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Guest Post: Dierdre Wolownick "Life of Learning"

June 28, 2016

Guest Post: Dierdre Wolownick "Life of Learning"

Dierdre is the mother of an ‘extreme sports’ family. Her son,Alex Honnold, is one of the boldest, most famous rock climbers in the world. You may have seen him on National Geographic, on “60 Minutes,” in one of many award-winning climbing movies, in a magazine article or in a slew of on-line videos and movies. Alex’s book, “Alone on the Wall” was just released from Norton & Co., NY, about his most extraordinary exploits until now. His sister,Stasia Honnold, loves to explore the country on 1,000-mile bike rides, camping as she goes, and is also a long-distance runner. For the last six years Dierdre has also been a runner and a climber, and sometimes gets to climb or bike with her kids (and share Picky Bars). Here she talks about that transition and what it has meant in her life, and in their life together.

Alex Honnold and mom Dierdre Wolownick on the South Summit of Matthes Crest, Tuolomne. Photo credit: Amy Mountjoy

I’ll never be an adventurer like my son; my biggest adventures with him happen during his rest days! But for me, they are definitely adventures. During every one of the climbs I’ve done with Alex, I’ve been taken so far outside my comfort zone that I was like a little child, often dependent on him for guidance, help, encouragement. For courage.

Like our first adventure together, in Yosemite. Trapped on a ledge on a wall more than a hundred feet off the ground, I had to learn to rappel in freezing, driving rain, to face snakes and lightning and basically, learn to face fear. (Just another day at the office, for him!) Fear is a good thing, I’ve learned; it keeps you alive. It’s what you do with it that counts — one of the many things I’ve learned climbing with him.

And I’ll never be as fearless and will probably never have as much stamina as my daughter. Stasia dials it back — way back! — when we go on rides together or use our bikes for transportation. When we do a road race together, she finishes and then circles back and jogs in with Mom. And she knows that Mom and Mom’s friends would be afraid to venture out into the wilderness by bike, alone, especially where there are bears. Especially grizzlies! This does not stop her, or even slow her down. Her latest adventure took her through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, then into Montana — by bike. You can read about her latest biking bear encounteron CareFreeRambles. 

L: Biking with Stasia along the American River, R: Stasia belaying Mom at Smith Rock. Credit: Sean McCartney

Over the last six years, I’ve watched both my kids do one impossible exploit after another. Sometimes they team up, as they did twice during what Alex and his climbing partner Cedar Wright call the “SufferFest”. Stasia joined Alex and Cedar as they cycled from one of California’s 14,000-ft. peaks to another, often keeping them in high spirits as exhaustion wore them down. She joined them again as they climbed desert towers in Utah duringSufferFest 2

Athleticism of this magnitude is hard for an adult, desk-oriented person to fathom. After a lifetime of teaching, I started running at the age of 54, and have now done 4 marathons, 8 half-marathons and countless shorter runs. 

Before, I’d always assumed that running was just something that humans are made to do (watch any little kid). Anyone can do it, so what’s the big deal? My son fed this mindset: “If you can do one mile, Mom, you can do two.” And when I did: “If you can do two, you can do three.” And so on. 

So when I began actually training for my first long-distance run (a half-marathon), I discovered the importance of the mind in this process. If you think you can, you can. As simple as that — and not so simple. My kids, of course, already knew this.

At 57, I asked Alex to take me to the climbing gym so I could understand what he was doing ‘out there’ all the time. He did, and I loved it, and have been doing it ever since. Each time I climb outdoors, as I grow as a climber I come to understand a bit more about his life and his amazing skills. Seldom in life are our accomplishments so clear, so visible as they are in climbing. Each year, I find that I can do things at elevation that I thought I’d never do, or that I was sure I couldn’t.

L: Climbing at Lover’s Leap, South Lake Tahoe. Photo credit: Katie Davis, R: Whitney-Gilman Ridge in the White Mtns, NH. Photo credit: Kurt Winkler

Learning, I’ve always believed, is the quintessential human condition; watch any little kid with a new toy! Watch any baby learn to speak — language is such a complex learning curve! Learning is what we’re programmed to do from birth. Climbing expands those opportunities for me, exponentially. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and I’m too afraid to let it happen. (Climbing is dangerous.) But when it works — what a feeling! No other sport has ever come close to that kind of ‘learning high’. I’ve learned things about courage and about daring that might easily have gone undiscovered all my life, if I’d never started climbing.

Stasia climbs, too, although climbing will always take a backseat to biking or running in her life. What drives Stasia on her hard-core bicycle trips around the country has become less elusive to me, too, as I learn more about tenacity and courage. The same kind of stubbornness that pushes them both also pushes me to keep running, or to keep moving up the rock when I refuse to back off a climb, despite the bruises and bloody fingers.

She’s been climbing as long as Alex (they shared their first day at a climbing gym, 25 years ago), although far less often, and she’s belayed me on real rock, outdoors, where a fall can have serious consequences. What a joy it is, as a parent, to know that both my kids can be counted on 100% in situations that are potentially life-threatening. How many parents ever get to discover that about their kids? 

If mine are as lucky as I’ve been, someday they’ll get to experience that same closeness with their own children.