YOSEMITE, Calif. - Dierdre Wolownick, the mother of renowned rock climber Alex Honnold, turned 70 in September, and to commemorate her birthday, she proved once again that age would not deter her from living life on her own terms.
Wolownick marked the milestone birthday by scaling Yosemite National Park's famed El Capitan, again breaking her own record as the oldest woman to climb the world's largest granite monolith.
She first set the record in 2017 at the age of 66.
Four years later, she challenged herself again. Along with a group of 10 people, including friends who had flown in from other areas to join her in the celebratory adventure, Wolownick ascended the majestic granite wall of El Cap experiencing something she considered a privilege and a gift that offered some of life’s most intense emotions.
"By the time I got to the top of the slab, and I was within visual range of the top, I was so tired. I was tired and elated." Wolownick, who lives in Carmichael in Sacramento County, shared with KTVU. "It's a completely different feeling all at once. I was so exhausted. I was so tired, I could cry… I was wiped out. But at the same, I got to climb El Cap and elated, and it's just hard to put into words."
Wolownick, whose long list of accomplishments included being an author, also shared the experience last week in her blog in which she acknowledged she didn’t have the words to adequately convey what the emotional moment was like. "Sometimes words fail, even for a writer. Or the right ones just don’t exist, or can’t measure up," she wrote.
On Sept. 23, Wolownick and her team of climbers and friends set out in the predawn hours to conquer the 3,000-foot tall storied landmark. It took six grueling hours to reach the summit.
"El Cap is always a trip, always an inspiring, emotional trip. It’s such a monumental place. All the way up it changes. Your state of mind changes, your state of body changes," she said, adding, "You're in some scary situations."
Once they triumphantly reached the summit, the event was marked with a surprise, as her friends pulled out champagne, cake, and even candles for Wolownick’s birthday, for a celebration atop one of the world's most famous rock walls.
Dierdre Wolownick's main training partner for the climb, Garet McMackin, carried up bottles of Champagne to surprise her for the 70th birthday celebration climb of Yosemite's El Capitan on Sept. 23, 2021. (Credit: Ewa Graves)
"It was amazingly touching. I had no idea they had done that," she said. The group then camped overnight at the summit. The following day, it was another roughly six hours of travel to come down.
In her blog entry about that climb, she wrote about the journey, sharing the biggest hurdles she experienced. In incredibly descriptive prose, she spoke of the mental challenges that threatened to overtake as she faced the punishing final third section of the climb.
Dierdre Wolownick of Carmichael, Calif. climbed Yosemite's El Capitan on Sept. 23, 2021 to mark her 70th birthday. She said, "The slabs of the last third of the ascent are steep and demanding." (Credit: Jake Myhre)
"My head, though, was the worst offender," she wrote. "My writer’s imagination could see exactly what would happen if I stumbled…I’d roll down slab after slab, breaking parts of me at every bump of rock, until I reached the edge. Then I’d sail out over the Valley to plummet down 3,200 feet to the Valley floor. Impossible to erase that image, once the imagination takes hold."
It’s the mental element that has been the hardest part to train during her ten years as a climber. She said it’s one of the greatest strengths though, possessed by her famous son Alex, the first person to climb El Cap without ropes and the inspiration behind the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary "Free Solo."
"That’s how Alex trained himself to climb El Cap without ropes. He trained himself mentally, especially," she said. "And that's my son's forte. He’s able to train his mind to ignore the consequences and just go for it."
Wolownick acknowledged, as a parent, it’s been a very different journey for her in that area of training.
"I mean if you’re a mom, if you’re a parent, your main job for like 20 years is to protect somebody from all the bad things that can happen, right? That’s your main job."
But climbing flips that mentality on its head, she explained.
"Then you go up there and you’re hanging on a rope and you’re supposed to just let go of all that, it’s really hard at the beginning," she said.
Echoing a message often delivered by her son, she said, it’s all about discovering how to be comfortable in that state.
"You know Alex always talks about the comfort zone. You have to stretch your comfort zone, broaden your comfort zone until it encompasses what you want to accomplish. And that’s really the key, and that's what I’ve been doing for 10 years," she said.
The first time Wolownick scaled El Capitan, that momentous climb was done alongside her son.
Besides being older, there were marked differences in this latest face to face with El Cap, including the fact that she carried with her the knowledge that she had already conquered the towering granite behemoth.
"I really knew I was capable of it, if I'd trained, because I'd done it," noting that the training was a bit shorter and less rigorous than the first time around.
"First time I worked 18 weeks, three days a week, every week until the climb," Wolownick explained. The second time, she said that she scheduled about 15 weeks of training with latitude to miss a couple weeks.
There were other differences, none the most notable than new physical challenges.
"Not only that I’m older but I had massive surgery on my foot about two-and-a-half years ago in 2019, and so my foot cannot do a lot of what it used to do. There’s a lot of things now on the rocks that I have to come up with different strategies than everyone else. I have to compensate for what I can't do anymore," she said.
