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Ep68 Transcript – Interview with Dierdre Wolownick
Andrea Vahl: Every once in a while you meet someone who just blows you away. Deirdre Wolownick is that type of person. At age 70, she became the oldest woman to climb El Capitain for the second time. She broke her own record from when she climbed it previously. She speaks over seven languages, is a prolific author, writer, artist and plays instruments. She is truly amazing.
Tune into today’s episode as she really dives into her views on aging.
Hello dreamers. Welcome to the Late Starters Club, giving you the inspiration mindset and tools you need to start something midlife and beyond. Remember, it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
Hey, Late Starters, it’s your host Andrea Vahl, and I am joined today by the amazing Deirdre Wolownick, I can’t even read her bio in less than 10 minutes!
She is an accomplished writer and musician and she is the oldest woman climber of El Capitain, and she achieved that record at age 66. And then at age 70, she broke her own record. She has a new documentary coming out, called Climbing into Life. Welcome Deirdre.
Dierdre Wolownick: Thank you for inviting me.
Andrea Vahl: And you also speak five languages, right?
Dierdre Wolownick: More like eight.
Andrea Vahl: You’ve taught languages though in different continents that is just incredible. And you, a mom to Alex, who was the famous free solo climber of El Capitain.
He did that in? 2017.
Dierdre Wolownick: Yes.
Andrea Vahl: That is so amazing. So thanks again for being on the show. Just tell us a little bit about how this started, because you didn’t start climbing till later in life and you also didn’t start running marathons till later in life.
There are a lot of things that you started later in life. What prompted that endeavor?
Dierdre Wolownick: Well, that’s a very long story.
I’m not sure how far back you want me to go, you really need to read the book to get the whole preface to this new chapter in my life, as it were.
I was 55 when I started running because I knew that I couldn’t run because I grew up in a house filled with smoke all the time, cigar and cigarette smoke. Both my parents smoked all the time and our house was a gray cloud.
So anything more strenuous than getting up out of my chair and I would huff and puff. My lungs were shot from that. I assumed, “I can’t swim or run.” Or any of those things that require deep breathing, I couldn’t do that.
But a whole series of events and things happened for a period of 5, 6, 7 years in my life. I didn’t have a minute to myself, I was working two and a half jobs , people were dying left and right. I was taking care of estates and remodeling houses and working.
And my kids had just lost their dad and I was trying to keep everything going. And so every night I would go out and walk the dog. Now the dog was a Malamute, a big, bi g Alaskan sled dog. Everybody had left and my husband had died. My kids were gone and I was left with the dog.
And I was doing all of this work every evening on the houses that I had. I was remodeling three houses on the east coast and one on the west coast. And I never had time to go out and find any help. I just did stuff constantly.
So I’d go out ate at night with the dog. And one night I came back, Alex just happened to be home, restocking his van from my refrigerator. And , I came bursting through the door yelling, “Alex, Alex, I just ran a mile!” I was so excited. I had reached my Everest. I had for me, because I knew that I couldn’t do this.
And when you shatter your illusions, what you think are your limits, when you shatter those limits, the feeling is incredible. I had climbed Everest. I had arrived And Alex came walking down the hall , and his reaction changed my life. Completely changed my life. And I hope that this will translate and make some of your listeners think about this.
I knew that I couldn’t do this, and yet I went out with the dog and I did. Just one mile. To me, the a mile was the moon. Walking out of the hallway. And you have to understand who my son is. He’s the greatest climber who ever lived.
He’s crazy capable, physically and endurance-wise. Anyway, he kept walking down the hall and he said, “Oh, ran a mile. Cool. Mom, if you can do a mile, you can do a mile and a half.”
I was totally deflated, wind out of sails, that kind of thing. And then I start to think about it and I knew right then that he was right. You can do a mile, you can do a mile and a quarter, you can do a mile and a block. Two more houses, whatever your measure is.
And so I started thinking about that, and then the next night I went out with the dog again and I did a mile and a block and a mile and another block. And then , I kept pushing those limits. Once you acknowledge that you don’t have limits, then all of a sudden you don’t have limits.
And so that year I worked it up from going a mile and being excited to running a marathon. The most amazed person was me. I knew I couldn’t do this and yet once you start to push those limits, there’s no limit.
