With International Womens Day being celebrated this week and Stronghold announcing our latest opportunity to join the team as a Setting Manager, we thought this was a perfect opportunity to release this interview from our own Elly who sat down with our wonderful inhouse setter Jen and our ever regular external setter Emma Twyford (who happens just to be one of the best all round climbers out there).

The interview is in two parts with the 2nd part available to read here.

—PART 1 —

Hi Emma and Jen, first things first, can you introduce yourselves to those who might need a little reminder?
Hi, I’m Emma Twyford, and I’m one of the freelance setters at Stronghold. I’ve been climbing for over 20 years, and setting for 8 or 9 years. I’m a semi-professional climber, and the first British female to climb French 9A.
Hi, I’m Jen Shirlaw. I climbed a few times in my early 20’s, but got into it properly in 2015. I started working at Stronghold in March 2019 and have been setting there since August 2019.

How did you first get into climbing?
– I first encountered climbing on holiday in Thailand on a holiday. I was with a friend who was a novice rock climber, and we saw people climbing on Rai Leh beach and he said we should try. I agreed, having no idea what I was really getting myself into. I vaguely remember being pushed up on a top rope, but I enjoyed it. Skip forward 2 months, I went to Morocco with the same guy, to Todgha Gorges and he saw people doing multipitch. So I ended up on a 250m multipitch, having only ever top-roped on one route in Thailand. At the time I was terrified, but I thought it was amazing. I’m fairly sure I was pulled up a lot of it by my belayer. That was my introduction to climbing, and I always saw climbing as multi pitch then didn’t climb again for 5 years, until I moved to London, and lived in a flat behind the castle. I remembered back to my climbing experiences and just thought I had to do it again.
– That’s quite an introduction to climbing, my experience was quite different. I was 7 years old when I first started, mainly going out with my dad and his friends from the mountain rescue. I had a tiny little body harness, some old Boreal climbing shoes, socks.
I started by trad climbing, which is unusual. I was on Shepard’s crag in Lake District, I remember not really being able to reach anything, I think I was being pulled up by those belaying more than I was actually climbing. I was fortunate to grow up in an adventurous setting, and it kept me quite interested in climbing. I then competed in sport climbing from the ages of 14 – 22.

Emma Twyford setting the Circuit Board at Tottenham Hale

Emma Twyford, a regular setter over the years at Stronghold – photo by Veronica Melkonian

How did this progress into route setting?
Jen – I just asked! I had been thinking about it for a year, and seen that there were no female route setters. I kept thinking about that and mentioning it to route setters I knew and they all said “well why don’t you just do it”.
I sent in a standard job application for Stronghold, and at the end mentioned an interest in route setting. I didn’t realise simply asking would open that door, but it was that simple.

Hold selection at Stronghold

Jen Shirlaw – so many holds to choose from!!!

EmmaSide question, but what it like setting with your boyfriend?
Jen – That’s a good question! Well, we had 1 week setting before we got together, but it’s been fine. I enjoy working with a best friend, and we have a lot of fun setting together. It does present it’s challenges, and I did feel there was a lot of pressure to prove myself in the beginning, and with high emotions, it can be challenging. It’s difficult to hide that to your partner, but I learnt to put that aside and just think about the day.

Emma – Going slightly off topic but I have another question, from female perspective, being hormonal and setting with a team of all guys is challenging. There are not many female setters, which presents it’s own challenges. Do you have any coping strategies, are you open with it or do you keep it to yourself?
Jen – I’m not one to shy away about talking about any of this. I’m lucky to work with a close inhouse setting team, we all know each other well, so I feel comfortable telling them if I feel hormonal and am open about having horrible cramps or not physically being able to try as hard as normal, and they completely understand.
JenDo you communicate, when you’re not feeling great?
Emma – Yes, when I’m working with another female. It’s a little harder when with only men, and I know I can be quite snappy. I find it hardest when testing, testing is hard work anyway, so when you’re not feeling great it can be even more of a challenge. Usually I will say something, but it is difficult with new teams. I’m lucky that most of the places I work, I have been there for a while so know the setting teams quite well, but it’s hard going into something, which I’ve been brought in specifically to set the harder routes and I’m just not up for it. I have learnt the best way to cope with any pain or injury to try separating the moves, and go section by section rather than trying to link it all at once. I try to be kind to myself and just do the best I can.

Emma – To answer the original question, fair play to Jen for just asking, that is definitely the way to do it, it is tricky because you generally need to be working at a wall for the insurance, but then ask, and keep asking. That’s what I did too, when I lived in Sheffield, I Climbed at The Foundry, and managing a café at the time. I didn’t think about setting, but just gave it a go, this was about 6 months to a year before I was moving to North Wales, and asked Rob Napier if he would teach me and I would work for free whilst learning.
He said yes and put me on the ropes, I didn’t have a clue when I first started, but decided to go on the steepest bit of the wall first, and thought if I can set on that I can set on anything. I still remember my first set, it had fluro green holds and probably took the whole day to do, but I got there. Rob said to me that to be a good setter you have to understand good movement, you’ll either take to it or you wont.
I built up my experience at every opportunity, then went freelance after about 2 years of setting in-house and have been freelance for 6 years. I do feel much more confident going into a new team now, but I still question if I’m good enough, especially when setting with peers or people I look up to. I do get feelings of inadequacy, but on the whole, because it’s been so long, I generally feel okay.

