The Edge of Fear: Free Solo Mentality

In this episode...

At the age of sixty-six, Dierdre Wolownick became the oldest woman to climb El Capitan, the iconic 3,200-foot granite “big wall” in Yosemite National Park. For her this wasn’t just any climb. Yes, The Captain is perhaps the most prized big wall climbs in the world. It was in June that same year that Dierdre’s son Alex Honnold stunned and terrified the world by climbing without ropes—a free solo assent—this vertical wall that rises one half mile out of the earth in Yosemite National Park.

A special club

Alex is no stranger to making news for his death-defying ability to speed climb routes, without protection, that give other expert climbers nightmares. Dierdre’s son is indeed a rock climber in a special club: He’s still alive. Says Honnold’s friend and rock climbing legend Tommy Caldwell, “All the other free solo climbers in the world are dead.”

"Down-to-earth?" or "crazy?"

Add this all together and you get the media sensation of Honnold, a paradox that his friends and family know couldn’t be more opposite of his aloof and down-to-earth personality. National Geographic’s blockbuster documentary, Free Solo, of Honnold’s assent of the Freerider route of El Captain, won 7 Emmy’s and an Academy Award for best Documentary Feature in 2019. I speak with Alex’s mom, Dierdre, to deconstruct the public’s polarized reaction to her son’s lifestyle.

Dierdre Wolownick’s book The Sharp End of Life is about blossoming, about her own life as a woman in a family of rock-like stoicism and about finding crevasses from which to climb toward who you’re really meant to be.

Alone on the Wall

Should we see Honnold’s climbing as reckless? A sophisticated dance with passive-aggressive self-harm? Or does our strong emotional reaction to his mastery and success in this solitary sport say more about our own denial of the risks we take every day flying in airplanes, living with firearms, or any number of questionable health and dietary choices we make. Do we envy Alex’s clarity and focus and lack his courage to squarely face our own limitations and accept our own mortality?

A family of "stonewalling"

I learn from his Mom about the human side of this person so many think of as superhuman. Alex’s Dad, she says, was a person with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. “He was in a bubble and no one could get in.”

I ask Dierdre about “stonewalling,” a term we use in marriage and relationship therapy to describe being emotionally shut off to others.

In early life, when climbing became his passion, Alex shared some of these traits and Dierdre admits to being driven to exasperation as a parent, unable to contain his defiance of boundaries meant to keep him safe. 

Her journey of learning to join Alex in pushing physical limits of strength and endurance is a story that she wants to inspire others. 

Blossoming off the wall

Alex has grown deep friendships in recent years—this year he got married to Sanni—the woman we meet in the film and many wonder if he’ll heed their advice to pull back from risky climbs before it’s too late.

To his mom, however, there’s no mistaking where his future lies. 

“He wants to see his grandchildren grow up.”

I’m cheering for Alex, and Sanni, and the Wolownick-Honnold family.  

Okay, as a mental health counselor, maybe I’m cheering more for Sanni–that your love for this man may give him eyes to see the real possibilities of joy and adventure right here at sea level…with you…with us.

Besides, my book The 10 Myths About the Emotionally Unavailable Man could use a forward. I would happily let you write those pages!

“Most people walk around and never know where their limits are—physical limits, mental limits, emotional limits—they don’t know because they’ve never been tested, pushed to the limit and beyond, and that’s the only way to find out where your limits are is to go out and push them.”

Dierdre Wolownick is the author of The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story

She lives in Sacramento and enjoys visits from her son Alex and daughter Stacia (another endurance athlete, BTW) when she’s not exploring the great outdoors or blogging about it

Alex Honnald with his mom, Dierdre Wolownick

She’s an accomplished writer, musician, teacher and author of 17 books on education. She speaks five languages and has taught on three different continents. She speaks regularly for environmental and outdoors groups, and is a proud supporter of The Honnold Foundation, whose mission is to fund and deliver solar energy projects to communities worldwide that lack access to reliable power sources.

Share this

Subscribe

Episode 18