‘Guardians of the Underworld’ First British woman to tick off a D12 climb

Having recently become the first and only British woman to dry tool climb a D12, climbing pro Emma Powell unpacks her incredible recent achievement conquering the ominously named ‘Guardians of the Underworld’.

Emma Powell is a Yorkshire-based multi disciplined climber and a #TeamMontane athlete, quickly earning herself a reputation as one of Britain’s best dry toolers. Her recent ‘Guardians of the Underworld’ achievement is her biggest route to date and officially crowns her the first and only British woman to complete a D12. 

Emma Powell discusses her love for the sport of dry tooling, how the project came about, the unique challenges of ‘Guardians’ and how you could get into this sport yourself…

Dry Tooling 101

Dry tool climbing is a discipline of climbing which uses ice axes and crampons (or fruitboots) on dry tooling rock routes which have been specifically set for this style of climbing. Dry tooling can be done inside on resin holds at climbing walls or walls set up for this style. Dry tooling can be integrated in other types of climbing which is called mixed climbing. 

Dry tooling appeals to me more than other styles due to its explosive and often thuggy style of climbing. I particularly love the way I can throw in moves such as figure 4’s (which is where arms are crossed over a leg to allow height gain and increase pick security on thin edge holds). I’ll also have to admit that there is an element of this style of climbing which just feels fun to be swinging axes about and throwing for large moves, which keeps it interesting whilst figuring out the moves on projects - a bit like a puzzle and mentally engaging. 

Similar to most climbing styles, dry tooling has a grade system set in place which allows routes to be graded depending on the length and steepness of the route and general difficulty of the route. In dry tooling these are D grades. In the UK they run from around D4 to D13, therefore the grade of D12 of this project is one of the hardest routes.

Inspiration behind the project

‘Guardians of the Underworld’. Well, the name of this imposing route says it all really, even to people who have never tried dry tooling. This route sits at the very steepest part of the cave (horizontal part) at The Works at Hodge Close, a dedicated dry tooling quarry in the Lake District. After completing every other easier graded route in the cave, including becoming the first British female ascent of ‘Quick Release’, I then was looking to find a route which was the next level up and this route caught my eye. 

This route had always been elusive. It’s a route which I watched some of the strongest climbers growing up be spat off or train incredibly hard to tick off. Even after dedicated training, it wasn’t always a given that this technical and powerful route would be ticked. I distinctly remember climbers such as Andy Turner, Greg Boswell and even one of my close friends, Steve Johnston, all working this route. I always thought this is the route for the elite only and would probably be impossible for me.

Initial project scoping

There are only a handful of D12’s in the UK and picking one that suited me was going to be tricky. I tend to have to climb in a dynamic and powerful way due to being small (5 foot 1 and a bit) so, looking at Guardians, I was unsure about the crux move - which is a dynamic accurate throwy-gaston move. I decided to go ahead and give it a go and see if I could work the route in the extreme hope that I would be able to climb it. 

The first time I tried working ‘Guardians’ I couldn’t get past the first few clips, and this carried on move by move with the help of coaching from my Dad. It was quite frustrating how long I was taking to figure the moves out and spying out the holds which were quite hard to see in the dark drippy cave. It was during the beginning of me working the route that I had the opportunity to collaborate with Ryan Balharry and be supported by Montane (alongside my other sponsors - La Sportiva and Petzl) to make a film about the project, locking me into projecting this route.

Challenges of Guardians of the Underworld

For the first few sessions, I was making slow but steady progress. However, when I got to the middle of the route, which included the crux move, I was stumped. Weeks went by and I got increasingly frustrated at getting to the same point. This tied into head game as well as there was added pressure of the film being done and self-doubt of ‘am I actually good enough for this route?’. 

I had fallen off on my first attempt that day (my first attempts tend to be the best of the day for me) and so I shared my doubts - that I didn’t think that I was good enough and maybe I couldn’t do the move. Dad pointed out that if I thought that then why did I get further with every session I did? I had always overcome the moves prior and that I had the strength and just needed to commit to the crux and not let go and give it my all. 

The route felt slightly clunky and I latched the crux move. Shocked, I carried on quickly, getting through the last few moves under the roof before throwing the last move several times, which brought me round to the flat face and last meter or so before the final clip. The hold round the corner was hiding from me and I felt like I was holding on for minutes, but I was determined to not let go. The encouragement from my dad and friends allowed me to dig deep and ultimately led to me clipping the last quickdraw!

After completing Guardians, there was the euphoria often associated with completing a hard project. It was really special as I was belayed down by my Dad who has coached me and has been there since the start. It was amazing to share the emotions of this success with him and others there. Like most climbers who have completed projects, there was also an element of disappointment as completing the route meant the project was over. However I am still buzzing that I completed it and overcame my self doubt. I celebrated by spending the rest of the day encouraging some friends up some other routes and I think I had a crunchie chocolate bar, as well as celebrating with my mum when I got home. 

How you can give dry tooling a go

I would suggest going to a local dry tooling event or to try and join Facebook pages and groups of like-minded people to learn the sport within a safe and controlled setting such as at a climbing wall. Approach your local walls and see if they are interested in running dry tooling masterclasses or club nights to learn from professionals and meet the dry tooling and winter climbing community.

I help to run the masterclasses and dry tooling club nights which is beginner friendly at The Climbing Hub in Bradford. Also, Ice climbing centres such as the Ice Factor Climbing Wall in Manchester have an indoor ice wall facility and experienced staff to help with the transition from rock climbing to ice and winter climbing.