Ice climber Emma Powell is proof that great things come in small packages

Emma Powell climbing
The climber recently became the first British woman to tick off a D12 – and at 5’1” that’s no easy feat (Image credit: Emma Powell)

When British climber Emma Powell first sent the crux move on Guardian of the Underworld back in May 2022, it was the result of six months of projecting and her first thought was, well,  exactly what you might imagine it would be. 

“The move is pretty much my full body stretch so when I managed to get the take I was just like ‘don’t let go! Don’t let go!’” recalls Powell of the power move that made her the first British woman to tick off a D12.

The route she was on is on the very steepest part of a cave at The Works at Hodge Close, a dedicated dry-tooling quarry in the Lake District. Dry-tooling is a style of climbing that uses ice climbing gear like ice axes and screws to climb rock. The crux in question is a big gaston move requiring a massive throw from one side of the wall to the other in a roof section, so it wouldn’t be easy by anyone’s standards. Powell has an advantage – at 22 years old, she’s already been climbing for 14 years. But she also has a disadvantage – she’s vertically challenged. Meaning, she likes to tell people that she’s 5’2” but in truth, she’s not even quite that tall. 

Emma Powell mountaineering

When British climber Emma Powell first sent the crux move on Guardian of the Underworld back in May 2022, it was the result of six months of projecting (Image credit: Emma Powell)

Though she’s a living, breathing, climbing testament to the commonly held belief that you need to be tall to be a good climber, she admits that her diminutive stature definitely affects how she approaches rock climbing

“I try to workaround, whether that means doing a figure four or putting my feet in a different place to most people or even finding a sneaky hole or something. It means I train in a slightly different way to train more explosive power and a bit more strength training to make sure I can hold deep lock off positions. At the end of the day it just means that I have to get stronger and try even harder than everyone else. But yeah, it would be nice to reach some of the holds sometimes without trying so hard!”

A Montane athlete (opens in new tab), Powell grew up in Yorkshire climbing with her dad and over the years has watched many of her climbing idols get kicked off Guardians of the Underworld. She started projecting the route in the autumn of 2021, which in itself was a new approach for the climber, who’s a self-described “on-siter.”

“The first time I tried it I think I got two or three clips up and then every time I went back I was just adding maybe a clip or a hold so it was a really really slow project but then I found I could link up the first half of the route,” remembers Powell, who worked with adventure filmmaker Ryan Balharry on a forthcoming documentary about the project.

“All the people I’ve talked to who have done the route before said it was a really big move. And I just kept getting stuck and stuck and stuck because it’s quite accurate as well. It wasn’t till I actually did it that I really believed I could, which made it extra special.”

Emma Powell mountaineering

Powell describes ice climbing as "the best thing ever" (Image credit: Emma Powell)

Since she was 14, Powell has moved in the direction of ice climbing, which she describes as “the best thing ever,” dry-tooling (“I think I just love slinging axes”) and Scottish winter climbing, three disciplines which all require quite a bit of brute force. However, Powell says she actually finds these sports meditative, something she thinks balances her tendency to be an “over-thinker” and “a bit hyperactive” when she’s not on her axes.

“People always think that when you're doing something dangerous, you need to just be 100% in your head and think about exactly what you're doing, and I find it the opposite. If I overthink something, it just almost puts me off. When I'm climbing, it's almost the only time I find peace. And I can just switch off completely and just climb. It's quite a nice moment.”

When she’s not slinging axes at rock and ice, the climber works at a toxicology lab in Harrogate, so it’s not as though she’s got all day every day to train and project, but that doesn’t stop her from holding some lofty goals for the future, including more Scottish enter climbing, bigger caves in Europe, and yes, probably a D13 or two.

“My main aim in climbing, like the rest of my life, is just to have as much fun as I can, just to enjoy it and still love it as much as I did when I first started.”

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.