As It Happens

Woman who climbed El Capitan on her 70th birthday says you can do it too

Dierdre Wolownick, mother of world-famous climber and Free Solo star Alex Honnold, is believed to be the oldest woman to scale the Yosemite National Park rock formation.

Dierdre Wolownick, mom of Free Solo star Alex Honnold, believed to be oldest woman to scale the rock formation

Dierdre Wolownick, 70, scales the east side of El Capitan, a rock formation in California's Yosemite National Park. (Jake Myhre)

Storry Transcript

Dierdre Wolownick says it's never too late to start a new hobby. And she should know.

Wolownick started climbing at the age of 60 in an effort to be closer to her son, Alex Honnold, a world-famous climber and star of the documentary Free Solo. 

Now, 10 years later, she's scaled the formidable El Capitan rock formation at California's Yosemite National Park for the second time, on her 70th birthday. 

"You have to think about where I was 10 years ago. I was lumpy. I was working all the time. I didn't have time for this. I didn't think I could do it," Wolownick told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"But you never know until you go try. You know, it turns out that you could do anything you set your mind to if you just approach it by baby steps, you know, just backwards engineer what you want to do."

Wolownick is believed to be the oldest woman to ever reach the summit of El Capitan. In doing so, she beat her own record, which she set on a climbing expedition there with her son when she was 66.

Gerry Bloch claimed the title of oldest person to climb El Capitan in 1999 at the age of 81. 

Cake, champagne and one heck of a view 

On Sept. 23, Wolownick and 10 friends set out on a journey to scale El Capitan for her birthday.

The first time she climbed to the top four years ago, she and her son took a treacherous route known as "Lurking Fear." This time, she was a bit easier on herself, instead climbing the trail people generally use for descending. 

Still, she says the 6-hour ascension was equal parts brutal and beautiful.

"El Cap is a moving experience. Just going into Yosemite Valley is a heady thing. It's kind of like walking into an ancient cathedral," she said.

"For someone who is new to climbing like me — I've only been climbing for 10 years — it's scary.

Wolownick is believed to be the oldest woman ever to ever climb to the top of El Capitan — a record she says set when she was 66 and beat when she turned 70. (Jake Myhre)

But the pain and fear was worth it when they reached the top and took in the view.

"It's a multilayered kind of moment because I was so tired. I was exhausted physically. [But] I was so blown away mentally," she said. "Cerebrally? Emotionally? I'm not sure what the word is, but the views are amazing."

Wolownick says her ascent was made easier by the fact that four of her younger friends carried the equipment they needed to scale the mountain, camp overnight, and then climb back down.

"Unbeknown to me, one of them, Garet [McMackin], my main training partner … had carried up bottles of champagne and a little plastic flute glasses and even a little birthday cakes with candles," she said. 

"I was blown away. It was so nice of them."

Wolownick enjoys some well-earned birthday cake at the peak of El Capitan. (Jannette Wing Pazer)

Wolownick first learned to climb to be closer to her son, a world-famous climber and the first person to scale El Capitan without ropes or safety equipment in 2017

"He would talk and talk about where he'd gone, what they'd done, who he did it with, and I didn't know what he was talking about, which is not a good way to relate to anybody," she said. 

Sometimes he used so much climbing jargon, she says couldn't even understand what he was saying. So one day, she asked him to take her to a rock climbing gym. 

"I've taught languages, 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," she said. 

"And I figured I would do a half a wall and I'd be happy and I'd go home a little more knowledgeable. But you know, that's not how it turned out."

Pictured here in a still from the documentary Free Solo, Alex Honnold was the first person to climb El Capitan with no ropes or safety equipment. (National Geographic Documentary Films)

Wolownick says if she went from a novice climber to a record-breaking climber in just four years, anyone can do just about anything they set their minds to. 

"I kind of have proven that. You know, at my age, to do El Cap is just not common," she said with a chuckle. "But anybody can do that by baby steps. I firmly believe this." 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it took Dierdre Wolownick and her friends 10 hours to ascend El Capitan. In fact, it took them six hours.
    Nov 05, 2021 12:23 PM ET

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