Obviously there are limits, but you have to see past them and think what if? So that’s how it started. Running was the first limit I pushed, and then, I had this famous son and I would get all these magazines delivered to our house.
I’d see what he was doing, and he’s on television and I knew nothing about it and I wanted to. There was really nothing between us very deep at all. Nothing that we could talk about because I knew nothing about climbing. I was too busy. His dad, who didn’t do any of the housework and didn’t do any of that, he would take him to all the climbing things.
So I never experienced that with him. I asked him to take me to the climbing gym one day. Just so I could see what he does, because I was his mom, and mom’s imagination is wild!
I’d hear he went to Siberia and, I’m thinking, “Oh God, what is he up to?” And I’d get these pictures in magazines, I’d open a magazine and there he is. And I’d read about his free solo but I didn’t know what that meant.
I knew the words. I mean, from what he had said. But I kept thinking to myself, “No, I must be understanding that wrong. No. That can’t be ?” I wanted to know what his world was like. To find some common ground, something to talk about, because there was really nothing between us because his entire world was climbing.
I grew up in New York City and I’ve been up in many, many big buildings. Tall, tall, tall buildings. And I knew that if I looked out, if I leaned out of a window, my stomach would bubble. So I assumed, I’m afraid of heights.
And how many people do say, “Oh yeah, I could never go climbing. I’m afraid of heights.” That’s not true. I discovered.
Andrea Vahl: You found that being afraid of heights doesn’t equate to, you can’t climb.
Dierdre Wolownick: No. It’s not the height that you’re afraid of.
It’s the falling off that you are afraid of, and once you’re tied on and you’re on a rope and dangling and you have the strongest climber in the world at the other end of your rope there’s nothing to be afraid of. And so I had a wonderful time that first day, and then he left and he’s always gone on the road somewhere traveling. And so I was alone and it took me a couple months to get back to the climbing gym. Because I knew I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know how to do anything. That’s a hard place to be in as an adult. Totally ignorant.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. It is hard to be a beginner.
I definitely think that that is one thing that people are afraid of. Being a beginner again at this stage of life. And how did you push through that?
Dierdre Wolownick: Well, I’ve always loved being a beginner. I’ve always loved trying new things.
If you read the book you’ll see, I’ve done many, many different kinds of things. I’ve been all kinds of different jobs, and I started most of them from zero, for example, when I started publishing, I had no intention of being a publisher, but my publisher went under when my book was ready and so the book was ready.
So I did it myself but I had no idea what a publisher does. So you had to learn, you can do anything. Yeah, because especially with computers, we have the entire sum of the world’s knowledge available on our computer.
You can find out anything you want to know or you can go to the library. Research librarians are a gold mine. They can find out anything you want to know? That’s what I did, I learned what I needed to know. I learned what I needed to have, what kind of things I’d need.
And I went back to the climbing gym and made friends and then my friends started taking me outdoors and the rest is history. I’ve been climbing about 12 years now.
Andrea Vahl: So the book, just to make sure people know, and we’ll have this linked in the show notes, book is called ‘The Sharp End of Life, A Mother’s Story.’
It’s talking about Alex’s journey a little bit, right? But also then your movement into that life of being an athlete and breaking past these barriers.
Dierdre Wolownick: I’ve never thought of myself as an athlete.
I lived a mostly sedentary life. I’ve been a teacher. A writer and a musician. All sedentary.
Andrea Vahl: And I saw that you started your climbing training doing pullups and you just had a pullup bar. You just do the pullups.
Dierdre Wolownick: The pullups happened later because I realized, I needed to improve my arm strength.
You don’t need a lot of arm strength to be a climber. People think you pull yourself up. That’s not it at all.
Andrea Vahl: It’s more legs.
Dierdre Wolownick: More feet and legs. Arms are basically for balance and direction. Once in a while though, you do have to pull and I’ve never been able to do a pull-up all my life.
And so during Covid, in 2019 I bit the bullet got a pullup bar and I’ve been working on that and other stuff.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome because I think that’s so important as we get older. Wanting to get more strength that’s one thing that happens to people.
