She climbed El Capitan de Yosemite to celebrate her 70th birthday


“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the story of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.


In his forties, Dierdre Wolownick learned to swim. In her fifties, she started running. Then, at 60, she became a climber – and not just any climber. Four years ago, at age 66, Ms. Wolownick made a record-breaking ascent to El Capitan, the granite monolith in Yosemite National Park that has some of the longest and most difficult climbing routes in the world. And she did it in style. The route she tackled then, Lurking Fear, typically takes four days. Mrs. Wolownick did it in one.

Of course, this helped the author and now sponsored athlete to have one of the most accomplished climbers in the world to guide her: her famous son, Alex Honnold, the star of the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo” . The film tells the story of his son’s breathtaking journey to become the first person to climb “El Cap” without any ropes or safety equipment. Her own effort – which used ropes – was “by far” the most demanding thing she had ever done, Ms. Wolownick said.

Reaching the summit of El Capitan in 2017, she became the oldest woman to make that climb, according to Hans Florine, an American climber with a record 179 ascents of the vertical rock formation.

And she didn’t slow down. At the end of September, Ms Wolownick returned to El Cap without her son to climb it again, this time to celebrate her 70th birthday with a small group of friends and guides. During this adventure, she took an easier route that climbers typically use to descend. It took her six hours to reach the top, and after camping there overnight, she was back down in six and a half hours the next day.

The grueling climbs were a departure from the first half of Ms. Wolownick’s sedentary and cerebral life. Growing up in New York City, she painted and played the piano in Jackson Heights, Queens. As an adult, she taught five languages ​​and wrote books, including a 2019 dissertation, “The End of Life: A Mother’s Story,” partly on her first ascent of El Cap. In 1990, a few years after moving to the suburb of Sacramento, where her husband grew up, she founded and conducted an orchestra in West Sacramento.

“They were wonderful and very satisfying things, but nothing was really physical. There was certainly no danger, ”she said. “I never thought in a million years that I could climb El Cap.” (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

Why did you start to climb?

Alex has always loved it. He was often very calm, even moody as a child, but he talked about climbing. Sport has real lingo – they say things like “jugging” and “rap” – and I had no idea what it was saying. It pained me that I couldn’t relate to him on this. I thought I was going to try it out so that at least we could talk.

How did you try it?

About 10 years ago Alex was home with an injury so I asked him to take me to the climbing gym. I thought I was going to get to know the equipment and climb halfway up the wall and come home and be happy. I did the first climb and climbed to about 45ft, and was totally surprised that I wasn’t scared at all. So I did 12 more climbs that day and loved it.

How was your life before that?

Total turmoil. My husband, Charles, died at the age of 55 at the Phoenix airport a month after I divorced and I became the executor of his estate. My father had just died and I was also taking care of his estate. Alex almost died snowshoeing in 2004 when he was 19. So I started to run, little by little, and I ended up becoming a runner. There was nothing in life that I did for me and running was for me. The escalation turned out to be the same, an escape, but it took courage.

How did you overcome the challenges to climb?

Climbing is very physical and there is so much to learn about the equipment, the physics, the angles, everything.

I was just a bumpy old middle-aged woman completely taken up with chores and housework. I was scared too, and sometimes you need a little help doing something totally new and foreign to you. But after a month or two, I had enough conversations with myself so I said, OK, today you’re not coming home from work. You go directly to the climbing room. And I did. It has become a routine. Climbing was like a key to unlocking that door of a lifetime. It was wonderful.

How did you prepare for El Capitan?

I went to Yosemite to train three days a week for 18 straight weeks. I would hike and rock climb. I’ve never been able to do push-ups or pull-ups, so I took one of those pull-up bars that you can put in a gate and started working on it. Every time I walk past I do 10 pull-ups. I do about 50 pull-ups a day now. These are not ground pulls, but nonetheless, for me, they are extraordinary. Climbing Lurking Fear was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, but just being on El Cap is a headache. Your life is changing.

How Has Rock Climbing Changed Your Life?

I have learned to suffer from all kinds of discomfort because what you get out of it is worth it. The same goes for anyone who wants to follow a path of happiness. There is a lot of suffering. With climbing, you just have to face it. It’s not like you can say “Oh it’s raining, let’s get back to the car” when you’re 2,500 feet above sea level. It is such a privilege to be up there. Climbers can travel to the most unimaginable, beautiful, and inspiring places, and the only way to experience them is to work hard.

What would you say to people who are stuck or afraid to make changes that could benefit them?

First you need to understand why you think you can’t do something and ask yourself if that’s a valid point. Look, there’s someone out there telling you every step of the way what to eat, what to wear, that you can’t sleep without this medicine, and it just doesn’t make sense. You can decide for yourself what you think you can do. It’s so sad when people say, oh, I’m 50, I can’t… fill in the blank. Try anyway! We do not care! You might be surprised.


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