Mother's Day Special: An Interview With 6 Pro Climber Moms

By Zoe Gates ,

Alex Honnold (pictured) takes his mom, Dierdre Wolownick, on a climbing adventure every year for her birthday. Photo: Andrew Burr

Whether your mom taught you all you know about anchors or doesn’t know the first thing about the Yosemite decimal system, she’s been there. This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the women who kissed our bruises, chauffeured us to the gym, and ultimately allowed us to pursue our dreams. Being the mother of a climber can’t be easy. Being the mother of a free-soloist, highball boulderer, or big-wall pioneer is even harder. We spoke with six pro-climber moms about risk, love, and raising rock climbers. Happy Mothers Day!

Do you climb? Has your child ever taken you climbing?

Donna Croy Wright, mother of Cedar Wright:

I’m afraid of heights, especially if I can’t hold on to something. The family has always been outdoor focused: camping, hiking, unsuccessful fishing. Cedar gave the whole family a short lesson in Yosemite once. I got twenty feet off the ground—enough for me.

Pam Gobright, mother of Brad Gobright

No, I don’t climb at all. Brad has taken me climbing, but I get too nervous! Mostly we boulder around or hike outdoors together.

Arjunia Oakley, mother of Miranda Oakley

I tried climbing in a gym and did it for about a year. Although I think it's a great sport, I have no interest in doing it myself. Miranda has taken me climbing in Yosemite a couple of times. We did beginner routes. I have a fear of heights, so I don't get a lot of pleasure from being up high.

Dierdre Wolownick, mother of Alex Honnold

I do climb. As often as I can. I climb with both my kids whenever I have the chance. My son leads me up something spectacular every year for my birthday. Last year we did Royal Arches, in Yosemite. Each year I think, I’ll never top that! And then the following year, we do! I’ve also climbed with my daughter, Stasia, many times, indoors and out.

Gaelena Jorgeson, mother of Kevin Jorgeson

I don’t climb because of health issues and…I have a fear of heights!

Christine Luke, mother of Nina Williams

I don't climb and actually have a fear of heights. I did try sport climbing once at the Rhode Island Rock Gym [Ed. It’s now Rock Spot Climbing], where Nina was a member of the climbing team. We did an evening with a group of young people and adults trying the sport together. I was pretty terrified, but glad I tried it.

When did your child start climbing? Was he or she a natural-born climber?

Dierdre Wolownick

Alex started at birth. Literally. Definitely an innate driving force. It’s all he ever wanted to do. Trees, buildings, rock, whatever. Furniture. Roofs. Towel racks. Shelves. He started going to the climbing gym when he was about 10. His sister Stasia got into it later, in the climbing gym and then outdoors.

Gaelena Jorgeson

Kevin was born a climber. He started at the gym when he was 11. He made friends with older kids and then started to go to Goat Rock on the coast. Kevin climbed everything. Really. Even a store. If the building had holds, he was on it. When he was 4 years old he climbed to the top of a ladder on my brother-in-law’s two-story home. He was quick! I worked on not freaking out while his dad talked him down calmly. Crazy.

Christine Luke

When Nina turned twelve, I returned to work full-time and asked her to pick one sport/interest to pursue. She chose rock climbing because a few years earlier she had tried it on an outdoor wall in New Hampshire and loved it. I was surprised because at that point she had tried so many other things, i.e., gymnastics, sailing, horseback riding, piano. The Rhode Island Rock Gym had just opened a new facility in Lincoln, and that's where we went. She was a natural-born climber from a very young age. She would scale trees, old school buses in a friend's backyard, barn walls and rafters—all with adult supervision mind you! She was fearless and I would shake my head thinking, whose gene pool does she get this from?

Do you experience any concern for your child’s climbing? If so, how do you manage it?

Pam Gobright

I imagine him in a protective bubble! Seriously, it’s called visualizing. Also, I talk to him about it. He does a good job of explaining his process in a way that makes me feel he is careful. Nevertheless, he has had a few accidents, so I am concerned.

Arjunia Oakley

When she first started at Yosemite, before I saw her climb, I was very worried about her falling. As I got to know the kind of climber she is—and as a person she is very careful—I grew less apprehensive. The real issue for me was her traveling. I worried more about her getting to and from the climbing areas than I worried about the actual climbs. I did not like the ice climbing in Patagonia because there was so much that wasn't in her control (weather, avalanches, unseen cervices, etc). To manage it, I try to make her stay in regular contact with me, including sending pictures and names of the people she's climbing with. Other than that, I try not to think about it or I remind myself that she is really risk averse and doesn't do stupid, showy climbing.

Dierdre Wolownick

Concern? Given the level and type of climbing my son does, yes. It’s always been an issue. I handle it by choosing to remain engaged in his life. If I reject his one over-arching passion, he will, perforce, just leave me behind. Not share his life with me. I choose to trust his judgment. He knows what he can do. He’s the only one who can judge that. I trust that.

