Chris Van Leuven
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How Alex Honnold’s mom is setting an example for all of us

This autumn for her 70th birthday, Dierdre Wolownick spent the night out under the stars atop El Capitan, absorbing the view high above the Valley floor.

first met Dierdre Wolownick in Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont for climbing on the rugged cliffs. It was 2015, and we met halfway up the narrowing paved road that climbs up and over Mount Mansfield, an area flocked yearly by tourists who come to see autumn foliage explode with color. But we’re here in late fall, under barren trees and gray skies.

I pull over to her lone car in the parking lot, and we slowly make our way to a short, low-difficulty rock climb. She’s slower footed than me but determined as we ascend the steep and rugged trail, and her steady pace continued as we climbed. Throughout that overcast day in the Northeast, Wolownick filled me in with every detail she could about her son Alex Honnold: what films he starred in (this was before Free Solo), his upcoming projects, their outings together. She told me how climbing, which she picked up at 59, helped her understand his world. In the years since that day, she’d become fascinated by the sport.

Though I could tell she was incredibly proud of her son, she also had her own story to tell, one she chronicled in her memoir The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story. That day on the rocks we chatted for hours, discussing writing, climbing and Honnold’s incredible feats. Thus began my friendship with Wolownick. In the subsequent five years, we’ve climbed from the scraggly crags in Vermont to the great rock slabs of Yosemite. Over this time, I’ve watched her strength and confidence on the rock grow. These changes continued despite invasive foot surgery leading to chronic pain in her opposite knee, and the general aches and pains she suffers from just turning 70.

Over our years together, Wolownick has shared how she grew up in New York City where she roller skated and ice skated. She’s taught foreign languages since 1971, completed half and full marathons, founded and conducted the West Sacramento Orchestra, and she’s climbed in France, Greece, and Mexico (to name a few). She and Honnold have climbed long routes in Tuolumne Meadows, California and Red Rock, Nevada.

Wolownick is also a longtime writer and has published many books. In 2018 she simultaneously wrote two books: her memoir and a French textbook. Her memoir has been translated into foreign languages, most recently in Italian, French, and Spanish. For 44 years she was a professor and mother who raised Honnold and his sister Stasia Honnold. Her former husband died in 2004.

I’ve written about Wolownick for publications ranging from Men’s Journal to Outdoor Retailer Magazine to here at Adventure Sports Journal. She’s a friend of mine and a friend of many others; she’s a strong-willed, determined, and inspiring person who is always up for a day of climbing.

I’ve had a blast belaying Wolownick up various routes in Yosemite, including the introductory lines at Swan Slab, multi-pitch routes up the glistening stone at the base of Glacier Point Apron, moderates at Parkline Slab near the park’s west entrance, and the 50-foot descent route on the iconic Rostrum formation. I’ve packed picnics and we’ve taken in the views of Yosemite from high ledges over tri-tip and corn on the cob, washing it down with iced drinks. When we climbed the Pine Line variation start to the Nose, I packed boiling water and cups of Ramen soup and used snapped twigs as makeshift chopsticks. When Honnold and Jared Leto came around the corner and greeted us, Honnold looked down at us eating our soup in the dirt and uttered one word: “Rugged.” 

Another time at the base of El Cap, Wolownick, Pearl Johnson (age 9), her mom Janet Johnson and I ascended fixed ropes partway up the Heart Ledges hauling route that connects to the upper two-thirds of Freerider on El Cap, the route Wolownick’s son famously free soloed in 2017. Climbing with other friends, Wolownick once attempted the South Face of Washington Column in Yosemite but retreated partway up the wall due to overcrowding.

We also traveled through Denver during the annual Outdoor Retailer tradeshow, where she posed for photos at The Pulse booth for my profile on her, and we shared dinners with editors and publishers. And we’ve helped one another with our stories, where I reported on cutting edge ascents and she focused on reaching and inspiring senior citizens. She writes with the intention of becoming a beacon for older climbers and seniors like herself. It’s impressive how many titles she appears in, from digital publications to international TV to major newspapers, including USA Today. Her success is due to hard work, hustle, and diligence, just like how she climbs.

