Sitting in the audience during the premiere of “Free Solo” in Yosemite earlier this year, with palms sweating as I watched Alex Honnold tick off his multi-year goal of climbing El Capitan with nothing but a pair of shoes on his feet and a chalk bag around his waist, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Meanwhile, Dierdre Wolownick (Alex’s mom) sat nearby watching her son on the big screen. I can only imagine what she thought when she first saw the film.
“I had no idea he was going to free solo El Cap,” Wolownick tells ASN from her place in Sacramento. “I was with Alex the day before he did the climb. We went hiking in Yosemite and he never said anything about it. After the hike, he said he was tired and was going to go to bed early.
“The next morning while I was headed to Portland my daughter told me the news. That’s how I found out. It floored me. I pulled over at a picnic area off I-5 and stayed there to process what I’d just heard.”
Of course she knew his reputation as the world’s greatest free soloist, but he kept his greatest plans under wraps.
Dierdr Wolownick grew up in New York City where she enjoyed biking in the city, roller skating, and ice skating. After that, she lived in Southern California and then Japan. She moved to Sacramento in 1985 the year Alex was born. Alex’s dad died in 2004.
Today Wolownick is a climber herself. That’s how she and I met when a mutual friend connected us a few years ago before “Free Solo” came out, to rope up at a scraggly cliff in Vermont called Smugglers’ Notch. As we made our way over the jagged, yet slick, talus to reach our route, she listed out the short films her son starred in and all the latest news about him. She was his biggest fan and I could feel her smile radiate as she shared his accomplishments.
That day on the rocks I could tell that climbing was new to her and she struggled to find her footing on the stone. Hiking the steep and rugged trail to and from the route, a 20-minute affair one way, wore her out. But she put the work in and is now leading 5.10s at her local gym.
She’s since visited world class climbing areas in France, Greece, and Mexico. One of her favorite places to climb in the States is The Gunks in New York, a multi-pitch crag known for its horizontal roofs and challenging face climbing.
Today, she’s fit, having trained obsessively (just like her son) in order to ascend the world-famous big wall. She made 17 separate trips to Yosemite in order to get ready. After months of demanding hiking to elevate her cardio and endurance and also by practicing jumaring (ascending a rope via mechanical ascenders) she made it up El Cap’s route Lurking Fear in 13 hours with Alex – an ascent that put her in the record books for becoming the oldest woman to climb El Cap, at age 66.
That was on Halloween 2017. After that day, she began pushing herself toward her own climbing goals, those without Alex by her side.
To prepare for Lurking Fear, she jumared to Heart Ledges located 1,000 feet up El Cap. When she first tried going up the climbing ropes (often) fixed in place, she found herself 20 feet off the ground and remembers thinking, “what would I do if something happened?”
“I talked myself through the next 5 feet, and then the next 5,” she tells ASN. “I shut off my fears. If you want it badly enough you can talk yourself through anything.”
Every year on her birthday, Alex takes her up the finest moderate routes in the Sierra. This year was different, however, and she visited Yosemite alone, winding her way up the steep mountain roads from Sacramento in her little car to reach America’s climbing mecca. Unlike Alex, she always climbs with a rope.
Going full-bore into projects is how Wolownick is wired, which is how she made it through four marathons in years past. In 2018 she wrote two books. “Doing both books at the same time was nuts,” she says. One is a French textbook and one is her memoir titled The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story” due out this May through Mountaineers Books.
Before dedicating herself to climbing, Wolownick worked as a teacher for 44 years. During this time she raised both Alex and her daughter Stasia, who is two years older than Alex. In 1990, she founded the West Sacramento Community Orchestra, which she conducted for four years.
While completing her two books, Wolownick also joined her son on the “Free Solo” film tour. She attended the premieres in New York City, Yosemite, and Los Angeles.
“They were fascinating,” she says. “It was also fun to hang out with the climbing greats, some of whom I’d already met thanks to Alex, including Tommy Caldwell, Peter Croft, and John Long. I’m Mom, that’s my in to this secret society.”
Wolownick is now training for her first big wall that she aims to complete without Alex leading the way. Though she doesn’t have immediate plans to climb El Cap again in the near future, she does have her eyes set on smaller walls in Yosemite, including the South Face of Washington Column. She tried it earlier this year, but the wall was so packed with other teams that she got crowded out. She plans to return this spring.
You can pre-order Wolownick’s inspirational memoir, “The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story” from Mountaineers Books.
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