A homemade sign written in French hangs in Dierdre Wolownick’s home office in Sacramento, California.
It reads “Vouloir, c’est pouvoir,” which means, “To want something, is to be able to do it.” It’s a motto that Dierdre has fully embraced in her life. She has written several books, taught five different languages, worked as an orchestra conductor, and both took up running and learned how to swim in her 40s and 50s.
Now, Dierdre is once again the oldest woman to summit El Capitan, the 3,000-foot nearly vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park that’s a famous rock climbing destination. Dierdre made the climb with a small group of friends in just six hours, camping at the summit overnight, and coming down in six and a half hours the next day. Most impressively, she did it all on her 70th birthday!
This isn’t the first time Dierdre has summited or set the record for “oldest woman to climb El Capitan.” She made the journey four years ago at age 66, just six years after she took up climbing. At the time, Dierdre tackled Lurking Fear, one of the most treacherous and challenging routes. She did it with the guidance of one of the most famous climbers in the world: her son, Alex Honnold.
In 2017, Alex famously climbed El Capitan completely free of ropes, harnesses, or any safety equipment at all. This man-versus-mountain adventure was the subject of an Oscar-winning film called “Free Solo,” which chronicled his journey to become the world’s first person to climb the peak free style.
Alex is the whole reason that Dierdre started climbing in the first place. Back in 2009, he was sidelined with an injury and staying with his mother when she asked him to take her to a climbing gym. He obliged, and she was instantly hooked! “I wanted to be part of his life, to share his triumphs as well as his disasters,” she explained in her 2019 memoir, “The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story.”
“Getting outdoors with my son filled in so many gaps in my education. I learned how little I knew about the mountains. About my own possibilities. About him.”
As a lifelong linguist, Dierdre approached the sport from an unusual standpoint.
“Alex has always loved it. He was often very quiet, even morose as a child, but he would talk about climbing,” she said. “The sport has real jargon — they say things like ‘jugging’ and ‘rapping’ — and I had no clue what he was saying. It pained me that I couldn’t relate to him over this. I figured I would try it so at least we could talk.”
Describing herself as “just a middle age woman completely taken with jobs and chores,” Dierdre began training hard, going to Yosemite to train 3 days a week for 18 consecutive weeks. She installed a pull-up bar in her home and now does up to 50 pull-ups a day. For her, “Climbing was like a key opening this lifelong door. It was wonderful.”
Alex says his mother overcomes her physical limitations through sheer force of will.
“She is willing to stick with it for a long, long time and just keep grinding,” he said. “I think she’s a perfect example of getting inspired by something, getting passionate about something and discovering it in middle age.”
Now that Dierdre has once-again set a climbing record and spent the night on the top of El Cap, she hopes to inspire other people to never stop learning and trying new things.
You first have to figure out why you think you can’t do something and ask yourself if that’s a valid point,” said Dierdre. “Look, there’s somebody telling you every step of your life what to eat, what to wear, that you can’t sleep without this drug, and it’s all nonsense. You can decide for yourself what you think you’re capable of. It’s just so sad when people say, oh, I’m 50, I can’t … fill in the blank. Try it anyway! Who cares! You might be surprised.”
What a beautiful way to bond with your son and grow as a person. Dierdre’s story is a wonderful reminder that it’s never too late to get off the couch and discover your next passion.
Don’t forget to share and encourage others to do the same.
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