Pearl Johnson, age 9, and Dierdre Wolownick, at age 66, are the youngest and the oldest women, respectively, to climb the Big Stone. The two recently spent a fall day climbing together 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 same formation, when the two extraordinary women 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.”
Yosemite draws climbers from all over the world for its sweeping walls, beautiful polished stone, and enormous waterfalls. To Pearl, who was raised in the park and took up climbing at age 2, the sport is part of her culture. She’s climbed Half Dome’s southwest shoulder via Snake Dike, she also 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 year, Selah Schneiter, age 10, held the record for the youngest ascent of the formation.
Pearl did the route with her mother Janet and family friend Nick Sullens. Janet and Nick placed and removed the gear and hauled the bags up the wall for their multiday ascent while Pearl used handled ascenders to climb the team’s ropes. After three nights and four days, they topped out under 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.”
In 2017, Wolownick, a teacher and musician who picked up climbing at age 58, did El Cap’s Lurking Fear in a day with her son Alex Honnold and Samuel Crossley. The ascent took 13 hours up and six down. She ascended a rope just as Pearl had done over four days. Wolownick picked up the sport to better understand her son and she’s since climbed all over the world.
Families That Climb Together Stick Together
Climbing El Cap via ascenders isn’t new. Back in 1989, adaptive climber Mark Wellman used them to summit the Big Stone, making him the first paraplegic to ascend the wall. After the climb, Wellman with his partner that led the route, Mike Corbett, got invited to the White House.
To some, climbing means ascending a fixed rope, to others, it means placing rock protection and reading the rock for weaknesses. These differences in style are what makes climbing so great, it is whatever the participant wants it to be. Last November, for example, I climbed El Cap with adaptive athlete Wayne Willoughby who used ascenders to get up the wall. Over those 35 some hours, I observed that his fight, grit and determination were just as strong as my own, probably stronger. He, like Pearl, Wolownick, and Wellman, earned every inch of his ascent.
As far as the oldest person 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 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
As seen in the Nose Speed record film in Reel Rock 14, ascending ropes is hard work. For example, in a story Wolownick wrote of her day with Honnold on Lurking Fear, she said, “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.”
Talking With Alex Honnold’s Mom: The Oldest Woman to Climb El Capitan
That’s why this Halloween, as the hot morning sun reflected off El Capitan’s slabs, I joined Pearl, her mother Janet, and Dierdre for a day of climbing. Our path was a line of fixed rope that leads from the ground to 1,000 feet up the southeast face to reach Heart Ledges, the training ground that Wolownick used to prepare for her ascent of Lurking Fear. This is the El Cap commute, a highway used by dozens of parties each year to haul their gear to a staging area on the wall before continuing to the top. It can take from minutes to hours to ascend each rope. On the day we went climbing, a team above was hauling hundreds of pounds of gear ahead of us, which caused us several hour delays. But it was still a blast.
“I had a really nice time,” Pearl says. “That day was super fun to go out with Dierdre. Alex and Dierdre inspire me. I don’t want to climb El Cap by myself (like Alex did in Free Solo), but I’d like to do it in a day. The Nose would be fun.”
At one anchor on the wall, we made conversation, ate snacks and shared our experiences on El Cap. The lines to Heart Ledges follow a featureless wall of gray stone polished by the millennia. Without a single hold to grab onto, climbing the lines forces you to rely 100 percent on your ascenders. Just being up a short way (a few hundred feet) is a powerful experience, and the higher you get, the more intense the feeling becomes. The feeling is the strongest during in the last few hundred feet, where people below look like ants.
The exposure makes you focus more intensely on what’s going on around you; this isn’t the place to drop a phone or water bottle as these items will surely explode when they hit the ground. Up here, awareness of your mortality becomes stronger too.
At noon we headed down. Pearl had to get back to class and prepare for trick-or-treating later that day. One after the other we rappelled, with Pearl and me going down last; though Pearl controlled her speed of descent, she stayed clipped to me for added safety. Once on the ground, Wolownick checked her phone for texts from Honnold, who was nearing the top of the route New Dawn, located climber’s right of the Nose. As Pearl and Janet ran down the trail, Wolownick and I took our time. We stopped at Free Rider, the route her son climbed without ropes in Free Solo, and she walked up and touched the starting holds for the first time. Then we walked over the Nose and she explored that route too. I showed her the route’s iconic features, including the Boot Flake and the Great Roof, two of the most recognizable sections of El Cap. Then we walked out to El Cap Meadow and gazed up at the wall and she tried to make out her son on New Dawn, his latest free route that he was completing that day with Tommy Caldwell. Later that day, a text came in from him. “We did it,” it said, meaning they’d just ticked off their route rated 5.13+. That night everyone celebrated over dinner on the valley floor.
Climbing El Capitan With Adaptive Athlete Wayne Willoughby
As for what’s next, in 2020, Pearl aims to make a one-day ascent of climb El Cap via the Nose. She’s already able to lead sport climbs. She’s also led crack routes with gear pre-placed by her parents. This winter Janet and Pearl plan to visit Red Rocks for long free routes.
Dierdre, who is still recovering from corrective foot surgery 10 months ago, is slowly getting her strength back. During breaks for her book tour for her memoir The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, she’s learning how to aid climb and lead crack pitches. She’s looking forward to spending her first night on the wall this spring.