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Catherine Destivelle on Soloing: “If I Ever Felt Afraid, I Wouldn’t Go”

Accomplished alpinist, rival of Lynn Hill and the first person to onsight solo the Eiger North Face, opens up about her career and nearly dying in the Antarctica.

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I did the American Direct (ED1 5.10+ A0, 1,100m) on the Dru when I was 17. I was just an amateur. I was climbing because I liked climbing, but I didn’t know I would be able to do what I did after. It was just pleasure. I was still a child.

When Lynn Hill came [to Europe to compete], I was scared. Everybody told me, “Lynn is very strong.” I didn’t compete a lot—one competition each year. Lynn was doing more. The media built up the rivalry between us. It’s not as real during the competition. Lynn was my best rival. I won some, she won some. She was very clear and focused. Very good spirit.

When I’m free soloing, I feel O.K. I always have a big safety margin, I’m not struggling. You feel quite powerful and calm. If I ever felt afraid, I wouldn’t go. I don’t like to bet. That goes for everything. I don’t run after luck. With my publishing company, it’s exactly the same. I go step by step and build something.

[On her solo FA on the Petit Dru in 1991] I realized I don’t like aid climbing. It was boring. But I learned a lot about myself: [It was] long, four days of bad weather, couldn’t go out of my portaledge. The climb lasted 11 days—too long! I felt very embarrassed because I had a lot of press and media. I didn’t feel comfortable with that.

[On the helicopter ride down off the Dru] I felt weak accepting that, but when I was on the top, my friends were saying, ‘Oh, just take it.’ …  It ruined the climb at the end for me, kind of. Even if other people don’t know I took the helicopter, I know I took it. … It was this feeling of leaving something unfinished.

I never did something like that again.

When I soloed the North Face of the Eiger in one day in 1992, my goal was to do it without knowing the route, onsight. I didn’t want people to say it was the first female ascent, I wanted to be the first person to climb the Eiger onsight and solo in winter (though I don’t know for sure that I was!).

[On a 20-meter fall in 1985 at the summit of Peak 4111, Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica, just after the first ascent, with Eric Decamp] I was taking photos and I lost my balance. A stupid accident. I landed with an open fracture. We were only two. At first I thought, I’m going to die. We were more than 4,000 meters high, far away from everyone, no rescue possible. But then we started to go down slowly. It took 16 hours.

I learned that I was too confident …. I unroped on top and I thought I was safe.

Concentration is the biggest thing I learned through my career. You can’t succeed if you are not focused. Climbing taught me that. You never let it go. Concentration in each instant, each minute, each second.

Concentration is an important thing in life. Without it, you do less.

A guy called me and told me I should do a book with him. … I thought it would be nice to share my knowledge. So I built up my publishing company. Now I have 58 books. A lot of them are translations. … I’m also publishing books for kids, because there’s nothing out there for kids. One of them is called L’escalade, Tu Connais?

Being a mother is exactly the same as climbing. Never let go. I focus on my child. Because I want his life to be good, not mine. You have to desire things for them, but not too much. I do my best for him to be happy and do what he likes—so he doesn’t climb! He likes sailing boats.

When I can, I still climb. I went climbing yesterday and the day before. I still love it.

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.