Also, during that first ascent with her son, she summited the mountain through the route known as "Lurking Fear," doing it all in one day. It’s known to typically take four days to complete. On her 70th birthday ascent, she went up a route that climbers use to descend.
But while she’s being celebrated for breaking her own record with this latest accomplishment, she technically broke her record twice, within weeks.
Just before turning 70, Wolownick decided to try her hand at the climb before making it official, just for good measure.
"For the birthday, I knew I was having a lot of friends coming out to do it with me, from New York, Arizona, from Southern California, from all over, and so I wanted to be sure that I could do it and they wouldn’t be disappointed. So two weeks before the birthday, Garet, my main training partner, went up and down in a day just to see if I could do it."
It’s not unusual for Wolownick to mark birthdays with a challenge. It’s something she’s done with both her son and her daughter Stasia Honnold their whole lives, as she’s encouraged them to embrace the adventures.
"We’d rather have an adventure or an experience... a gift is nice, but an experience is nicer," she said. "So both of them have always tried to give me something like that - an experience, an adventure for my birthday. And with Alex of course, it’s climbing usually."
And it's because of her son that she picked up the sport in the first place, she said, so she could be a part of and understand the world he occupied. "I really didn’t get until I started climbing," the mother shared.
When asked whether her son was impressed by her latest accomplishment, Wolownick laughed that they’ve been so busy they hadn’t even had a chance to talk about it, especially with Honnold and his wife, who got married last year in a small ceremony during the depths of the pandemic, planning a renewal of vows and wedding celebration this upcoming weekend at the couple's home in Las Vegas.
"Every time I talk to my son, it’s logistics, logistics - which airport is he talking to me from, where is he going, and wedding stuff and where he’s speaking and what time I can call or not. That’s what his life is like!"
But she also noted that to her son, the latest climb his mother conquered was nothing too impressive.
"See, you think it’s incredible. I know it’s incredible, but to Alex it’s no big deal. He knows I can do it. I did it before," she said, adding, "I'm sure he appreciates it. But it’s hard to impress Alex. When it comes down to it, it’s really hard to impress Alex or anybody like him."
It might also be noted that he's used to a mother who's taken on challenges and embraced new endeavors. Throughout his life, Honnold has had a mother who did not shy away from tackling new experiences, while doing so in exceptional style. In addition to being a record-holding rock climber, she’s also a published author. Her memoir, "The Sharp End of Life: A Mother's Story," came out in 2019. Next year, her new book was set to debut, a book about raising children who love the planet.
She’s also been an avid runner, a tour guide, a performing musician, and she even started and was conductor of her own orchestra in the Sacramento area. And she’s not done.
A lifelong joy of hers has been performing piano, and next week she planned to reignite that love by playing at senior residential centers in the area.
"They love it, and I love it, and it's just really uplifting," she said, noting that she also hoped to get back into conducting.
"I like to push my limits. I like to see what I'm capable of," she explained. "Life is short, and for some it’s shorter than for others. You never know. Get out there and enjoy it."
It’s a motto that she and her late husband have tried to instill in their children, and all indications suggested it was a message they received loud and clear.
Few would argue that Wolownick’s remarkable life so far has been nothing short of inspirational.
Diedre Wolownick on the summit of El Cap, where she had a surprise 70th birthday party on Sept. 23, 2021. (Credit: Jannette Wing Pazer))
When asked how she’s been able to accomplish so much, she said, "It is really very simple. It’s Alex's philosophy. It’s always been mine. If you want to do something, go do it. Every one of us is capable of so much more than we actually do, than we actually accomplish."
And Wolownick said goals can be reached by taking the plunge and then taking it slow.
"You know, 10 years ago I never in my wildest imagination would see me go up El Cap. The key to it all is baby steps," she said. "If you want to learn to be a runner, don’t plan a marathon, you know, go around the block. Then go round two blocks. And then next week go around a third block. I mean, it’s little by little, baby steps. By baby steps, you can do anything. And you’ll never know if you don’t go out and try it."
She also said to block out all the voices that say you can’t.
"Don’t listen to the media and everybody around you saying, ‘Oh, you’re too old for you know, X, Y, Z.' Or, 'You’re not an athlete type.’ All these comments that we get, you have to just tune it out and listen to your own body and trust your own head, your own mind," Wolownick shared, adding, "Nobody knows what you’re capable of but you. And only you could go and try it."
As the mother and accomplished climber, runner, musician, and author celebrated the dawn of a new decade, she said that each new adventure has been another chapter in what she referred to as "the third age" of life.
In a blog posted on Halloween, she shared, "It’s a privilege to live long enough — I know many who were not granted that privilege — and to have a body willing and able to do so." And she offered a toast during this time when the Day of the Dead was also commemorated, saying, "My toast today is to life: L’chaim! To life, and to living it fully — on our own terms!"
A toast to Dierdre Wolownick for her 70th birthday on the summit of Yosemite's of El Cap, with friend and climbing partner Jannette Wing Pazer. (Credit: Ewa Graves)