So tell us what have been some of the obstacles that you’ve come up against as you started this journey? I mean, obviously, you didn’t just decide you’re going to go climb El Capitain and then just do it.
Dierdre Wolownick: I don’t know if I’d call them obstacles, things I needed to learn basically.
Some people may see that as an obstacle, but I never did. I never have in my life. You can learn anything. Like I said, we have the sum of human knowledge right here in our computer but the only obstacle really was people telling me, “Diedre, you’re too old to do that. You going to get hurt.”
I’m careful and I, I try to mitigate all the risks, like my son does. People look at what he does, and they say, “Oh he’s a daredevil.” He is the complete opposite of a daredevil. He studied for 10 years to do El Capitain, I mean, Who does that? Who trains for 10 years to do anything?
I mean, when he talks about it, he says two years, but two years was the really final, significant training. He was always going somewhere but if it wasn’t Borneo or Africa or somewhere it was, “I’m going to work on El Cap.” That was his standard response.
I had no idea what that meant until I saw that movie. It is not exactly obstacles, but the biggest obstacle for anybody nowadays is the media. From cradle to grave, the media is telling you what to eat, what not to eat, how you should dress, everything.
And if you watch television, every other commercial is for drugs. , if you are 50, you should be taking these drugs. If you are 55 or 60, you should be taking these drugs to go to sleep. These drugs, to lose weight. These drugs we are enough in ourselves to make our own decision about what we need.
Turn those screens off and go outdoors and find out what you need. That’s the only real way to know what you’re capable of and what you need to do in order to be capable enough. It gets me so angry that people assume that they have to watch television. No, you don’t.
When I had kids, we decided that we would not have a television in the house. And so my kids grew up without it. They grew up going outdoors and entertaining themselves and reading and experiencing life rather than sitting and watching a box. And that makes such a big difference in life.
And as adults, they have both thanked me for that, because it changes your life, completely. But yeah, that’s the biggest obstacle, media.
Andrea Vahl: And I think there’s, such a negative connotation in media for us as we age too. It is, that’s exactly how they portray people who are, and that’s the whole reason for my podcast is it’s never too late. In what ways do you think that we can start changing the narrative around this?
Dierdre Wolownick: Turn off the screen. Go outdoors into Mother Nature. We are natural creatures. We are natural beings and we have created concrete cities and changed that.
And all this technology changes that, but we are at heart natural beings, and the more you get out into nature and explore and experiment and try, the better you’ll feel. I can’t stress that enough. Just going to a green park in your neighborhood for a half hour will make you feel so much better.
We’ve forgotten that. To our great detriment, we have forgotten it. Instead, we use drugs to feel. You don’t need all that. I’m glad that you have this podcast and I can’t wait to inspire other people to set down the screens and get outdoors and try see what they’re capable of.
I had no idea that I could do any of this stuff. Because all my life I was told I couldn’t. I couldn’t breathe well, so I couldn’t swim. I taught myself to swim in my forties. I knew, quote-unquote, that all these things were off-limits to me.
But it turns out they’re not. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Andrea Vahl: It is, like you said, with even just running a mile.
Now, has there ever been a time where you felt overwhelmed and felt like t was all too much?
And how did you get your mojo back?
Dierdre Wolownick: No . There’s never…
Andrea Vahl: I was wondering because it seems like you just dive in and handle it.
Dierdre Wolownick: Exactly and we’re all capable of that if we just adjust our mindset. You have to just adjust your mindset. We’re capable of so much more than we’re told.
All our lives were told, “You can’t do this. You’re a girl. You’re not supposed to do this.” When I was little, how many times I heard that? “No, you can’t, don’t climb with the little boys, they’ll see your panties, you’re supposed to wear beautiful dresses.”
Oh, come on. We’re constantly being told what we should not do and you have the screens, you have to learn to just turn that off. You are the only one who can judge what you’re capable of. The only one on the planet. You and Mother Nature. And that’s an amazing team – you and Mother Nature.
We’ve learned to not depend on her anymore and that’s what’s killing us. That’s what’s giving us heart attacks and diabetes. Get out there.
Andrea Vahl: Exactly. So I wanted to hear a little bit about the climb and the ascent and how long did that take and what was that like?
Well, for the first time and the second time.
