The mother of Alex Honnold, the record-breaking ‘Free Solo’ free climber, has made history for the second time as the oldest woman to climb El Capitan.
Dierdre Wolownick previously set this record in 2017 at the age of 66, which she wrote about in her book The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, and last month broke her own record aged 70.
Wolownick took up climbing 10 years ago to strengthen her relationship with her son, who in 2017 became the first to climb El Capitan, 3,000ft granite cliff face in Yosemite National Park, without ropes or protective gear. That same year, he took her up El Cap for the first time via the Lurking Fear route. Though known as the easiest route on the rock, the class 5.13 route involves 19 pitches and typically takes four days to complete. Wolownick, however, managed it in well under a day.
“Alex didn’t think I could do it… But that night, at 2am, after 13 hours up and 6 down, I became the oldest woman to climb El Capitan,” she recalled on am.
The two are frequently seen climbing and hiking around Yosemite.
A photo posted by on
In October 2021, Wolownick, decided to tackle the mammoth slab again, this time with ten friends for her 70th birthday. The group ascended via the East Ledges Descent Route, the typical descent route for climbers who hike down the steep face until they can continue no further on foot, then rappel down. In reverse, the Descent Route makes for a gruelling climb according to Wolonick.
“The granite slabs that lead you up that last third stretch for what seems like miles. Impossible to protect with rope or any other way. Just walk steeply uphill, endlessly, grabbing whatever tiny edges you can find,” she wrote, explaining that while a foot injury made the climb even more treacherous, it was psychological factors that posed the biggest obstacle.
“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.”
But all ended well, and according to the LA Times, the group reached the summit in time for sunset where they enjoyed cupcakes and wine in celebration. Wolownick says she’s still recovering from the feat.
“Climbing El Cap at 70 takes its toll, physically, mentally, emotionally. I’m not ‘down’ yet. Not sure I ever will be, completely.”
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.
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