Catherine Destivelle

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Catherine Destivelle
Personal information
Born (1960-07-24) July 24, 1960 (age 61)
Oran, French Algeria
Climbing career
Type of climber
Known for
  • Many popular rock climbing and free solo climbing movies since 1985
  • First woman to give her name to a climbing route (1991)
  • First woman to solo ascend the north face of the Eiger (1992)
First ascents
Named routes

Catherine Monique Suzanne Destivelle (born 24 July 1960) is a French rock climber and mountaineer.[1] In 1992 she became the first woman to complete a solo ascent of the Eiger's north face.[2] She completed the climb in winter in 17 hours. Her other notable climbs include the Bonatti Route on the north face of the Matterhorn and the southwest pillar of the Aiguille du Dru (the Bonatti Pillar).[3] Destivelle has been the subject of several documentaries,[4] including French director Rémy Tezier's, Beyond the Summits (Au-delà des cimes), which won the award for best feature-length mountain film at the 2009 Banff Mountain Film Festival.[5]

9 March 1992, north face of the Eiger, solo


Catherine Destivelle was born in Oran, in French Algeria, to French parents, Serge and Annie Destivelle. Catherine is the eldest of six (four sisters Florence, Sophie, Martine and Claire, and one brother Hyacinthe). Her father was an amateur climber and mountaineer, and both parents were always supportive and encouraging the family in outdoor adventurous activities. When she was a young teenager, the family moved to France, where she attended the Lycée Corot in Savigny-sur-Orge.

At the age of 12, she became a member of the Club alpin français, and started learning bouldering in Fontainebleau, cliff climbing in Burgundy, and alpinism in the Massif des Écrins. From the very start, Destivelle showed great skills, endurance and enthusiasm for rock climbing and mountaineering. At only 13, her parents believing she was bouldering in Fontainebleau, she went to spend several week-ends in the Rhône-Alpes mountains, climbing with the CAF instructor she met the previous summer, until her parents eventually discovered where she really was spending her week-ends. She then got to spend more time in Fontainebleau, meeting a lot of experienced climbers, all of them ten or fifteen years older than her. At this point she also met Pierre Richard, her first rope companion. With the Bleausards, Destivelle learned a lot about rock climbing, always keen on attempting the most difficult and challenging climbs, like La Javanaise in the Surgy cliffs (Burgundy), on the first time she went there.

From 1976 as she was only 16, she went spending most holiday time with them in the Verdon Gorge, climbing frenetically with Pierre Richard all the biggest and most difficult routes, both leading in turns, sometimes simul climbing. Destivelle and Richard also started to climb in the Alps some high mountaineering, more and more difficult, classic alpinism. During four years they climbed, generally at a very fast pace, a lot of prestigious routes. At barely 17, Destivelle had already climbed, leading, the Cousy-Desmaison Route (ED, 800 metres; 3000'), north face of l'Olan (3564 metres; 11,693'), the Devies-Gervasutti Route (TD+, 1050 metres; 3445'), northwest face of l'Ailefroide (3848 metres; 12,625'), and the American Direct (ED1: 5.10+ A0, 1100 metres; 3600'), west face of le Petit Dru (3732 metres; 12,245').[6]

At the same time, Destivelle was studying physiotherapy at the Ecole de kinésithérapie de Paris, and she began to work as a physiotherapist from 1981 to 1985, losing touch with her climbing activities.[1] It was only in 1985 that she started a full-time career in rock and mountain climbing, after coming back to rock climbing through some occasional stunts she was performing in the movie industry and for some TV programs, and after meeting Lothar Mauch during the shooting of E Pericoloso Sporgersi, who persuaded her to think again about her opposition to competition in rock climbing. Mauch became her sport climbing coach, her sponsoring agent, her regular belayer, and her partner in travelling and in life.

In 1985, she started entering rock climbing competitions, winning Sportroccia, the very first international competition (held in Bardonecchia and Arco, Italy), which later became the Rock Master annual competition. In 1986, along with her compatriot climber Patrick Edlinger, she won again the combined final ranking of the Arco and Bardonecchia climbing championships.[7] During the late 80s, she was the main and most media-followed rival to fellow climber Lynn Hill, alternating with her in winning various competitions, such as Grenoble and Snowbird in 1988 and 1989, the first International competition ever held in the US, that Jeff Lowe organized.[8] In 1990, together with Christine Janin, she participated at the ski mountaineering event Pierra Menta. They placed third.[9]

1990 was the year Destivelle stopped competition climbing, and came back to alpinism, her genuine passion. Meeting Jeff Lowe at this time of her career was a decisive move, because Lowe was one of the most inventive, innovative and best all-around climbers of the time. Preparing new climbing and expedition projects with him, training and climbing with him, made her reach yet another giant step of her mountaineering capabilities, technique and level. One of her greatest achievements, her solo ascent of the north face of the Eiger, was made possible thanks to a combination of her own constant evolution and the inspiration she got from Lowe's brilliance and talent in his career and his teachings.[10] During the 90s, Destivelle went on performing her most beautiful, most challenging and most mediatized classic climbs as well as her most innovative projects, climbing either solo or with the best alpinists and mountain guides of the time.

With Érik Decamp, a mountain guide and experienced himalayist, Destivelle climbed the southwest face of Shishapangma (Tibet, 1994), the south face of Annapurna (Nepal, 1994), and the Losar icefall near Namche Bazaar (Khumbu, Nepal) in 1997. During their 1996 expedition to Antarctica, they made the first ascent of "Peak 4111" in the Ellsworth Mountains before the expedition was cut short after Destivelle fell 20 meters (66 ft) from the summit and received a compound fracture of her leg.[11] The couple married in 1996 and their son, Victor, was born the following year.[6] She began to cut back on solo climbs in the late 1990s and developed a career as a lecturer and writer.[12]

With Bruno Dupety since 2011, she recently became a publisher at Les Editions du Mont Blanc, specialized in books about mountaineering and alpinism.[13]

In 2020 she was awarded the Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, for her inspirational climbing career. [14]

Rock climbing, notable ascents[edit]

Verdon Gorge, birthplace of many legends of rock climbing

During her competition years, Destivelle was considered one of the world's best sport climbers.