Dierdre Wolownick: I’ll try to condense it cause it is a very, very long story. I could write about it for the rest of my life.
Going up El Cap is terrifying. You have to, like my son does, to learn to expand your comfort zone to include some of the things that you’re going to be doing.
I mean, you’re going to be hanging on the wall 3000 feet up. That’s terrifying, especially to me because, like I said, I used to go up in skyscrapers and I knew that I was afraid of heights. But I knew also at this point that I was going to be on ropes and I was going to be with the best climber in the world.
Whatever happened, he would know what to do, how to get us out of whatever pickle I might get us into. And I also knew that I can learn. I spent a long time learning to do that, learning all the gear learning all the techniques that I would need, the strategies, how to handle the ropes, and stuff.
Because there’s a lot to know. To climb outdoors, there’s a lot to know and anybody’s capable of learning it, but you have to first find out what you need to learn. So, I had the experience behind me of doing the marathons. And so when you train for a marathon, most runners, they set a schedule. If you look it up, you can find an 18-week training schedule, 16-week training schedule, whatever fits your life.
So I did that for marathons and I chose to do that for El Cap. I was a college teacher at that point, so I knew that you could learn a little bit of anything in, say 18 weeks. That was our semester. So I set myself an 18-week schedule, and I, fortunately, had a place to stay in Yosemite.
We had friends who were rangers, so I stayed in their house, which was really nice. So I went to Yosemite three days a week, which is like a college course, three days or two days a week for 18 weeks and was determined to learn this stuff.
So I went there every week. I did two days of cardio training, hiking uphill, straight up, to get my heart stronger because a lot of that involved. Sorry, one day of cardio hard, hard cardio. And then two days of training on ropes. , then on the day, we left at five 30 in the morning and in the pitch dark and we start about seven.
People don’t realize this about climbing often but the approach to the climb, to the base of the climb, is harder than the climb itself. There were even ropes involved just getting to the climb. For me, that’s climbing but not for them!
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. That’s just a walk in the park!
Dierdre Wolownick: The first time I did that approach to that particular part of El Cap, I was alone and I was afraid to do the whole thing. It was just too hard, especially when you’re alone, if anything happens…
We started climbing at seven and climbed nonstop. Top speed, extreme speed for me for 13 hours.
Andrea Vahl: Wow.
Dierdre Wolownick: That is a lot of hard work.
Andrea Vahl: It’s like a marathon as well.
You’ve got to train for your energy. The energy management is a huge thing. Hydration, all of that.
Dierdre Wolownick: Eating was a big for me, but I had to think all that through beforehand.
Andrea Vahl: And thus the 18 weeks of training before, planning and prepping and training.
Like you said, it’s nice that you are related to the best climber in the world.
Dierdre Wolownick: Yeah. Probably that helped. That helped. In terms of motivation and confidence, I knew that he could handle whatever pickle I might get myself into. But he wasn’t around for any of the training.
And getting on those ropes, there are fixed ropes that hang on ElCap all the time, and I trained on those because I didn’t climb with my hands on the rock. The feet were on the rock but I used mechanical ascenders that help you ascend the rope.
Which is hard work on the upper body. More hard work than climbing for the upper body, the shoulders, and the back. So that’s what I did. 18 weeks for two days a week.
Andrea Vahl: That is awesome. So, what are your plans going forward?
Do you make plans? Do you make goals?
Dierdre Wolownick: I’m always planning. After I did that, COVID struck and I had severe surgery, major surgery on my foot, and then my knee went out. I had all kinds of health issues. And so four years after we did that climb, I was hitting 70 and I couldn’t have friends over because of Covid, we couldn’t go to our restaurant because of Covid.
So I decided to find out if I could still get up El Cap at that advanced age. With Alex, we went up and down in a day which was extremely unusual but my son holds the speed records on all the major rock formations all over the world. And so we went really fast.
He doesn’t like to carry stuff, haul the haul bags with camping stuff. Water is very heavy. So we just went up and down in 21 hours. Got down at two in the morning.
I wanted to know what it was like to sleep up there. I didn’t necessarily need to sleep. I got, they call those porta ledges, the things that they, little camp beds that they make that hang on the wall. I would’ve been fine with that, but that’s a lot of extra work and extra carrying. So, I got together a group of friends, some young ones who could help and some older ones who just wanted to experience it with me.
