“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the stories of people who decide to make their dreams come true on their own.
At 40, Dierdre Wolownick taught himself to swim. She started running in her 50s. Then, at 60, she became a climber – and not just any climber. Four years ago, at the age of 66, Ms. Wolownick made a record-breaking climb up El Capitan, the granite monolith of Yosemite National Park, which has some of the longest and most challenging climbing routes in the world. And she did it in style. The route she took at the time, Lurking Fear, usually took four days. Mrs. Wolownick did it all in one.
Of course, it helped that the author and now sponsored athlete had one of the most accomplished climbers in the world by her side: her famous son Alex Honnold, the star of the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo” in 2018. The film traces her son’s breathtaking journey who was the first person to climb “El Cap” without a rope or safety equipment. Her own exertion – involving the use of ropes – was “by far” the most demanding thing she had ever done, said Ms. Wolownick.
When she reached the summit of El Capitan in 2017, she was the oldest woman to make the climb, according to Hans Florine, an American climber with a record 179 ascents of the vertical rock formation.
And it hasn’t slowed down. In late September, Ms. Wolownick returned to El Cap without her son to climb it again, this time to celebrate her 70th birthday with a small group of friends and guides. On this adventure, she went up an easier route that climbers typically use to descend. It took her six hours to get to the top, and after camping there overnight, she came back down the next day in six and a half hours.
The grueling climbs marked a departure from the first half of Mrs. Wolownick’s sedentary and mental life. Growing up in New York, she painted and played the piano in Jackson Heights, Queens. As an adult, she taught five languages and wrote books, including her 2019 memoir “The Sharp End of Life: a Mother’s Story”, about her first ascent of El Cap, among other things. In 1990, a few years after moving to the suburbs of Sacramento, where her husband grew up, she formed and conducted an orchestra in West Sacramento.
“They were wonderful, very satisfying things, but nothing was really physical. There was certainly no danger, ”she said. “In a million years I would never have thought that I could climb El Cap.” (The following interview has been edited and shortened.)
Why did you start climbing?
Alex always loved it. As a child he was often very quiet, even sullen, but he talked about climbing. The sport has real jargon – they say things like “jugging” and “rapping” – and I had no idea what he was saying. It pained me that I couldn’t identify with him because of it. I thought I would try so that we could at least talk.
How did you try it
About 10 years ago Alex was at home with an injury so I asked him to take me to the climbing gym. I figured I’d get to know the equipment, climb half the wall and come home and be happy. I did the first climb and went all the way up, about 45 feet, and I was totally surprised that I wasn’t scared at all. So I did 12 more climbs that day and I really enjoyed it.
How was your life before?
Total commotion. My husband, Charles, died at the Phoenix Airport at the age of 55 a month after I divorced him and became the administrator of the estate. My father had just died and I was taking care of his estate too. Alex almost died snowshoeing in 2004 when he was 19 years old. So I gradually started running and eventually became a runner. There was nothing in life that I did for myself and running was for me. Climbing turned out to be the same, an escape, but it took courage.
How did you cope with the climbing challenges?
Climbing is very physical and there is so much to learn about the equipment, the physics, the angles – everything.
I was just a lumpy, middle-aged old woman completely consumed by jobs and duties. I was scared too, and sometimes you need a little help to do something completely new and alien. But after a month or two, I had enough conversations with myself, and so I said, okay, you’re not going home after work today. You go straight to the climbing hall. And I did. It became routine. Climbing was like a key that opened that lifelong door. It was wonderful.
How did you prepare for El Capitan?
I went to Yosemite to exercise three days a week for 18 weeks in a row. I would hike and climb. I’ve never been able to do push-ups or pull-ups, so I got one of those pull-up bars that you can stick in a door and started working on it. Every time I pass it, I do 10 pull-ups. I now do up to 50 pull-ups a day. They’re not pull-ups from the ground, but they are still extraordinary to me. Climbing Lurking Fear was still by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but just being on El Cap is a flash of inspiration. Your life is changing.
How has climbing changed your life?
I’ve learned to endure all kinds of ailments because what you get from it makes it worthwhile. The same is true for anyone who wants to follow a path of bliss. There is a lot of suffering. You just have to deal with climbing. It’s not that you can say, ‘Oh, it’s raining, let’s go back to the car’ when you’re at 2,500 feet. It’s such a privilege to be up there. Climbers can go to the most unimaginable, beautiful, and inspiring places, and the only way to experience them is by doing hard work.
What would you say to people who are stuck or afraid of making changes that might be good for them?
You need to first find out why you think there is something you cannot do and ask yourself if that is a valid point. Listen, someone is telling you what to eat and wear at every step of your life that you cannot sleep without this drug and that is all nonsense. You can decide for yourself what you are capable of. It’s just so sad when people say, oh, I’m 50, I can’t … fill in the blank. Try anyway! Who cares! You might be surprised.
We’re looking for people who decide it’s never too late to switch up, change their life and make dreams come true. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.