  • 1983 – La Dudule, Saussois, France (third female 7a)
  • 1985 – Pichenibule, Verdon, France (third female 7b+)
  • 1985 – Fleur de Rocaille, Mouriès, France (first female 7c+/8a)
  • 1988 – Rêve de Papillon, Buoux, France (fourth female 8a)
  • 1988 – Elixir de Violence, Buoux, France (8a)
  • 1988 – Samizdat, Cimaï, France (8a)
  • 1988 – La Diagonale du Fou, Buoux, France (8a)
  • 1988 – Chouca, Buoux, France (first female 8a+)

Notable solo ascents[edit]

The thin shadow of El Puro

Destivelle is also one of the few rock climbers who naturally excel at free soloing.

Notable ascents in the Alps[edit]

Aiguille du Dru, a new climbing route on the west face

Destivelle was the first woman to complete the following solo ascents:[1]

  • 1990 (October) – Bonatti Pillar of the Aiguille du Dru
  • 1991 (June) – Opening a new route up the Aiguille du Dru in 11 days, (June 24 - July 4). The "Destivelle Route" was the first rock face to be named after a woman.[15]
  • 1992 (March) – north face of the Eiger
  • 1993 (February) – Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses
  • 1994 (February) – Bonatti Route on the north face of the Matterhorn
  • 1999 (June) – north face direct of the Cima Grande di Lavaredo

Notable expeditions[edit]

6 September 1990, first female ascent of the Trango Tower (6,239 metres; 20,470')

She also went on many beautiful, innovative and challenging mountaineering projects.


Destivelle is the author of the following books:

  • Danseuse de roc, Denoël, 1987 (ISBN 978-2207233948)
  • Rocs nature (with photos by Gérard Kosicki), Denoël, 1991 (ISBN 978-2207238981)
  • Annapurna: Duo pour un 8000 (with Érik Decamp), Arthaud, 1994 (ISBN 2-7003-1059-4)
  • L'apprenti alpiniste: L'escalade, l'alpinisme et la montagne expliqués aux enfants (with Érik Decamp and Gianni Bersezio), Hachette Jeunesse, 1996 (ISBN 978-2012916623)
  • Ascensions, Arthaud, 2003 (ISBN 2-7003-9594-8)
  • Le petit alpiniste: La montagne, l'escalade et l'alpinisme expliqués aux enfants (with Érik Decamp and Claire Robert), Guérin, 2009 (ISBN 978-2352210382)
  • Rock Queen, Hayloft Publishing Ltd, 2015 (ISBN 978-1910237076)
  • L'escalade, tu connais?, Editions du Mont Blanc, 2017 (ISBN 978-2-36545-026-3)
  • L'alpinisme, tu connais?, Editions du Mont Blanc, 2019 (ISBN 978-2-36545-046-1)


  • E Pericoloso Sporgersi, Robert Nicod, 1985
  • Seo, Pierre-Antoine Hiroz, 1987
  • Solo Thai, Laurent Chevallier, 1989
  • Nameless Tower, David Breashears, 1990
  • 11 Jours dans les Drus, Gilles Sourice, 1991
  • Eiger, Stéphane Deplus, 1992
  • Ballade à Devils's Tower, Pierre-Antoine Hiroz, 1992
  • La Cascade, Pierre-Antoine Hiroz, 1997
  • Rock Queen, Martin Belderson, 1997
  • Au-delà des cimes, Rémy Tézier, 2008

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Sleeman, Elizabeth (ed.), "Destivelle, Catherine Monique Suzanne", The International Who's Who of Women 2002, Routledge, 2001, pp. 139–140. ISBN 1-85743-122-7
  2. ^ The State, March 12, 1992, p. 4A. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  3. ^ Jackenthal, Stefani Ellen and Glickman, Joe, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Rock Climbing, Alpha Books, 1999, p. 269. ISBN 0-02-863114-5
  4. ^ The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary of Biography, "Destivelle, Catherine", Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003, p. 429. ISBN 0-618-25210-X
  5. ^ CBC News, Finding Farley wins at Banff Mountain Film Festival, November 9, 2009. Retrieved 17 September 2010
  6. ^ a b Alpinist, "Faces: Catherine Destivelle", Issue 7, June 2004. Retrieved 17 September 2010 via Google cache.
  7. ^ International Federation of Sport Climbing, History of Competition Climbing. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  8. ^ "Deseret News", 'French Dominate Climbing Meet at Snowbird", June 13, 1988.
  9. ^ "Pierra Menta 1990" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
  10. ^ Destivelle, Catherine (2003). "L'Eiger en solitaire et en hiver". Ascensions. Arthaud. p. 188. ISBN 2-7003-9594-8.
  11. ^ Decamp, Erik, "Misadventures Below Zero", in Christian Beckwith (ed.), The American Alpine Journal, The Mountaineers Books, 1997, pp. 98–107. ISBN 0-930410-65-3
  12. ^ Arthur, Charles "Mother of all climbdowns", The Independent, May 24, 1998. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-04-06. Retrieved 2014-07-05.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ "Catherine Destivelle Earns Piolets d'Or Lifetime Achievement Award". Retrieved 2020-07-23.
  15. ^ Slung, Michele B., Living with Cannibals and Other Women's Adventures, National Geographic Society, 2000, p. 56