Photo of Dierdre Wolownick enjoying a cupcake at the top of El Capitan

Enjoying a birthday cupcake at the top of El Capitan. Photo by Jannette Pazer.

Becoming the oldest women to climb El Cap

Four years ago, Wolownick made history when she ascended fixed lines set by Honnold and his climbing partner Samuel Crossley on Lurking Fear on El Cap. With them leading above, she ascended her way up the ropes, topping out in 13 hours and returning to the Valley floor in a little over 19 hours, earning her the title of the oldest woman to climb El Capitan.

The oldest person male or female to climb El Cap is Gerry Bloch, 81, who ascended the Aquarium Wall in 1999. Once he reached the top, “we were stunned at how frail he looked,” wrote Glen Martin for SF Gate. “He was not an old man who had an anomalous physique, a superb constitution that had somehow resisted the erosions of time. He was just an old man — but one with indomitable will.” That year Bloch bested his previous record, which he set in 1986 when he became the oldest person to climb the formation at 68. Bloch started climbing in 1934, at age 16; Wolownick started climbing in 2009 at 59.

For his ascent of Aquarium Wall over ten days, Bloch made his way up the giant monolith by ascending ropes set in place by Mike “Mr. El Cap” Corbett and Craig White. In comparison, when Wolownick ascended Lurking Fear in 2016, she followed the fastest rock climber in the world — her son — and his friend Crossley. Both senior citizen climbers —Wolownick and Bloch — ascended El Cap Grade VI routes (requiring most teams several days to complete), earning them the title of oldest to ascend the Big Wall.

Asecending ropes vs. Technical climbing

Some naysayers discredit Wolownick’s ascent of Lurking Fear, arguing that ascending ropes isn’t climbing El Cap (they also discredit the youngest people to have climbed El Cap for similar reasons), but most I’ve talked to agree that climbing is simply going up. On El Cap, the walls are polished smooth, cracks are sharp and often minimal, and wide chimneys and everything in-between rise two-thirds of a mile to reach the top. The biggest difference between climbing rock and ascending ropes, called jumaring (or jugging), is that the latter is a physical skill that can be picked up quickly, though it is strenuous and complex. Building the skills to lead technical climbing pitches up an El Cap big wall takes years of practice and preparation.

Though ascending ropes isn’t in the same category as free climbing or aid climbing, there are also no rules stating that it doesn’t qualify as  climbing. The first paraplegic to climb El Cap was Mark Wellman, in 1989, when he ascended ropes set in place by Corbett on The Shield, which required eight days. Their ascent dominated the news and earned them an invitation to the White House. “That’s something I’ll always remember. It was a huge accomplishment for both Mike and me,” Wellman said during a visit to the Oval Office in the No Barriers Podcast.

Returning to El Cap for her 70th birthday

This autumn, Wolownick returned to Yosemite for her 70th birthday, and with support from climbers and visitors alike, she ascended ropes that lead up the El Cap descent route, East Ledges, which requires hiking up an increasingly steep gully to reach 500 feet of fixed ropes that lead to steep, exposed hiking. From the top of the lines, she followed a strenuous climber’s trail to reach the top of the world’s most famous route, The Nose. With the friends who accompanied her, she toasted the event with champagne, shared cake, and snuggled into her sleeping bag for the night.

“I had a group of supportive people all around me,” she says. “We had people watching out for us as we went up the East Ledges; there were 11 of us and we were widely spread out. Four were young people carrying 90-pound packs.”

By climbing with partners all over the world, most commonly in Yosemite, Wolownick’s built a crew who supports and encourages her. This includes Janet Johnson — mother of Pearl Johnson, who at age 9 was the youngest person to climb El Cap. Mother and daughter joined Wolownick on her recent venture up the East Ledges. So did a handful of others, including the director of the Gunks Climbers Coalition, Jannette Wing Pazer. Some went up in advance and strung fresh ropes up the route she followed, others carried packs weighed down with equipment, food, water, and camping gear (and champagne and cake!). 

