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Mother of all climbdowns

France's foremost female climber is giving up mountains to concentrate on family life. Charles Arthur reports

"What do I do? Why, I am a professional climber," says Catherine Destivelle. No one who has seen the films of her solo exploits on the Eiger and Matterhorn, and her romps for the camera as she climbed unroped,would doubt it for a second. Destivelle does not need to prove to any climber that she is skilful, and brave.

But she doesn't want to go up mountains any more. She does not want to go solo through the freezing cold with thousands of feet of nothing below her. Why? Because she doesn't want to leave behind her husband, Eric, and five-month-old baby, Victor.

"I can't bear to leave Victor for more than an hour," says Destivelle, 37, an elfin figure who sounds like a female Antoine de Caunes. "And I don't want to climb with anyone except Eric. And we could not leave Victor behind."

So attached has she become to family life that during breaks in a hectic lecture tour of Britain over the past fortnight, she would fly home to Paris for a day rather than stay in some English hotel.

The notion of a professional climber who cannot bear to go climbing sounds like the ultimate in crises, and a particular handicap for the woman who has become an icon to France's 2 million climbers, and millions more who have read of her exploits for the past two decades.

Destivelle has excelled in every facet of the pursuit. She was world indoor climbing champion for four years in a row. She made solo ascents of monstrous Alpine routes, of new Alpine routes and of South American granite spires. She went climbing in the Himalayas without oxygen tanks, and in 1996 reached the summit of an unnamed mountain in the wilds of Antarctica, where she broke her shin.

But now she wants to stay at home. Well, in one of her homes; she has houses in Paris, Buoux, and Chamonix, though she insists she is "a Parisian".

It sounds like a modern fable of motherhood: indulging in the self-absorbed sport of climbing, then yielding to the apple-pie values of home life, marriage, and perhaps a little appartment in Paris called Dunclimbin. So different, in fact, from Britain's own Alison Hargreaves, who posthumously attracted the opprobrium of columnists who had never climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs when she died in 1995 during a descent of K2, the world's second-highest (but arguably deadliest) mountain, leaving two young children.

Except that if you suggest such a thing to Destivelle, she bristles. She will not criticise Hargreaves for what she did, and feels annoyed at the double standards that operate when the media contemplates mountaineers. "I could not do what Alison did, now I have Victor. But when a man dies on a mountain, people don't think of children. When a woman goes climbing, they do. It was Alison's choice, and why shouldn't she?"

If Victor wants to climb, she will let him. But she would make sure he was "disciplined about safety" - ironic from a woman who made her name by climbing alone on routes

Destivelle's evolving personal values may be the first signs that the anarchic sport of climbing is somehow becoming middle-aged, even safe. She may not want to climb the Eiger right now, but she is still assured of a solid income. Paris-Match has commissioned her to do 16 features about climbing for the family around Europe. Then there are film projects, for which she only needs to find an idea.

Perhaps the emphasis is more on being professional than being a climber? Or maybe she has run out of goals, since she discounts Everest (she hates the brain-numbing effect of oxygen deprivation) and other pursuits within climbing, such as indoor competitions, have become fiercely competitive since she left them behind. She shrugs her shoulders. It is not something she is worried about.

But she is aware that it is different now. "When you are climbing alone you can just leave everything else behind. But when you go and climb with your boyfriend, it's very different. When you are together as two, you think: 'I don't want us to lose our lives for a mountain'."