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Rock Queen – by Catherine Destivelle

10th Feb 2016

Rock Queen – by Catherine Destivelle
Review by Sam Schofield

Catherine Destivelle was at the pinnacle of climbing during the 1980s and 90s, achieving sporting firsts, winning competitions and astonishing the world with her alpine ascents. Numerous films, documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles ensured global fame, providing her with the sponsorship and support needed to achieve her goals. 

Despite all of this, Catherine writes humbly about her achievements in her autobiography, boldly called Rock Queen. The title is not unwarranted but, after reading her recollections of expeditions in the Alps and Himalayas, it’s hard to believe Catherine would stand up and refer to herself as royalty. Her detailed accounts of climbing the Aiguille du Dru in her teens, soloing the north face of the Eiger, the Grandes Jorasses and the Matterhorn in winter, as well as her Himalayan expeditions almost always end in apparent astonishment when she returns to basecamp to a flurry of photographers and interviews.

The subject of her world-wide fame is, therefore, only a minor element of Rock Queen. There are passages referring to courting of sponsors and several of her mountaineering achievements are with film crew in tow, but Catherine’s stories abound with a passion for the mountains as her sole motivation. The development of her relationship with climbing provides the basis for the book, going from youthful exuberance to estrangement to rediscovery and an eventual balance. 

It was among the tranquil boulders of Fontainebleau forest where a young Catherine started climbing. Long days completing circuits helped her develop a feel for moving on rock and she took to it ably, regularly finding climbing partners in those several years her senior. She later found mountaineering and sport climbing, but took a three-year hiatus after qualifying and launching a career in physiotherapy – as well as a side addiction to late-night poker. When she returned to climbing, she quickly came to the fore as one of the best female rock climbers in the world, winning competitions and eventually becoming the first woman to climb 8a+.

Catherine followed her motivation into the mountains and established herself as a leading alpinist, committing to one big expedition a year as a way to maintain enthusiasm. In 1996, she broke her leg on an Antarctica expedition with husband Érik Decamp, and the grueling escape forms the opening of the book. Rock Queen also contains anecdotes about Catherine’s penchant for pastries, her training regime, approach to the professional side of the sport and relationships with fellow climbers and mountaineers.

What is truly inspiring about Catherine’s story, however, is her confidence and apparent total lack of doubt. When she sets her mind on learning to ice climb as a means to solo the north face of the Eiger (still the only woman to complete the feat) she goes about it without ever questioning the outcome of her efforts. She takes the same approach to all her climbing goals and, although some do not end in total success, she almost always finishes satisfied with what she has achieved. It just so happens that many of those achievements are truly astounding.

Catherine Destivelle will be appearing at the Buxton Adventure Festival on Wednesday, 24th February 2016. You can buy tickets online or by calling the Buxton Opera House on 01298 72190.