And, we went up the other side of El Cap. El Cap is kind of a v-shape and we went up the other side where there are fixed ropes all the time. And so part of it is scrambling, part of it is not climbing exactly but scrambling on rock. And part of it in the middle is the climbing, the ropes. And I knew I could climb the ropes because I had done that with Alex for 13 hours.
So that was my biggest goal after El Cap. And I did that. That was amazing. I’ll never top that as a birthday party.
Andrea Vahl: That sounds incredible. And then did you sleep at the top or how does that work? You slept at the top?
Dierdre Wolownick: El Cap is flat on top, not peak ed.
So we all camped on top. It was a life experience and I never topped that as a birthday party ever.
Andrea Vahl: Well never say never.
Dierdre Wolownick: So for this past year, I’m always setting goals because the planet is fascinating. There’s fascinating stuff all over whether it’s beaches or rocks or whatever you want to do.
Mother Nature is so varied in her amazing things. I had started before that going abroad to climb. I’ve climbed in Mexico and Greece and Canada here and there. And not hard climbing necessarily because I’ll never do really hard climbing. I’m not strong enough, but I started very old.
I love it and I have a great time but I do moderate climbing and I always will, but there’s a lot of it on the planet. So I had started going abroad, I took this story of mine and I spoke in Greece and in Italy and in Switzerland. Of course, while I was there, we all went climbing and I got to climb the Dolomites, which was a dream of mine since I started climbing.
It was an amazing trip. And I’ll do some more of that this year.
Andrea Vahl: Actually, Deirdre has her blog, deirdrew.us, and that has some posts about her speaking and adventures and all that. We’ll have that linked in the show notes as well.
It’s so incredible. You’re such an inspiration to everyone, I think, at any age. To just get out there.
Dierdre Wolownick: Age has nothing to do with it, it really doesn’t. As long as you don’t separate from some debilitating disease. Obviously, that’s different, but all things being equal age has nothing to do with it.
Andrea Vahl: So one of the things I love to have every guest share is a quote or inspirational saying. What inspires you?
Dierdre Wolownick: I wear many hats. I mean I’ve been a writer, I’ve worked in the airlines, I’ve been a publisher, I’ve been a conductor of an orchestra and founder of the orchestra.
I’ve done a lot of different things, so they all have different inspiring quotes, but the main one that can be applied to anything comes from Isaac Asimov, the grandfather of quality science fiction writing.
I think he’s the only writer who was published in every category of the Dewey Decimal system because he’s written in all kinds of fields.
But he’s most well-known for science fiction and creative fiction. And he said, I don’t have the exact quote, but he said something like, “If the doctor told me I had only six months left to live, I wouldn’t mourn. I would type faster.” In other words, go out there and do it. Go do what you want to do, get it done, move on to the next thing, get it done.
Don’t stand around lamenting that, “Oh, I don’t have a nice house. I don’t have a good car.” Just go do it.
I think it was Nora Roberts who this had this very telling piece of advice: “You can’t fix a blank page.”
If you’re going to write something, just sit down and write it. Don’t talk about it, don’t talk about doing it. Just sit down and write it. And that applies to anything you want to do. Don’t spend your life looking online at how to climb, go climb.
Get healthier. Go visit Mother Nature, the source of all health. It’s so simple and the pharma companies make it sound so complicated and it’s not.
Andrea Vahl: It’s just getting out there, enjoying things, fresh air and Mother Nature is huge.
As someone from Colorado, I can definitely subscribe to that. Beautiful time to be outside and curious.
Dierdre Wolownick: You don’t have to live in a place like Colorado. It can just be your little park down the block if you live in New York City, go to a green park.
There are all kinds of green parks in every city. There’s no excuse.
Andrea Vahl: Well, Deirdre, this has just been amazing. I cannot wait to have your documentary come out. I’m anxious to dive into your book and read that and we’ll have those links and of course, follow your blog and your next adventures, because I can’t wait to see what else you do.
So thanks everyone for tuning in.
Dierdre Wolownick: Thanks for inviting me. 00828f
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