Gaelena Jorgeson

I learned to keep my opinions to myself. Climbers are quiet when someone is working a route, so I respect that silence. I do admit to my stomach clenching when he climbed monster rocks while bouldering. No helmet, a few crash pads, his climber friends that were as crazy as him encouraging him. Ugh. I held my breath many times as he absolutely rocked bouldering. That is where his reputation began.

Christine Luke

Nina and I have an agreement: she doesn't tell me what climb she's doing until after she does it.

If you could stop your child from pursuing risky climbs, would you? What would you rather they do instead?

Pam Gobright

I want Brad to live his life. I understand that not many people have his commitment and passion. I’m proud of his work ethic and willingness to sacrifice material comforts in order to be the best he can be at his sport. That said, I pray daily that he stays safe.

Arjunia Oakley

Yes, but we would both suffer. I wanted to see her do human rights or environmental advocacy here in Washington D.C. There are a lot of bright, passionate people here who work to make this world better. (We're not all just "swamp dwellers.") She was always passionate about what she did, and I thought that a nice, safe, wonky Washington job would be great for her. Of course I want my child to be happy, and I believe she could be happy doing other things. It would make me happy if she did. However, she doesn't feel the same.

Dierdre Wolownick

No one can stop Alex from doing what he’s driven to do. I would never want to. It’s what gives him purpose, and joy. Happiness. (Such a pale word, here!) Why would any parent want to deny that to their child? So no, I would never want my child to be miserable and safe. Life is too short!

Christine Luke

Probably, but I don't know what I would have her do instead. Nina loves being challenged. In college she briefly took up sailing, but did not pursue the relaxing sunset type sailing. It was some type of competitive sailboat racing. My friends see Nina's climbing posts on Facebook and Instagram and ask "How do you it? Not be nervous or afraid for her?" Well, I am nervous and afraid for her, but I know this is her passion. You have to let your children pursue their dreams and passions. Nina would not be happy if she wasn't tackling hard routes, being a highball boulderer, and trad climber. I trust her completely to use her mind and experience to figure out how to be safe.

Do you prefer to know the details of the risks your child takes? Have you ever watched your child do a dangerous route, either in person or a video?

Donna Croy Wright

I love to hear what he is doing! I care. I’ve watched him climb and watch every video he produces. Then, when someone asks me what he is doing, I invariably cannot remember the place, route, whatever, “He’s in Africa, what country was it, climbing one of the big mountains there.” I have no clue what any of the 5-whatevers mean…but if he’s “stoked,” so am I.

Pam Gobright

I do want to know because I want to understand what makes him tick. Also, I want the opportunity to pray for his safety and to send all the positive energy I can towards him. I have watched Brad free-solo in person and it makes me queasy and dizzy. Last time was in Joshua Tree. I had to look away.

Gaelena Jorgeson

I don’t know half of what Kevin did after the age of 14. Once he was mobile, with the help of his friends, that was it. He was trying to protect my mama’s heart from cardiac arrest, I’m sure! When I watched him climb the Dawn Wall I was feeling many emotions simultaneously. I wanted him to succeed so badly, yet I was scared about the difficulty of the climb, his mind set, wondering if he was getting what he needed to be successful.

Christine Luke

I prefer not to know the details because, as a parent, you always fear for your children whether they're 6 or 26. I have watched her climbing videos and it is scary. Again, a combination of my fear of heights and—it's my baby girl up there! Yikes!

How has your perspective on your child’s climbing changed over time?

Pam Gobright

In the beginning, I was worried that he was going to be unable to support himself, that he was not taking a “normal” path to adulthood that included a regular job, permanent residence, and paying taxes! I worried he was alone out in the woods too much. Ha-ha. I didn’t understand the life he was leading. But as he continued to improve and showed no signs of giving up despite the obstacles, I became more accepting and eventually proud of his extraordinary lifestyle and his exceptional talent. Watching his community on social media was also very helpful. I see that Brad has a loyal, loving and supportive tribe, and he is not alone.

I know that there is danger but he chooses this life, and he is aware of the risks. It is his job to worry about himself and my job to accept his choices.

Dierdre Wolownick

The results of unsuccessful free-soloing are obvious. Alex and I have both lost friends to climbing. So my perspective hasn’t changed. I know how it can end, if something unfortunate happens up there. So does he. He wants to live a rich, full life. I have to trust his judgment.

How climbing-savvy are you now?

Donna Croy Wright

As stated above: NOT.

Pam Gobright

I’m not very aware of any of that. Foreign Language.

Arjunia Oakley

I'm not very climbing savvy, although I probably know more about climbing than most people. I know she's not a "sport climber," that she does big walls.

