I’m grateful that Dierdre Wolownick can’t see me squirming on the other end of the line as she nonchalantly lists the gut-churning details of a surgeon’s recent work on her beleaguered feet: “He had to saw bones in, like, four different places. And he had to insert a rod at one of my toes that went up to the middle of my foot. And had to put a plate on another bone…”
Sure, it sounds bad, but it’s a nuisance more than anything—all she wants to do is get back out on the rock. Wolownick, a writer, educator, and musician perhaps better known as Alex Honnold’s Wildly Patient and Extremely Even-Keeled Mom, should have had the doc hack into her feet years ago. But she held off so she could ascend El Cap with her famous son, jugging 3,200 bicep-clenching feet up that storied granite face in a single day (on Lurking Fear, a route that typically takes at least four)—and at 66 years old, unknowingly becoming the oldest woman to ever do so.
None of this has been easy—not the least because Wolownick is actually afraid of heights.
She writes about the feat in her new memoir, The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, originally conceived as a chronicle of what it was like to raise Alex, a preternaturally strong kid who learned to walk—and, yes, climb—before he clocked a full calendar year on earth. But once Wolownick began sending drafts around, the feedback was universal: his story was actually her story, and she needed to tell it.
At times, that story is one of pain and loneliness. Of taking care of her polio-stricken mother as a kid. Of enduring a nearly silent marriage devoid of affection. Of putting the needs of others first to such an unfathomable degree that she was nearly friendless well into adulthood, sacrificing her sense of self in the process.
But then—and this is the best part—there was liberation, reached through a deep and abiding resilience brought to the surface when Wolownick begins long-distance running at age 55 with her daughter, Stasia, and as she starts following Alex up the walls of Yosemite just a few years later.
None of this has been easy—not the least because Wolownick is actually afraid of heights—but it’s been exactly what she needed to come into her own and recognize that for as strong and remarkable as both of her kids are, so, too, is she.
“Little by little, I’ve been finding that out that I really have no idea what my limit is. Yes, there have been many times where I thought to myself, Oh God, I can’t do this. This is beyond me. But once you’re up there, the only way off is up, and you just have to finish,” she says. “You just have to dig deeper and find something, because you’ve got to get off the stupid rock, you know?”
Here, Wolownick offers some thoughts on climbing, risk, and of course, what it’s really like being Alex Honnold’s mom (I mean, we had to ask):
On being “that kid’s mother”
I’ll never forget—[Alex] was winning some award at a film festival. I was sitting in the audience and they showed not [Free Solo], but a different one, but just as horrifically dangerous looking if you’ve never done that. One woman in front of me turned around and said to her friend who was sitting right next to me, “How would you like to be that kid’s mother?” [Laughs]
I get a lot of that. “That kid’s mother” had years to come to grips with several things and the fact that that’s all that he loves to do. You know, this is his overarching passion in life. It fulfills him. It makes him happy. It is his life. And if I were to negate that whole thing, I would not be part of his life at all.
How her view of risk has changed over the years
I’ve slowly bought into Alex’s understanding of risk—and I can see him rolling his eyes here, because he says this all the time—risk and consequence are two completely different things. Most people when they judge an activity like this, they’re going by the consequences. You know—if he falls off, he will die. End of story. But the risk is, you know, what’s the weather like that day? How does Alex feel? How does the skin on his fingers feel? Is the rock dry? Is there wind? All these other things feed the risk factor and he’s the only one who can judge that; we can’t. And if you trust his judgment, that’s the answer. You have to trust his judgment.
Her advice to other parents of adventure-seekers
Embrace what your child wants. A lot of parents have trouble with that. I mean, it’s not a little “mini me”—the child is his own or her own person. You have to let them explore their own bliss, you know? If they want to go rock climbing, you can’t be down on rock climbing all the time, because that just separates you more.
One good way to do that is try whatever the kid is doing, see what it’s like. My imagination about what [Alex] was doing out there when he was climbing was so different from the actual fact. I had no clue what it was like, but your imagination fills in all the gaps—and I was filling in all these gaps with some horrendous things. That’s where most people are; their mind is nothing but gaps.
What she’s learned from her kids
I referred to [2000-2007] as the “black hole” of my life. That’s when everybody was dying left and right. And Alex almost died [read the book for the story!]. I never had a minute to myself—I was executor of Charlie’s estate and I had five houses to run on my own, and I never had time to ask for help. I just cooked all day long, seven days a week for years.
While I was doing that, my kids were out there following their bliss, if you want to call it that. A hackneyed expression nowadays, but that’s what they were doing. They were so happy doing what they were doing and so fulfilled. And I was not. I was completely taken by obligations, one hundred percent, for years. And it’s a horrible place to be. You have no self left.
Once in a while, I would join one of them—I’d go on a bike ride with Stasia or something—and it was wonderful. I learned to seek out the bliss moments, and little by little, I re-found that in my life thanks to them. Little by little, they drew me back into life, as it were, after this period of hell. And I just went oh-so-willingly.
Her bucket list climbs
I’ve done two big walls, Royal Arches and El Cap. A lot of people sleep on them, but we didn’t of course—I went with Alex, and you go really fast; no lollygagging with Alex!
But the South Face of Washington Column is where a lot of people do their first big wall and sleep on the wall overnight. I went to do that just this past year with a friend and there were so many people that we just got crowded out, so we didn’t get to do it. So that’s probably the first big thing that I want to do after I get back to climbing. I want to see what it’s like, feel what it’s like, experience what it’s like to sleep on the wall.
I have a lot of goals calling me—I just have to live long enough!
Why she doesn’t fixate on age
It’s in your head. It’s whatever you believe. You know, my parents were old when they were in their 40s; that’s the way they thought. The way they acted. It was their assumptions about life. I’m not like that; I think you can talk yourself into anything. Age is just a number, as long as your body is willing. Age is meaningless.
What she’s most proud of in life
If you ask that question to a parent, there are two different answers: one for the parent and one for the non-parent, for the person. As a parent, of course, my kids turned out wonderful. I’m very proud of them and that gives me enormous satisfaction. For me, myself, I’m very glad that I had the opportunity with them to break out of that secure mold, that secure attitude and approach to life. I bought into some of that myself—I was a teacher, I was trying to save for retirement, I was trying to do this and that, be safe. Then everything changed—and I’m so glad it did.