.“I was incredibly lucky to start outside on traditional rock routes in the Lake District. I think a love of being outdoors was ingrained into me from a very young age and this kept my passion for climbing alive,” she says. Emma has been climbing now for over 25 years and although she spent time on the competitive circuit it was never really for her. The draw of the outdoors was always on her mind, and when she was 24, working full-time and training hard, she realised her love of climbing had evaporated. “In some ways leaving competitions behind was the easiest decision I’d ever made.” she says. “My climbing skyrocketed after that because I was pursuing my genuine love for climbing.” She has gone on to do so much it’s hard to know where to start, but perhaps a good place is with her career highlight and one for the record books. In 2019 she climbed her hardest route to date, The Big Bang (9a). In doing so she became the first British woman to climb this grade. It was a momentous feat.
Through her climbing, she has sparked a realisation for more women to see what is possible, but she says the industry still has a way to go. As one of the only freelance female route setters in the UK, a hugely technical and physical job, Emma is trying to break down barriers for more women to take up the challenge of it. “We are still in a heavily male dominated industry and although the diversity of participation in climbing has increased, it still hasn’t spread to working within the climbing industry.” she explains. “I think one of the main reasons that holds ladies back from taking on route setting is genuinely a lack of confidence in their own ability.“ Through workshops in partnership with Evie Cotrulia (head setter for White, Red and Green Spider climbing) and Creative Climbing, they are trying to change that mentality and perspective. In 2017, they came up with the idea of female-only workshops designed to provide a safe and comfortable space for women to try route setting, teaching the basics in the hope it sparks an interest and more women to enter the space and become the route setters.
On TV this past summer, millions of people will have watched Shauna Coxsey take to the wall for the Olympic sport climbing debut. For her it was a challenge which came along at a pivotal point in her career. It almost felt like the right time for her to retire from competition, something she had been doing since she was aged seven, but the allure of the Olympic stadium kept her on the circuit. “I always wanted to be World number one, I said that from a young age.” she explains. “I started competing at seven and made the GB team at eleven, and then fell in love with bouldering, mainly because it didn’t require any faff, no ropes or belay which I thought was cool. I could just go do it on my own.” She was inspired to find her local climbing wall after seeing legendary climber Catherine Destivelle on TV (to think how many people she has now inspired to do the same now). She didn’t come from a “climbing family” but through her local wall, she was quickly accepted and welcomed into the climbing community. The community is what has kept her active in the scene for more than 25 years, throughout which she has seen a lot of change.
Climbing in general has seen a huge rate of growth over the past two years, with accessibility to indoor climbing walls bringing more people into the sport. Combined with its Olympic debut, climbing has hit the eyes of the masses. A new documentary, The Wall – Climb for Gold details the journey of four climbers, including Shauna, on their journey over the past two years to the Games. It was a busy and intense time for her, something she now has time to reflect on post Olympics and in competitive retirement.
Competition has always been at the forefront of Shauna’s career, but away from that it is about the simplicity of climbing and what it brought to her life. “I’ve always been really passionate about climbing being inclusive and accessible.” Shauna says. “At the wall, if the guys are trying something, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that I couldn’t try it. It actually wasn’t until I started working at the “Climbing Hangar”, one of my first jobs, and I was coaching a women’s class that I realised barriers existed.” This realisation set Shauna off on a path towards creating the Women’s Climbing Symposium, a community driven platform and yearly event that brings people together to support the ladies’ side of the scene. It provides a much-needed space for women to overcome the barriers that exist, to get more out of climbing, whilst connecting people and developing the sport. “We’ve got ideas for how to make the symposium bigger and better.” says Shauna.
Over at the route setting workshops, Emma and Rosie aim to provide women with the confidence to go to the walls and take charge, and they hope that the women on the course go on to continue setting routes (which many have). As the sport grows, Emma wants to encourage those who don’t see themselves in the climbing space (like her in route setting) to set up their own groups and exist. She suggests reaching out to similar groups, or people who have started their own and don’t forget to ask for help from the walls. ”I would say it is only in recent years that climbing is truly becoming more diverse and accessible, but the wonderful thing about climbing is we have so many strong and individual personalities shining through.” says Emma.“We are also at a point where climbing walls have more diverse groups being set up.” Something which she is doing through the workshops around the country.
Both the route setting workshops and Women’s Climb Symposium are giving people an access route and safe way into climbing that didn’t exist before, even five years ago.“I think climbing as a sport should be for everybody but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to continue to make the spaces accessible to people from all backgrounds, of all races, all abilities and all genders.” explains Shauna. “Climbing is such a natural thing for us to do. And that transcends all boundaries, regardless of who you are, where you come from and what you’re capable of. One of the things I love most about being at a climbing wall is that there’s no division.” When it comes to advice on how to start climbing from an Olympic climber and World Champion, the people are key. Find someone to go with, or just turn up in comfy clothes at your local wall and the climbing community will welcome you in with hire shoes and chalk. As Shauna explains, “It’s a sport that is accessible for everybody and we need the people of the sport to ensure that those beyond our community know that they are welcome.”