JenHow do you find it being freelance?
Emma – It works for me because I like to have the variety of walls and people to work with. Corona has shown instability of freelance, not being on furlough is tough, and it can be terrifying not having the stability. It’s also really hard to say no, even though you have the power over your own calendar, it’s hard to not take work. When I first started out as a freelance I was scared to say no to someone, and never get asked back. But I do now realise you have to have time off, and I’m learning to say no. It is an advantage of being a female setter, you will always be in demand, and I always have walls asking me to work.

What’s your favourite climbing style and do you think this influences how you set?
Jen – I’m not sure I have a particular style. I’m better at certain styles, but I do enjoy everything. For harder problems, I would generally set in my style, but also have done the opposite. I’ve set dynamic, slopey ,powerful problems on overhangs, which is a style that I would say is my weakness. So I would enjoy setting towards my style just because you can get into the flow of it better.
I love to visualise movement, and climbing, so the style doesn’t necessarily matter for me. The bulk of what I set, maybe, 60-70% are static and slightly crimpy. But also this is generally the style at Stronghold, so it falls in line with that too.
– The nice thing about having a team, is that everyone brings their own style. I’m terrible at dynamic moves, so usually go with static, so I like that stronghold is more static. The comment I get most about my setting is that it feels like they’re climbing outside, which is nice. I’m influenced by what I’ve been climbing outside. Not necessarily trying to replicate the climb, but to use moves or inspiration from those climbs, like heel hooks, drop knees or rock overs.

JenWhat’s your process when you go to set?
– Depends on angle of the wall and holds in front of me. I have a couple of methods, but if I see a cool hold, I will work the problem around that hold. Volumes tend to dictate how boulders are set as well, so you have to think about their placement.
For lower grades, the movement needs to flow, and feet where you need them to be. For harder routes, it depends on the holds that are there. If you go in with too much in mind you can get a bit wrapped up in it, and it often doesn’t work, because the wall is wrong or the holds don’t work, so you need to see what’s there and the shapes. I find myself dreaming about a route I want to set, have an idea and then spend too long trying to work it out, only to realise it doesn’t work in that environment. So being able to adapt is really important.
Jen – Yeah it never works the way you want it to, you can’t force it!
Emma Would you say you go in with ideas, or a blank canvas?
Jen – It’s funny because the Stronghold team all work quite differently. Joe has an idea in his head and works with it, but I work more on intuition. I look at set of holds I’ve picked out, and it’ll just come to me. I need to have it all laid out before I can see what it is, I’m never able to pre conceive it, it’s very much in the moment.
I do think this can slow me down, and I go into a bit of a setting daze. The cogs are working but decisions are slow, it works for me, I do need to work on speeding my process up a little.

Jen setting an Orange at Tottenham Stronghold
Do you find yourself setting towards the end move or does it completely vary?
Emma – Depends on the holds, and what it is you’re working with. Aesthetically pleasing holds make it hard to set a bad problem, people want to use them and are drawn in to the route. Those holds often lend themselves to certain moves or styles, so it’s easier with those to give you an idea of the route. With generic holds, you have to go with the flow and just see what happens.
JenHow much do you factor in aesthetics, is that an important aspect for you?
Emma – Most importantly, it’s that the routes climb well. I want them to look aesthetically pleasing to an extent, rather than a total mess. But it needs to climb well first and foremost. It’s good to set with different people as it gives you different ideas as well. It’s definitely important for the competition wall, I always want that to look amazing, and I definitely put in time and effort to make it look nice. If you can combine the two it’s the ideal outcome.
Jen – Yeah, I find it depends on the holds, if you have beautiful holds, then generally its going to look good. Those weird door nob holds never look good.
Emma – It depends on space too, setting at Stronghold is good now because it’s now by area. You have a big open space and more freedom with where things should go. Adding volumes also helps to create what you want aesthetically.

Tottenham Hale Stronghold Climbing Centre

The new Stronghold at the Archives, Tottenham Hale. Sooooo much space!

What do you find hardest when route setting?
Jen – I suppose we spoke about this a lot above but the hormonal side is a challenge. As well as this I do find the brute physicality of it hard. I don’t come from a sporty background and I don’t have a sturdy build. I’m quite petit and 5″2′, so the physicality of the job is frustrating and exhausting. Handling ladders is difficult being short, I can’t extend and collapse them easily, and have dropped a few in my time. But also picking up and carrying holds can be hard, they’re heavy, especially PE holds, they weight a tonne. I know when I first started setting I would get pain in my lower back often, just because the physicality was not something I was used to.
Emma – I agree with that. The physical side is really hard, putting big volumes on the wall whilst drilling is challenging. Especially when the volume is bigger than I am, it does feel like it’s always pulling in the opposite direction to where I want it to be.
Often being the only women on the team I don’t want to show any signs of weakness. But having said that, I have found anyone you work with just wants you to make an effort. So as long as you are trying they, men or women, respect you for that. And if you ask for help it’s okay, they just like to know you’re trying and not asking them to just do it for you.