Interview: Catherine Destivelle – The Beauty And Joy Of The Ascent

#interview #rockclimbing #alpinism #freeclimbing

Catherine Destivelle is one of those unique alpinists of all times who raised the standards and gracefully revealed the beauty beyond the difficulties of any ascent. Climbing some of the biggest routes in the Alps in hear teen years, Catherine had a staggering evolution in sport climbing in the ‘80s, becoming soon the first woman to redpoint 8a. With a genuine passion for free soloing, Catherine Destivelle has broken gender barriers in alpinism with her solo winter trilogy:  the north face of the Eiger in 1992, the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in 1993, and the Bonatti route on the north face of the Matterhorn in 1994.

High-altitude and technical alpinism whispered to her soul and Catherine succeeded the second free ascent of the Slovenian Route on Trango Tower, she climbed the southwest face of  Shishapangma, had a notable attempt of the south face of Annapurna and the north ridge of Latok I. With focus and a spirit of exploration, she also had impressive first ascents in Antarctica and solo climbed in the US, Mali and Thailand.

Due to her elegant powerful moves and focus on climbing ethics, Catherine Destivelle was also the main character of several important film documentaries and photography projects, that are today part of our climbing culture. Being an author of several books, Catherine is currently a publisher, managing Les Editions de Mont Blanc. In 2020, Catherine Destivelle was honored the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award.

Catherine Destivelle (2020).

With a cheerful and open attitude, Catherine Destivelle is now closer to our Transylvania Mountain Festival community and mountaineers across the globe, sharing her thoughts and experience with us!

Catherine Destivelle solo climbing Devils Tower Wyoming (USA)

[D.C.]: When did you realize that rock climbing and mountaineering will be your “way” in life?

Catherine Destivelle: For me, the turning point was when I won my first rock climbing competition in Bardonnèche (Bardonecchia) in ‘85 and some sponsors approached me. So, I said to myself that it would be quite nice to earn money from rock climbing. So, yes, it all started die to the competition.

[D.C.]: Looking back at all your ascents and expeditions, which is the one that is the closest to your heart?

Catherine Destivelle:I think the closest to my heart is definitely my solo winter ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, because before this achievement, I did not really consider myself a true mountaineer. I was making mainly rock climbing and didn’t do any mixed wall climbing, I was not doing much ice climbing nor snow terrain climbing, thus I considered myself incomplete as an alpinist. Consequently, after the North Face of Eiger I confirmed to myself that I was capable of climbing north faces. This was in ’92.

Catherine Destivelle / photo: Rene Robert

[D.C.]: How do you approach a new project? Did your style change across the years?

Catherine Destivelle: My style changed in time, because I evolved over the years. In my first years of climbing we did not do much free climbing. The idea of free climbing appeared later in the community and I suddenly had different projects in sight. First, I was trying to make the routes no matter how. Later on I was trying to make the route by respecting certain ethics, by free soloing. Then, I set as an objective to climb a few north faces. I have climbed them all onsight, without prior practice or beta. It soon became my way of expression. I wanted to make a complete and undisputable premiere, full stop. Nobody has made a winter solo onsight ascent of the Eiger before.

Yes, I have changed, I have evolved and I made others evolve. One has also to know a little bit of the history of alpinism in order to acknowledge what has been done before and to try new  approaches. And when you are a women you pay much more attention to these details in order to avoid ulterior critiques. I was not set to achieve another “feminine premiere”. I was determined to make it a total premiere. Therefore, the North Face of Eiger was a total premiere.

At the time, I had much more sponsors and media partners than the similar elite level male climbers, and I absolutely did not want to have discussions about my premiere. My performance had to be at the same level as theirs. Even above theirs, so that I would not take another climber’s place. You had to think as a “mountaineer” – not as a “female mountaineer” or “male mountaineer” – in order to be just. When you look back in the history of mountaineering, there are plenty of mountaineers who have lived from their passion, like Bonatti or Rebuffat for example. They all had contracts, but when you were a woman you suddenly became more visible. For all those reasons, I was determined that my achievement be unique and undisputable as mountaineer.

[D.C.]: How come that you chose to climb solo?

Catherine Destivelle: Solo climbing found its way in my life because I needed it. I was climbing solo since an early age, and I did it a lot with great joy. It was also a way to stop rumors about who was the lead climber on certain routes. When you climb solo it  brings you pretty incredible sensations. You feel strong and invulnerable. You train a lot. There is a lot of work before the actual solo climb in order to master everything. Everything has to go well. Everything is calculated and foreseen. And since I also like to have my margin, when you are actually doing the climb you feel very, very strong and that is something I enjoyed a lot.

Catherine Destivelle.

[D.C.]: Have you already been in the Carpathians before?

Catherine Destivelle: No, I have never been there. I do not really know much about the Carpathians but I would really love to! My friends who already climbed in the Carpathians told me it is a great area. It is also true that when you have kids and family you travel less. So there are places, like the Andes where I would really like to arrive one day.

[D.C.]: How did you manage to balance performance mountain sports with family life? 

Catherine Destivelle: Well, I had my baby quite late, at 37 years old, so I had done quite a lot of things before that! Therefore, when I had my great baby boy I did not crave the mountains. I was concerned about rising and educating my son and I found great joy in doing this! For me it was a natural stage and it was easy.

I also have athlete friends who do not dare yet to make kids, but when you have the age, it is time and you have to just gor for it, if you dream it. Afterwards, it may be too late. Plus, it is a nice thing to raise kids. What is it that remains in the end? There are so much more thing aside the mountains.

[D.C.]: How do you enjoy mountains today?

Catherine Destivelle: Nowadays I enjoy mountain biking, skiing and ski touring. A little bit of everything. Just enjoying mountains and the outdoors with my friends and family.

From a different perspective, I see that mountains are more and more frequented, for hiking and running, especially due to the covid19 context. People need simple joys like fresh air. Mountains are coming back in our lives. We have also to reflect upon the fact that if before we barely used to see some people in the mountains from time to time, now you can see them everywhere. Is that good or not? I cannot say. I only hope that people will respect Nature and education plays a big role in this process.

[D.C.]: What about the upcoming projects?

Catherine Destivelle: For the moment I am taking care of my publishing house Les Editions du Mont Blanc. Maybe I will make some changes in the future but for the last six years, I was focused on this. On a personal level, I have my projects of travelling and visiting places, exploring mountains. They are simply for enjoying Nature.

[D.C.]: You were honored the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. How did you react?

Catherine Destivelle: At first, I was a little bit surprised. Then, I started receiving testimonials and support from well-known mountaineers and climbers, and they emphasized the fact that it is a well-deserved award, therefore, I accepted it. It was a really nice ceremony and I felt really thankful to this amazing community. I was impressed by the words of Reinhold Messner and other fellow mountaineers. I was profoundly touched and impressed!

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Thank you Catherine for being such an inspiration for the entire rock climbing and mountaineering community. We are looking forward for thr upcoming editorial projects and new opprtunities to learn more from your impressive experience.

For those interested to follow Catherine Destivelle’s initiatives, please follow her official pages:

web: www.catherinedestivelle.com

publishing house: www.leseditionsdumontblanc.com

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“Interview: Catherine Destivelle – The Beauty And Joy Of The Ascent” – prepared by Diana Ciorba, 2021, Cluj-Napoca, Romania