Dierdre Wolownick

Pretty savvy. I climb, sometimes with him. I know his colleagues, I listen to them talk. I’m completely aware of the details of the type of climbing he does. Since I accept his choices, he shares that with me (to a point).

Gaelena Jorgeson

I know more than the average person. 

Do you worry more about your child since they started climbing? Would you have considered your child a risk-taker before they started climbing?

Donna Croy Wright

Cedar always took risks (by other people’s standards), but I’ve grown less worried about him since he started climbing. He found his purpose, makes his own way, is centered and whole, and has a support system he can rely on, headed by an understanding mate. What more can a mom ask?

Pam Gobright

If you are a mother you know one always worries about their kid! I would not really call Brad a risk taker. I know that sounds odd given what he does, but I think he’s pretty methodical. He takes calculated risks after practicing and considering all possibilities.

Dierdre Wolownick

Not applicable. He’s been climbing since birth. And he’s not, definitely not, a risk-taker. He thinks very, very carefully about what he does. Always. He’s very much safety-oriented. He studies the route. He prepares. He learns everything he can about it. He does everything he can to mitigate all risk, as much as possible.

How do you support your kid, in climbing and in life?

Donna Croy Wright

I’m there and I love the quirky guy.

Pam Gobright

We are always here for him. He comes home often and we have provided a landing zone when he is injured. I make it a point to try and get to wherever he is every 4 months or so to watch him climb and get immersed in life for a long weekend. We don’t give him money though. When he left college to go climb at age 19, I told him I would support his decisions as long as he does not hurt anyone (including himself) and did not ask me for money! So far, except for a few injuries, he has honored that request.

Arjunia Oakley

Miranda has been self-supporting since she graduated college. I try to support her emotionally by letting her know she always has a safe place, and that her father and I are very proud of her strength, wisdom, independence, and passion. I try to learn as much as I can about what she does and I encourage her to perfect her art.

Any final thoughts on motherhood and climbing?

Donna Croy Wright

My children were born with two traits I value and foster, which have nothing to do with me: resilience and tenacity. From the beginning, Cedar interacted with the natural world fearlessly. I was not over-protective. I figured if he thought he could do something, he should do it. We live in the California foothills surrounded by trees and, from the age of 3, he was in them. Occasionally, at the top, he would ask me to help him down, and my answer was always, “If you got up there, you can figure out a way down.” Then we would discuss how to do it as he worked his way to the ground. Some people around me might have said I was under-protective. On his fourth or fifth birthday, we had a kite flying party on the baseball field at the nearby high school. Finished with cake, he decided to go back out to fly kites. A 20-foot chain-link fence stood between the food and the kite flyers. Cedar climbed straight up over it and straight back down. The adults, aghast, looked at me for a reaction. I just smiled. “He’ll be okay,” I said, and he has been—more than okay.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worried. But not at his physical risk-taking. That is who he is. I worry when he travels to politically unstable arenas like Pakistan, where he can’t control the risks. And I’ll admit it, when he came home from college and told us he wanted to dirtbag in Yosemite and become a professional athlete, I attempted to reason with him. Then I turned to his dad after he left and said, “Give him time. He’ll come to his senses and get a real job soon enough.” I’ve worked (and at times it was work) to give him what we all want: loving interest, support, and respect for the choices we make—and, when the choices aren’t so great, a little help talking us down.

Pam Gobright

It’s actually pretty fun being Brad’s mom. I can tell you this, I never get a ho-hum reaction when people ask me what my kid does. Visiting him is an adventure. He takes us on epic hikes. He has wonderful friends that I love meeting and hanging out with. He has a unique perspective born of trial, discomfort, and dizzying freedom. I am always learning from him. Brad grew up in a pretty comfortable home with every material thing he could want, but he taught me how little all that stuff really means. He could care less about any of it and it has helped me release my own ideas of what is necessary.

I love Brad and could not be any prouder of him. In fact, the entire extended family considers Brad a superstar, avidly follows his adventures, and is proud of his successes. I worry, but I also have faith in him. I believe he will always march to his own drum, so I might as well enjoy the beat. I look forward to seeing what happens next in his life.

Arjunia Oakley

I think that you have to be careful what you wish for with children. I wanted to raise a strong, independent woman and I did, just not in the way I thought. I love her climbing community, the people are always welcoming and caring. I'm glad she found them. I do want her to settle down more, but that is a very selfish wish. I worry about what the future holds for her knowing that the body changes faster than the mind.

Gaelena Jorgeson

Motherhood to me is about encouraging their strengths, staying positive about weaknesses, listening intently, offering opinions discriminately (every thought doesn’t need to be verbalized), enjoying my daughters-in-law by focusing on their gifts, and learning to let go gracefully as they fly away. I had a hard time letting go, which was not good. I’m mostly over that. Did you catch the “mostly”?

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