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Meet the 70-year-old who is believed to be the oldest woman to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan

By Alaa Elassar, CNN

Dierdre Wolownick dreamed of watching the sunset from the top of Yosemite National Park’s famous El Capitan rock formation in California.

She wanted to feel the fierce wind blow through her hair, followed by an evening of stargazing and sleeping under the moonlit sky after conquering the massive 3,200-foot vertical granite wall.

Now the 70-year-old New York native is believed to have become the oldest woman to climb up the wall to the summit of El Capitan, known as “one of the world’s ultimate challenges for climbers,” according to Yosemite’s official website. The gargantuan rock stands almost 500 feet taller than the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building.

Wolownick broke her own record on her birthday September 23 when she once again made it to the top of the rock formation, Hans Florine, a record-breaking rock climber who keeps a record of ascents in Yosemite Valley, confirmed to CNN.

The first time she accomplished the harrowing feat was in 2017 when she was 66 years old. It took her 13 hours to complete the technical climb, and by the time she reached the top, it was too dark to see the summit or the views.

“Most elite climbers who climb the route we climbed, Lurking Fear, take four or five days, and we did it in 13 hours.” Wolownick told CNN. “But I still wanted it, I wanted to be up there and see what it was like for myself. I wanted to sleep up there, to see the sunset and sunrise, and I felt like I had to do it.”

Equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools it would take to make it back up the granite monolith. Wolownick made her dream come true, scaling El Capitan in just six hours, in time to witness the sunset on her birthday.

“It’s an amazing place to be up there at the top, I could write an entire book about how it felt,” Wolownick said. “I was just blown away by how powerful it felt. There’s nothing like it.”

After making it to the top in time for sunset, Wolownick and her friends drank champagne and shared birthday cake while enjoying spectacular views.

“I didn’t start climbing 10 years ago to become the oldest woman to get to the top, I did it to get closer to my son,” Wolownick said. “I climbed El Cap for me, because I wanted to experience all of it.”

Her son is Alex Honnold, the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan and the topic of the breathtaking BAFTA-winning National Geographic documentary “Free Solo,” which won Best Documentary at the Oscars in 2019.

“Free solo” is climber-speak for no ropes, no safety gear. Free solo climbing is a high-stakes game. It’s either death or perfection.

National Geographic, which dubbed the climb “the moon landing of free-soloing,” said Honnold trained for years in locations in the United States, Europe, China and Morocco.

Iconic for its near vertical cliffs, Yosemite’s El Capitan was believed to be impossible to climb until 1957, when American rock-climbing pioneer Warren Harding made it to the top with two aides. But they weren’t using just their hands.

“Climbing El Cap at 70 takes its toll, physically, mentally, emotionally. I’m not ‘down’ yet,” she wrote on her blog. “Not sure I ever will be, completely.”

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