Pearl Johnson and Dierdre Wolownick Climb El Capitan Together

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Pearl Johnson, age 9, and Dierdre Wolownick, at age 66, are the youngest and the oldest ladies, respectively, to climb the Large Stone. The 2 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 6 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 uncommon to be up there with somebody so small,” says Wolownick, now age 68. “It was fascinating from a mother’s standpoint. It’s not typically that you just meet a 9-year-old who can routinely try this.”

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

Yosemite attracts climbers from all around the world for its sweeping partitions, stunning polished stone, and massive 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 report for the youngest ascent of the formation.

Pearl did the route together 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 crew’s ropes. After three nights and 4 days, they topped out beneath rain and hail.

“We educated on the traces to Coronary heart Ledges to get robust,” Janet says. “She was fairly good at jumaring (ascending) on Triple Direct. That was till we received increased on El Cap and when it went from slabby to overhanging. It’s tougher for everybody when it will get steep.”

Dierdre on El Cap
Dierdre on the fastened traces resulting in 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 together with her son Alex Honnold and Samuel Crossley. The ascent took 13 hours up and 6 down. She ascended a rope simply as Pearl had executed over 4 days. Wolownick picked up the game to raised perceive her son and he or she’s since climbed all around the world.

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

To some, climbing means ascending a hard and fast rope, to others, it means inserting 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 struggle, grit and willpower have been simply as robust as my very own, in all probability 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 got here up final, ascending the rope by particular gadgets known as jumars. His actions have been methodical, unhurried. He appeared each day of his 81 years,” says the story of his climb within the San Francisco Chronicle.

Pearl on El Cap
Pearl a couple of hundred ft up the Large 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, in all probability purple the place the strap and buckle rubbed with every step. My two toes that don’t bend screamed every time I jammed them in opposition to the wall. Each thumbs had cracked open and have been bleeding.”

The day after Wolownick’s landmark ascent, “I anticipated to be completely labored,” she says. “We went to mattress at Three a.m. I awoke at eight a.m., and was nice. I used to be just a little sore right here and there like from gymnasium class, however I used to be OK. It took me rather a lot longer to come back down mentally than bodily.”

That’s why this Halloween, as the recent 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 achieve Coronary heart Ledges, the coaching floor that Wolownick used to organize 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 could take from minutes to hours to ascend every rope. On the day we went climbing, a crew above was hauling lots of of kilos of substances forward of us, which brought on us a number of hour delays. But it surely was nonetheless a blast.

“I had a very 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 love to do it in a day. The Nostril can 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. And not using a single maintain to seize onto, climbing the traces forces you to rely 100 % in your ascenders. Simply being up a brief method (a couple of hundred ft) is a robust expertise, and the upper you get, the extra intense the sensation turns into. The sensation is the strongest throughout in the previous couple of hundred ft, the place individuals under seem like ants.

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

The publicity makes you focus extra intensely on what’s occurring round you; this isn’t the place to drop a cellphone or water bottle as this stuff 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 needed 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 velocity 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, positioned 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 he or she walked up and touched the beginning holds for the primary time. Then we walked over the Nostril and he or 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 he or 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, that means they’d simply ticked off their route rated 5.13+. That evening everybody celebrated over dinner on the valley ground.

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 in a position 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 Crimson Rocks for lengthy free routes.

Dierdre, who continues to be recovering from corrective foot surgical procedure 10 months in the past, is slowly getting her power again. Throughout breaks for her ebook tour for her memoir The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story, she’s studying methods 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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