Alex Honnold's mom Dierdre Wolownick

Who Is Alex Honnold’s Mom? Oldest Woman to Summit El Cap Pens Moving Memoir

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At 67, Dierdre Wolownick is every bit the adventure badass her world-famous son is.

Though you might not recognize her by name, Dierdre Wolownick was in an Oscar-winning feature film and holds the record as the oldest woman to summit Yosemite’s El Capitan. But to you (and many of us), she’s much better known for another achievement: being Alex Honnold’s mom.

In her new memoir, “The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story,” Wolownick recounts not only her role as matriarch to the climbing world’s king but also as a daughter and wife who struggled to find her own idea of happiness.

Now an award-winning author and motivational speaker, Wolownick, 67, has turned a new chapter in life, following her children’s adventurous lead. She began running at age 54 and completed several marathons. Then, at 58, she went on her first climbs (under the watchful eye of you know who). And at 66, Wolownick became the oldest woman to summit El Capitan.

 

You can read all about Wolownick’s story in “The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story,” available from Mountaineers Books and at booksellers worldwide. Read on for a teaser from the story.

The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story

The Sharp End of Life by Dierdre Wolownick

The following is excerpted with permission from “The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story” (Mountaineers Books, May 2019) by Dierdre Wolownick.

“Hello, mother?”

A groggy, mumbling voice — my son’s voice, almost unrecognizable — on the phone. He sounded like he was on drugs, or drunk, but I knew he never did either of those. His climbing buddies called him The Monk.

“Where am I? Why am I all covered in blood?”

I caught the phone as it fell out of one hand.

“Alex?” I tried to breathe enough to keep talking. All I could hear was my heart pounding. “Where are you?” Hadn’t he just asked me that? “Are you okay?” How could he be okay, covered in blood?

“Yeah . . . ” He hesitated. “W-Where am I?”

My mind was racing, but I slowed down my voice so he could concentrate on it. He wasn’t drugged, or drunk. He was covered in blood. Possibilities flashed through my whirling brain.

“Aren’t you on Tallac?” He had left the night before, Christmas night, so he could try out his late dad’s new snowshoes on an ascent of Mount Tallac, which rises prominently above South Lake Tahoe to almost ten thousand feet.

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Are you still on Tallac now?”

“Yeah. I guess I fell . . . ”

His voice kept fading out, whether from atmospheric conditions or his own condition. Not a good sign, either way. As I tried to keep him talking and find out the extent of his injuries, I ran down the hall with the old landline handset clutched in my hand. I charged into his sister’s room, where she lay sleeping off the festivities from Christmas day.

“Stasia!” I woke her and handed her the phone as she rubbed her droopy eyes. “It’s Alex. He’s hurt. Keep him talking. Don’t let him fall asleep!”

As fast as I could grab my brand-new, one-day-old cell phone, I dialed 911 and explained what was happening. After some background noise, they transferred my call to Search and Rescue (S&R) at South Lake Tahoe.

While I waited, the serendipity made me shake: Alex had been able to call me only because I’d given cell phones to all three of us for Christmas, the day before. With my son always out somewhere climbing mountains, I thought he should have one so he could call for help, or call me.

I never imagined he’d put it to use the very next day.

“Ask him what he sees to the west,” a metallic voice commanded on my cell phone. They were trying to locate him.

I relayed the question to Stasia, who was fully awake now, and she asked her brother. Apparently he was aware enough to look around, think clearly, and reply coherently. We continued this four-way attempt at locating him for quite some time, back and forth across two phone lines, until I heard men mumbling on the S&R line that they knew where he was.

They’d found him! I forced myself to breathe again.


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Adam Ruggiero is an all-sport activity junkie - from biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming. If it's outside, it's worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.