70-Year-Old Dierdre Wolownick Sets Record and Climbs Yosemite’s El Capitan

Dierdre Wolownick on her 10-hour climb to the top of El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley in September.

Dierdre Wolownick has become the oldest woman to climb to the top of El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. (Image: via Jake Myhre)

You may remember Alex Honnold, the professional rock climber known for being the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Now, it’s his mother’s turn to be in the spotlight for climbing that formidable rock formation. Ten years ago, Dierdre Wolownick took up rock climbing in order to get closer to her son, and just recently, on her 70th birthday, she scaled El Capitan with a group of friends, making her the oldest woman to ever do so.

A writer and foreign language teacher by trade, Dierdre Wolownick says she envisions climbing to be the same as learning a foreign language. The key to success is taking one small step at a time and then moving to the next. She had climbed El Capitan previously in 2017 along with her son, taking 13 hours to climb up and 6 hours to climb down. She admits that climbing the peak at 70 does take a toll on both mind and body but the result is satisfying enough. 

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Dierdre Wolownick described the journey to the El Capitan peak as a grueling one. However, all the pain and effort were worth it. She made it to the summit before sunset with her team, and there she celebrated with birthday cupcakes and sipped champagne. Honnold is of course quite happy with his mother’s achievements, and said: “I think she’s a perfect example of getting inspired by something, getting passionate about something, and discovering it in middle age.”

Dierdre Wolownick holds a cupcake with a candle in it after climbing to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
She celebrated with birthday cupcakes at the summit. (Image: via Jannette Wing Pazer)

A few years ago, Honnold took his mother to Pipeworks in Sacramento, a climbing gym. Slowly, Wolownick became interested in the sport. Eventually, she published a memoir about her experiences climbing along with her son, The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story. The “sharp” in climbing refers to the lead end, and the person at the sharp end must serve as the guide along the route while securing the rope for all the other climbers.

When Wolownick started climbing with her son, he would be at the sharp end, but she eventually became able to take on that responsibility. She wrote in her book: “As a mother, I marveled at this process of swapping leads. Parents and children often wind up changing roles in life, as they get older. But never, I thought, is that transformation as obvious as when they climb together.” The mother-son duo is seen climbing and hiking in and around the Yosemite National Park a lot. They are quite popular in the region and have a huge fan following.

Dierdre Wolownick with her son Alex Honnold in their climbing gear.
The mother-son duo is seen climbing and hiking in and around the Yosemite National Park a lot. (Image: via Dierdre Wolownick)

Dierdre Wolownick reaches the summit

When Dierdre Wolownick, along with her team reached the summit, they were all exhausted but very delighted. They realized the moment was absolutely special. During the latest climbing experience, Wolownick faced risks a number of times but these failed to deter her.

While the feat achieved by Wolownick may make many stunned, the fact is she has kept on learning new skills her entire life. For example, she has worked as a musician, language teacher, and author. In her 40s, she learned how to swim. In her 50s, she started running and that was followed by learning how to climb. To ensure she could complete the El Capitan climb, Wolownick trained hard for 18 weeks. She said: “I learned how to suffer through all kinds of discomfort because what you get from it makes it worthwhile. It’s the same for anybody who wants to follow a path of bliss. There’s a lot of suffering. With climbing, you just have to deal.”

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