Stand: She might not be able to reach the top shelf at the supermarket, but Emma Powell is scaling new heights as one of Britain’s brightest climbing stars. Pictures by Andy Rutherford.
Ice climber Emma Powell has a couple of secret weapons. First, there’s the makeshift training wall her dad built in the conservatory of the family home; then there’s the cheese sandwiches.
When she is not studying for her A-levels at school in Ilkley, the super-fit 17 year old, who pretty much lives off a diet of cheddar sarnies and cups of tea, can be found dangling from a rock face or scaling a wall of ice somewhere in Europe.
The hours of hard work have paid off. Emma is the only Brit to have ever been on the podium twice at an Ice Climbing World Championship and she recently regained her British number one title in her other specialism, dry tooling which involves similar terrifying feats, only this time indoors.
“I am only 5ft 2ins tall, so quite a lot shorter than the other athletes,” says the teenager. “In some ways my height – or lack of it – is a disadvantage, but because I don’t have the same reach as a lot of the other climbers, it has always meant that my technique has had to be so much better.
“When I am competing I try not to think about anything at all, not even the route I am going to take. You put the training in, you prepare as much as you can, but then, for me at least, instinct takes over.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Emma would find her head for heights – dad Phil is a seasoned climber, his dad was a member of the local mountain rescue team and from the age of six father and daughter would spend weekends clambering up Ilkley’s Cow and Calf.
“Dad has been climbing all his life and he knows my technique and how I climb and he has really helped me to advance. I love going out with him and that shared passion means we are really close.”
Now an experienced climber in her own right, over the last few years, Emma has found herself negotiating giant foam cubes suspended from the 145ft Devonshire Dome, scaling the icy waterfalls of Telemark in Norway and at 15 she successfully completed the notoriously challenging Ledge Route to reach the summit of Ben Nevis.
“Of course ice climbing can be dangerous, so you have to know how to read the ice and you have to take into account the changing temperatures. You can’t be scared of the ice, but you do have to respect it. Maybe I have been lucky, but I can honestly say I have never had any hairy moments.
“A lot of people my age who do climbing get injured because it does put a lot of strain on your body. But outside of actual climbing I do a lot of strength and conditioning work and aside from hitting myself in the face on the odd occasion with one of my ice axes, I have remained injury free.”
Already an international sport, ice climbing is currently undergoing selection for the 2022 Winter Olympics and if it gets the green light, Emma hopes to be in with a chance of representing Team GB.
“It would be amazing for the sport, particularly in this country. It’s not too bad now, but when I was younger I would go out to say somewhere like Switzerland to compete and there would be just me surrounded by all these Russian girls and their quite scary looking coaches.
“Because the sport isn’t big over here we also don’t have the same facilities. We did look a while ago for an empty barn where dad might be able to build me a bigger training wall, but we just couldn’t find anything suitable.
“This might not look like much,” she says, pointing to her dad’s homemade construction. “But it has served me pretty well so far and if the sport is accepted into the Olympics then the profile it will get just by being part of the Games might mean that it attracts some central funding.”
Every cupboard of the Powells’ home is now filled with climbing kit and while Emma, who is hoping to become a physiotherapist, has secured some equipment sponsorship, with no wider funding available she has had to rely on the bank of mum and dad to fulfil her dreams.
“They have been a massive support. And even though mum sometimes can’t bear to watch me compete it would lovely to think that they might see me take part in the Olympics. For me that would be incredible.”
Follow Emma on Instagram at emma_powell_climbs or on Twitter @emma_climbs