Each year our Live Your Dream Grant gives everyday climber’s the chance to live out their dreams. No dream is too big or too small and you’re never too old or too young to apply. The application period for the grant starts January 1st and goes through March 1st. Start dreaming!
By AAC member Dierdre Wolownick
Think dreams are for the young? Think again.
When I was 58 years old, I accompanied my son, Alex Honnold, to the climbing gym to find out what drove him. I figured that if I tried a half a climb or so, I’d learn enough to understand and appreciate what he did all the time. Twelve climbs later that afternoon, I was hooked.
Fast-forward four years. “Live Your Dream” sounded like exactly what I wanted to do. But who gives money to 60-somethings to climb rocks? I knew it was crazy, but I sent in the application anyway. It wasn’t for the money (although that always helps). It was for the validation, the idea that someone like me—Mom, teacher, writer, lots of things that were mostly sedentary, and old—could be given the opportunity and the encouragement to do something wild.
Encouragement is the key word. Starting to climb at my age was as counterintuitive as, say, rappelling (“you want me to step off the cliff, lean back and let go?!”). Everyone in my world of academia would try to stop from rolling their eyes as I talked about climbing, but their message always came through loud and clear: I was crazy. Some even said it, usually with a shake of the head and an amazed tone. Encouragement was clearly lacking in my normal circles for this new endeavor of mine.
But encouragement was bountiful in my climbing “tribe.” The friends I made at the climbing gym were eager to cheer me on and mentor me as my climbing progressed. Of course they’d be encouraging; they were climbers, all just as crazy as me. More than skills, what they gave me was the belief that I could always take my climbing one step further. “What’s next?” I thought. I wanted to learn to lead. To be proficient. Confident. So I applied.
As soon as I got the news that I’d won an AAC Live Your Dream grant, I did a little dance and texted all my climbing buddies (none of my teacher colleagues knew how to text; I was strange), then promptly started planning my trip. I was going home to the Northeast! (I live in California, but I’m from New York.)
I had climbed in the ‘Gunks in New York during my second year of climbing, with friends from my Sacramento gym. I even did two tiny, easy leads there, and after I got back I tried to lead whenever my climbing mentors could stand it (thinking too much slows me down). But I was always the newbie, the “elderly lady” (as my son called me when we did Snake Dike together) everyone was trying to help.
Now, I would just be a climber. Of course, being Alex’s mom would help me find partners and friends to help with logistics. But once there, the success of my trip would depend solely on my climbing. I had a grant to go climb. I was a climber.
And climb I did! In North Conway, New Hampshire, I got to meet climbing legends like George Hurley, Henry Barber and others—and climb with them. Heady company! With Henry, I did a more vertical climb than I was used to—five pitches of it—on rock far wetter than I had ever climbed in California. With Kurt Winkler, guide and trainer, I learned about climbing with double ropes, doing multi-pitch on slick and rain-streaked rock, how sweet blueberries can taste halfway up a climb, and countless other lessons. My climber friends Gino and Peggy drove from Pennsylvania to help, to lead, and to help me lead.
My goal for the trip was to become a stronger, more capable lead climber. All of my experiences there improved my general climbing skills. I learned stuff every day! For leading, though, the weather didn’t cooperate. I only got to lead once. But that day I learned that I can navigate bulges that had always intimidated me, and that my rock shoes will stick in the pouring rain. And I learned that I can talk myself into whatever I deem important. I talked to myself a lot during that wet, scary lead!
I’ve been a teacher—and dreamer—all my life. I’ve always known the value of encouragement. But confidence is an ineffable quality; it can be learned, but not taught. The acquiring of it can be helped along, nudged, but not given. That was the joy of my AAC trip. I returned home more confident about specific skills and about myself as a climber. I know I still have a long way to go to satisfy my own personal climbing goals, but I also know that I’m capable of defining them and reaching them. Baby steps are immensely rewarding… especially for us elderly ladies.
When I was young, I dreamed of conducting an orchestra! I dreamed of traveling the world, and of writing books. I’ve done all those things, now. And then I dreamed about climbing mountains and seeing incredible vistas, all by my own power. Last summer, the Live Your Dream grant gave me the chance to expand my little climbing experience and do just that. Next summer, I’m dreaming of climbing in les Calanques, France.
Want to come along? Start dreaming!
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