As Wolownick descended El Cap’s East Ledges after completing her goal of sleeping on top, a group of us waited on the Valley floor to greet her when she got down to celebrate her accomplishment. Some of us were seasoned climbers, where others hardly knew what climbing was, but they’d seen Free Solo. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

When Wolownick stepped off the trailhead, she was brimming with confidence and dehydrated, sore and hungry. I gave her ice packs, iced cranberry water, hot soup, Almond Rocha and cheese sticks. Others contributed electrolytes and more food. From there, Wolownick headed back to a friend’s house to shower and regroup and we met up again that afternoon at the Curry Pizza Deck, where drinks flowed and she bought everyone dinner. There she recounted her night under the stars on top of El Cap, where she nestled in a sleeping bag but did without a tent as it would block her view of the evening sky. At the Deck there were toasts, laughter and she was surrounded by her climbing partners, new friends, and old ones. That’s what stays with me: how she fostered community, put her head toward the goal, and saw it through.

Photo fo Dierdre Wolownick

IN A CATEGORY OF HER OWN

The news of her ascent bothered some technical climbers, but similar to how many people say they climbed Half Dome when they ascend the Cables Route, the same can be said about Wolownick going up the East Ledges to reach the top of The Big Stone. 

People have different opinions about this. She’s heard from other climbers that the long yet moderate Royal Arches route is a big wall, even though it gets a Grade II rating (taking most parties less than half a day). These rating details may mean a lot to seasoned climbers like me, but Wolownick is in a different category. She aims to reach those in her age bracket, people over 60, over 70, and those who have never heard of rock climbing. She’s told me she wants to inspire people who never get off the couch to get out and walk around the block, those who’ve never hiked to explore the outdoors by foot, to see the world in new and exciting ways.

In a recent YouTube video interview, Wolownick says, “It [climbing] may seem risky or dangerous to other people, but the key to it is to simply keep increasing your comfort zone.” This is the message she reinforces in the Feeding Curiosity podcast called “Dierdre Wolownick: Stewardship, Traveling and Listening to Yourself.”  

Dierdre Wolownick with ten friends on the Valley floor by El Cap

With the ten friends who made Wolownick’s birthday on El Cap so special. Photo: Hannah Hoekstra

Rating Details

The day after her birthday, Wolownick woke early and returned to El Cap, back to the fixed lines leading to Heart Ledges, where photographers and journalists she’d contacted joined her. “I’ll be in a feature article in a special section of the New York Times,” she tells me, “in a section on people who have reinvented themselves later in life. That’s become my specialty. I saw a post online from the Times and shot off an email to them. A half-hour later they wrote me back.”

With so many articles coming out about her success in the vertical, I was curious if she talked about her notable climbs with her son. She replied, “We talk, of course, often when he’s in an airport going on an expedition to somewhere in the world. When we talk, it’s family stuff, not this.”

As her rapid pace and increased relationships with the media grow, Wolownick may become the most famous senior climber on the planet. Considering her son is the world’s most famous rock climber, perhaps it’s fitting that she gets to share the limelight, in her way and on her terms. After all, he introduced her to the sport, supported her progression and inspired her to get out and try.

“I’m on television in Taiwan and Madrid, and across the US,” she says. “People enjoy success stories where they can say, ‘maybe I could do that.’ I’m out there doing these feats, and to other people, this is inspiring, and I love bringing that to people.”

And that’s the message she gives — you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. Kudos to Wolownick for spreading that message. As the sport of climbing grows and reaches new audiences, thanks greatly to the success of Free Solo, it’s good to have Wolownick at the table to share her experiences and inspire seniors and others to get out and be more active.

“I don’t feel old,” she tells me, “but my foot doesn’t point downward anymore due to surgery. My whole foot was taken apart and put back together and apparently, there was nerve damage, and it will never get any better. It’s very limiting for climbing.  So I have to figure out other ways to navigate these things. As you age, parts of you decline and you have to decide if you will let that stop you. I’d love to keep going up, as long as I can. We’ll see.”

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