Catherine Destivelle, climbing and alpinism there where it is dangerous to lean out
A portrait and two videos of Catherine Destivelle, one the most talented climbers and alpinists of all times.
It is dangerous to lean out…Those who climbed in the ’80’s have no doubts whatsoever: these words evoke one particular image. That of a girl clinging to the rock with just one hand, suspended high above the void. She’s wearing a vivid fuchsia lycra bodysuit (reminiscent of Jane Fonda in her aerobics videos), cracks a half ironic half irresistible smile and flashes eyes so blue you can get lost in them. She is, of course, Catherine Destivelle, the French rock queen. One of the women who more than anyone else fuelled the dreams of climbers, better still, was envied by male climbers for her boundless skill.
In the film directed by Robert Nicod, whose title is based on the little warning plaques affixed below the Italian train windows, Catherine climbs above the immense and extraordinary Verdon Gorge void with Monique Dalmasso. The year is 1985. The route the two women climb is the famous Pichenibule, with its just as famous Bombé bulging overhang. Theirs is the first female ascent. Put into a different context, it’s like the final exam prior to graduation, or rather, a PhD in climbing. And Catherine demonstrates complete mastery of the moves and also extraordinary strength; she’s a true maestro.
A star was born. Unsurprisingly so, as she was predestined. Catherine began taking to the mountains at an extremely young age. In 1973, aged just 13, she asked her father to go and see the Oisan massif. He accompanied her to La Grave and collected her 10 days later. She had done everything on here own. This, too, is a sign of what lay in store. Like the fact that at 12 she was already a member of the French Mountaineering Club and that, as a true Parisian, she had started climbing in the Fontainebleau forest. In the noble land of bouldering, where most the France’s best mountaineers and climbers spent their formative years. Catherine was naturally gifted, of course, but she also liked to take the lead, explore the road that lay ahead.
At 16 she repeated the Voie Couzy - Desmaison on Pic d'Olan and Voie Devies - Gervasutti on Ailefroide Occidentale. Then came the early 80s, those that brought with them the new wave of climbing of which she became a main player. These were also the years when she trained for and subsequently worked as a physiotherapist.
In 1985 she was the star of the first climbing competition at Bardonecchia. A success that she repeated in the next two editions. In those first competitions she was undoubtedly the woman to beat, along with America’s Lynn Hill and Italy’s Luisa Iovane. And these were the same years when she was also a prime player at the crags, indeed, it was she who climbed the first female 8a+. The year was 1988, the crag Buoux and the route legendary Chouca first ascended by master Marc Le Menestrel.
She was a woman and a climber at the apex of success. But Catherine was not content to rest on her laurels. She had a first love (and a natural inclination) that she couldn’t ignore. And so, at the start of the ’90's, she returned to his mountains, to mountaineering. She did so in her manner, putting herself to the test, raising the bar higher than anyone had ever expected. Which means that, just like when she was a young girl, she went alone. In 1990 she required just 4 hours, as fast as a rocket therefore, to climb the Bonatti Pillar on Petit Dru and tag the first female solo ascent.
Next up came three standout moments, still unsurpassed: the first female solo of the three great North Faces of the Alps: Eiger in 1991, Grandes Jorasses in 1993 and the Matterhorn in 1994. But there was more to come. In June 1991 she established a new route on her own up the Petit Dru, needing 11 days to breach aid climbing difficulties akin to the impossible (and aleatory) A5. In 1994 she went on to summit Shisha Pangma (her only 8000er), while in 1999 was she checked in with a great solo ascent of the dizzying Hasse - Brandler route on the North Face of Cima Grande di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites.
Catherine is now co-chairwoman of the famous Groupe de Haute Montagne. In other words, she heads one of the most prestigious alpine clubs in the mountaineering world. This should come as no surprise; she was born an alpinist a maestro of that world where freedom reigns supreme, there where it’s dangerous and beautiful to lean out…
by Vinicio Stefanello
first published in Il Manifesto In cammino (May 2017)