Dierdre Wolownick spent last Halloween inching her way up a 3,000-foot rock face alongside Alex Honnold, one of the world’s strongest climbers.
He’s also Wolownick’s son.
That experience affirmed Wolownick, 66, as the oldest woman to climb El Capitan, the same wall that Honnold had become, less than four months earlier, the first person to scale without safety ropes or harnesses.
Last month, we asked readers to submit stories about adventures they’ve experienced in their lives. Wolownick, who lives in the Sacramento area, read the piece and wrote to tell us about her mother-son experience. On this Mother’s Day, Wolownick can reflect on a life of adventure shared with her son.
First, some background. As a child growing up in New York City, Wolownick liked to climb trees, boulders and buildings. “As little girl, though, I was supposed to behave myself and wear dresses. I gave it up to be a girl,” she says.
Years later, when Alex was born, she saw signs of his skill right away. “Some people are just born with that kind of body,” she says. “He had immensely strong thighs and huge hands. It’s all he ever wanted to do — climb rocks or trees or buildings or fences.”
The two stepped inside their first climbing gym more than 25 years ago, when Honnold was 5 and Wolownick was writing a guidebook called “Sacramento With Kids.” Wolownick didn’t start climbing, herself, until much later, when Honnold was about 18 and started getting attention for his accomplishments.
“He would go out on these trips and he’d go climbing. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know it was a sport,” she says. “I didn’t like that. I wanted to be a part of it.”
In 2009, she asked Honnold to take her with him to a climbing gym. She wound up doing 12 routes that day and loved it. Today she climbs several times a week. She also fields questions from other parents, who regularly ask how she can stand to watch her son, now 32, climb.
“Alex has always had the foresight to not tell me in advance what he’s going to do, so I’ve never known before he’s going to do it,” she says. “Even when he free-soloed El Cap, I was with him the day before and he didn’t say anything. I’m always grateful about that, because it’s very hard to watch.”
Wolownick describes herself as a senior climber and says she’ll never be very good at climbing, although her accomplishments prove otherwise. She harbors some fear of heights (or falling from heights, as Honnold says) but is working to control it. In recent years, they’ve instituted a tradition. “Every year for my birthday in September, Alex takes me to do something extraordinary. It’s always my choice,” she says.
Together they’ve climbed progressively more imposing walls, with names like Snake Dike, Cathedral, Matthes, Tenaya and Conness. “When he climbs with me, he doesn’t even put on his climbing shoes because it’s so easy for him. I’m a baby climber compared to him. My birthday climbs are always a rest day for him.”
In 2016, Honnold took Wolownick up Royal Arches, the wall behind the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park. After they came down, she started thinking about doing what climbers term “a big wall.” A few months later, she asked him if he’d consider leading her up Yosemite’s most imposing wall, El Capitan.
He agreed, as long as she learned a technique called jugging, in which climbers use equipment called ascenders to scale a rope instead of climbing directly on the rock. She set to work, practicing for months, first at the climbing gym, then in ropes anchored from tall trees and finally from real rock walls. Eventually, she practiced jugging on a part of El Capitan called the Heart, about 1,000 feet up.
“You just have to make friends with it,” she says. “I practiced it enough that I was comfortable doing what I had to do. Then I could turn around and it didn’t bother me.”
Still, Alex, with his hectic travel schedule, kept putting off the full El Capitan climb with his mother. “I started thinking it might not happen,” Wolownick says. “Then one day he texted and said, ‘Let’s go do it.’”
On Halloween, she, Honnold and one of his friends headed to Yosemite National Park. She’d spent years trying to protect her son from harm. Suddenly, she was about to do something most would consider dangerous right alongside him.
“I did it roped in — oh, heck yeah, the more ropes the better,” she says.
Honnold led and his friends cleaned, pulling out gear as they leapfrogged their way up the wall. Wolownick watched her son up close as he did what she says he was born to do. As the hours ticked past, her arms grew tired and her fingers cracked and bled.
“Oh, boy, did it hurt,” she says. “But it was so thrilling to be up there — that overshadowed everything. I kept saying, ‘I’m on El Cap, I’m on El Cap, I’m 66 years old and I’m on El Cap.’ That sort of followed me up the wall.”
All the preparation numbed much of the fear. Besides, Wolownick had so much to do, she didn’t have time to think about falling. “I never had a leisure moment, a stop-and-smell-the-roses moment, that whole day,” she says.
It takes most skilled climbers three or four days to make the El Capitan climb. “We took 20 hours — 13 hours up and 7 down,” Wolownick says. “That’s what Alex does — if you’re going to go up with Alex, you’re going to go fast.”
She didn’t realize until months later that she’d set the age record.
“I was just there because I wanted to be,” she says. “I can’t believe, sometimes, that we did that. It’s just extraordinary to do that with your own child.”
Wolownick hasn’t decided yet how she and Honnold will celebrate her next birthday. In the meantime, she’s writing a book about what it was like to raise Honnold and what it was like to climb El Cap with him. That memoir is due in May 2019 on Mountaineers Books.