The Youngest and Oldest Women to Climb El Capitan Are a 9-Year-Old and Alex Honnold’s Mom

Pearl Johnson, age 9, and Dierdre Wolownick, at age 66, are the youngest and the oldest ladies, respectively, to climb the Huge Stone. The two just lately spent a fall day climbing collectively in Yosemite. I joined them this Halloween, on the second anniversary of Wolownick’s ascent of El Capitan, and six weeks after Pearl Johnson’s ascent of the identical formation, when the 2 extraordinary ladies collaborated to ascend ropes partway up El Cap.

“It’s unusual to be up there with someone so small,” says Wolownick, now age 68. “It was fascinating from a mom’s point of view. It’s not often that you meet a 9-year-old who can routinely do that.”

Dierdre, Pearl and Pearl's mom Janet on the Big Stone
Dierdre, Pearl and Janet on the Huge Stone. Chris Van Leuven

Yosemite attracts climbers from everywhere in the world for its sweeping partitions, lovely polished stone, and huge waterfalls. To Pearl, who was raised within the park and took up climbing at age 2, the game is a part of her tradition. She’s climbed Half Dome’s southwest shoulder through Snake Dike, she additionally did the 15-pitch Royal Arches route, and from September 13 to 16, she ascended the Triple Direct route on 3,000-foot El Cap. Earlier this yr, Selah Schneiter, age 10, held the file for the youngest ascent of the formation.

Pearl did the route along with her mom Janet and household good friend Nick Sullens. Janet and Nick positioned and eliminated the gear and hauled the luggage up the wall for his or her multiday ascent whereas Pearl used dealt with ascenders to climb the group’s ropes. After three nights and 4 days, they topped out beneath rain and hail.

“We trained on the lines to Heart Ledges to get strong,” Janet says. “She was pretty good at jumaring (ascending) on Triple Direct. That was until we got higher on El Cap and when it went from slabby to overhanging. It’s harder for everyone when it gets steep.”

Dierdre on El Cap
Dierdre on the fastened traces main to Coronary heart Ledges. Chris Van Leuven

In 2017, Wolownick, a trainer and musician who picked up climbing at age 58, did El Cap’s Lurking Worry in a day along with her son Alex Honnold and Samuel Crossley. The ascent took 13 hours up and six down. She ascended a rope simply as Pearl had executed over 4 days. Wolownick picked up the game to higher perceive her son and she’s since climbed everywhere in the world.

Climbing El Cap through ascenders isn’t new. Again in 1989, adaptive climber Mark Wellman used them to summit the Huge Stone, making him the primary paraplegic to ascend the wall. After the climb, Wellman along with his accomplice that led the route, Mike Corbett, obtained invited to the White House.

To some, climbing means ascending a fastened rope, to others, it means putting rock safety and studying the rock for weaknesses. These variations in fashion are what makes climbing so nice, it’s regardless of the participant needs it to be. Final November, for instance, I climbed El Cap with adaptive athlete Wayne Willoughby who used ascenders to rise up the wall. Over these 35 some hours, I noticed that his combat, grit and willpower have been simply as robust as my very own, most likely stronger. He, like Pearl, Wolownick, and Wellman, earned each inch of his ascent.

So far as the oldest individual to climb El Cap, in 1999 Gary Bloch, 81, did the Aquarian Wall. “Bloch came up last, ascending the rope by special devices called jumars. His movements were methodical, unhurried. He looked every day of his 81 years,” says the story of his climb within the San Francisco Chronicle.

Pearl on El Cap
Pearl a few hundred ft up the Huge Stone. Chris Van Leuven

As seen within the Nose Speed record film in Reel Rock 14, ascending ropes is difficult work. For instance, in a story Wolownick wrote of her day with Honnold on Lurking Worry, she mentioned, “My shin was throbbing, probably purple where the strap and buckle rubbed with each step. My two toes that don’t bend screamed each time I jammed them against the wall. Both thumbs had cracked open and were bleeding.”

The day after Wolownick’s landmark ascent, “I expected to be absolutely worked,” she says. “We went to bed at 3 a.m. I woke up at 8 a.m., and was fine. I was a little sore here and there like from gym class, but I was OK. It took me a lot longer to come down mentally than physically.”

That’s why this Halloween, as the new morning solar mirrored off El Capitan’s slabs, I joined Pearl, her mom Janet, and Dierdre for a day of climbing. Our path was a line of fastened rope that leads from the bottom to 1,000 ft up the southeast face to attain Coronary heart Ledges, the coaching floor that Wolownick used to put together for her ascent of Lurking Worry. That is the El Cap commute, a freeway utilized by dozens of events annually to haul their gear to a staging space on the wall earlier than persevering with to the highest. It might take from minutes to hours to ascend every rope. On the day we went climbing, a group above was hauling tons of of kilos of drugs forward of us, which triggered us a number of hour delays. But it surely was nonetheless a blast.

“I had a really nice time,” Pearl says. “That day was tremendous enjoyable to exit with Dierdre. Alex and Dierdre encourage me. I don’t need to climb El Cap on my own (like Alex did in Free Solo), however I’d like to do it in a day. The Nostril could be enjoyable.”

At one anchor on the wall, we made dialog, ate snacks and shared our experiences on El Cap. The traces to Coronary heart Ledges observe a featureless wall of grey stone polished by the millennia. With out a single maintain to seize onto, climbing the traces forces you to rely 100 % in your ascenders. Simply being up a brief manner (a few hundred ft) is a highly effective expertise, and the upper you get, the extra intense the sensation turns into. The feeling is the strongest throughout in the previous couple of hundred ft, the place individuals beneath seem like ants.

The author and Pearl rappelling
The creator (left) and Pearl descending El Cap. Janet Johnson

The publicity makes you focus extra intensely on what’s happening round you; this isn’t the place to drop a cellphone or water bottle as these things will certainly explode once they hit the bottom. Up right here, consciousness of your mortality turns into stronger too.

At midday we headed down. Pearl had to get again to class and put together for trick-or-treating later that day. One after the opposite we rappelled, with Pearl and me taking place final; although Pearl managed her pace of descent, she stayed clipped to me for added security. As soon as on the bottom, Wolownick checked her cellphone for texts from Honnold, who was nearing the highest of the route New Daybreak, situated climber’s proper of the Nostril. As Pearl and Janet ran down the path, Wolownick and I took our time. We stopped at Free Rider, the route her son climbed with out ropes in Free Solo, and she walked up and touched the beginning holds for the primary time. Then we walked over the Nostril and she explored that route too. I confirmed her the route’s iconic options, together with the Boot Flake and the Nice Roof, two of probably the most recognizable sections of El Cap. Then we walked out to El Cap Meadow and gazed up on the wall and she tried to make out her son on New Dawn, his newest free route that he was finishing that day with Tommy Caldwell. Later that day, a textual content got here in from him. “We did it,” it mentioned, which means they’d simply ticked off their route rated 5.13+. That evening everybody celebrated over dinner on the valley flooring.

As for what’s subsequent, in 2020, Pearl goals to make a one-day ascent of climb El Cap through the Nostril. She’s already ready to lead sport climbs. She’s additionally led crack routes with gear pre-placed by her dad and mom. This winter Janet and Pearl plan to go to Purple Rocks for lengthy free routes.

Dierdre, who remains to be recovering from corrective foot surgical procedure 10 months in the past, is slowly getting her energy again. Throughout breaks for her e-book tour for her memoir The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, she’s studying how to help climb and lead crack pitches. She’s wanting ahead to spending her first evening on the wall this spring.


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