Catherine Destivelle grew up in Paris, the eldest of five sisters and one brother. Because her father had a taste for climbing and a passion for the outdoors, she was from an early age a regular visitor of the forest of Fontainebleau, close to Paris, for its wilderness and its bouldering delights. There, a seed was sown. She remembers the pleasure of reading books such as “Heidi” and “Belle et Sebastien” when she was young. “One day, I dreamed of being Heidi, looking after cows in alpine meadows”. This romantic ideal has seen her through the years to this day.
Her climbing is deeply rooted in the traditions of this sport, at one with mountains and adventure. She began climbing at the age of 13: “When I tried rock-climbing, I was good at it straight away, so I liked it”. By the age of 15, she was picked up every Sunday by a group of more experienced climbers and whisked off toFontainebleau for the day. By the age of 16, she had climbed the Couzy-Desmaison route on the Olan and the Devies-Gervasutti route on the Ailefroide, followed the year after by an ascent of the American Direct on the Petit Dru.
After taking a five-year break from climbing to further her career in physiotherapy, she appeared on the competition scene. She entered her first competition in 1985, at the age of 25, which is rather late by today’s standards, and still in 1985, she became a professional climber. In 1988, Destivelle climbed the still-new 13c route called Chouca atBuoux,France, a radically steep line of one-finger and two-finger pockets that had become the symbol of the sport-climbing revolution. It was then the hardest route in the world ever climbed by a woman. For three consecutive years she won at Bardonecchia,Italy, but after competing in the second Snowbird Cup in 1989 she retired from competitions to focus on mountaineering.
In 1990 she free-climbed theNamelessTower inPakistanand solo climbed the Bonatti Pillar on Les Drus. In June 1991, she opened a new route up the famous west face of the Drus, during a remarkable 11-day solo-climb.
On the 10th March 1992, it took her 17 hours to solo the north face of the Eiger (3970 metres), in the Bernese Oberland, a mythical rock-face, regarded as the most fatal in theAlps. During the same year, she attempted the huge Latok inPakistan. In 1993, she achieved the winter solo of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, and attempted the West Pillar of the Makalu inNepal. In 1994, she soloed in winter the Bonatti route on the North Face of theMatterhorn.
In 1995 she climbed the South West Face of Shishapangma inTibet, and attempted the South Face of Annapurna. The year 1996 was a break in her activity, because of an accident inAntarctica, but she recovered very quickly.
In early summer 1999, Catherine climbed the Direct North Face of Cima Grande di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites. Catherine was again the first woman for this solo ascent which took her 2 days.