Weekend Warm-Up: The Big Bang & Emma Twyford

The stakes quickly become clear in this in-depth look at one of the most significant British ascents of the last few years.

In 2017, a young climber named Emma Twyford decided to start trying one of the United Kingdom’s most infamously difficult routes: an exhausting 9a called The Big Bang. 

In the route’s 23-year history, just two climbers — both men — had managed to send it. When BMC made this award-winning documentary about Twyford’s quest to reach the chains, they worked hard to ensure audiences would understand the context.

Of the 170,000 climbs in the UK, only 12 of them reach a 9a difficulty, the doc’s talking heads tell us in the intro. Of those, The Big Bang has retained a particularly daunting reputation.

It follows a steep overhang on a famous sea cliff in North Wales called Lower Pen Trwyn, and has shut down legions of climbing attempts.

“After my first session on Big Bang, I was hooked and it became an addiction,” Twyford says in the film. “But I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for.”


Non-sponsored climbing

There’s no doubt that professional climbers work their asses off to obtain the sponsors that allow them to pursue hard projects full-time.

But it’s also fair to point out the added difficulty of achieving an elite-level climb while working a grueling day job. Which is precisely what Twyford’s endearingly supportive friends and coworkers make clear.

Twyford spends her days working as a setter at a local gym. As one of her co-workers says in the film, route-setting takes a heavy physical toll on the body that’s a far cry from real training.

big issues

Emma Twyford climbing ‘The Big Issue,’ an E9/6c she sent as a motivator for ‘The Big Bang.’ Photo: Screenshot


“When I do route-setting, it takes me four days to recover,” a co-worker says in the doc. “I don’t actually understand how someone can do that job and climb at a high level without your body just breaking up.”

Twyford spends three years working on The Big Bang, and it’s fascinating to see how she copes with the repeated failure to finally pull off the crux at the top of the route.

Exhibit A involves going to other crags and sending other hard routes to boost her motivation. These side-trips include Mind Control, 8c, in Oliana, Spain, The Big Issue, an E9/6c also in Wales, and finally a trip to the Dolomites, where she says she finds the final piece of motivation she needed.

emma twyford

Emma Twyford after a climb on one of Wales’ beautiful sea cliffs. Photo: Screenshot


Setting a new benchmark

Ultimately, it does matter that Twyford became the first British woman to climb 9a, and the third person to climb one of her country’s most difficult routes.

But the journey matters more than the grade or the gender of the person climbing it. And in Twyford’s quest to finish those final five moves of The Big Bang, she shows not just grit and determination, but a consistent self-awareness of what she needs to do to keep herself going.

A significant part of it involves overcoming failure after failure, all the way up until the day she finally makes it to the top. It’s a moment of undeniable beauty because the documentary shows us every step she needed to take to clip those anchors.

“This route has become such a big part of me,” she says. “Clipping those chains was the most satisfying moment I think I’ve ever had.”

Regardless of whether she ever becomes a professional climber, Twyford has already made an impact. That’s because viewers can always return to this story, and perhaps find the motivation to keep moving.

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.