We all know the motivational expression, “Never stop climbing”. Dierdre Wolownick took those words to heart – and literally to whole new heights. In 2017, Wolownick scaled the rock face to become the oldest woman to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan. Four years later, on her 70th birthday, she broke her own record by climbing the formidable edifice once again.
Wolownick only started climbing at the age of 60 to bond with her son, Alex Honnold, a world-famous climber. Honnold gained his own fame with his record-breaking climb up the 3,000ft granite rock face without ropes or safety gear. This feat was chronicled in the 2018 Academy award-winning documentary “Free Solo.”
“He would talk about [climbing] and I didn’t know what he was talking about, which is not a good way to relate to anybody,” she said.
He frequently used so much climbing jargon, she says couldn’t even understand what he was saying. So one day, she joined him on a session at his rock climbing gym.
“I’ve taught foreign languages all my life, and I don’t like not knowing what’s going on around me. So I asked him to take me to just show me the vocabulary, show me how to put the harness on all that stuff. I figured I would do a half a wall and I’d be happy and I’d go home a little more knowledgeable. But that’s not how it turned out.”
Wolownick quickly discovered her own passion for the activity and began going to the climbing gym regularly. “Climbing was like a key opening this lifelong door. It was wonderful,” she said.
Climbing El Capitan
Wolownick found hiking through nature exhilarating. The challenges include the need to grab whatever tiny edges you can find as you journey up steep hills. This includes grabbing small trees and edges of boulders. Traversing over boulder-filled riverbeds before laddering up ropes anchored into the wall where only your core strength keeps you vertical as you ascend was, for Wolownick, the ultimate journey. In the case of her second record-breaking hike up El Capitan, the final third of the trek stretches for what seems like miles. The climb was particularly difficult due to a foot injury and the fear of stumbling and falling into the valley below.
In her 2017 climb with her son, Wolownick and Honnold chose a grueling journey. It took 13 hours up and six hours down on the Lurking Fear route, which normally takes four days to complete.
For her 2021 climb, she trained by hiking and climbing in Yosemite three days a week for 18 weeks. For the climb itself, she took it a bit easier. She climbed the trail people generally use for descending. Plus, friends came along for the trek. They helped carry the equipment to scale the mountain, camp overnight, and climb back down. As brutal as the journey was, the birthday surprise from her climbing partners at the summit made it all worthwhile: cupcakes and champagne.
Exploring New Hobbies
Do you think picking up a new hobby after a certain stage of life is fruitless? Wolownick points to her own accomplishments, going from a novice to a record-breaking climber in just four years.
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