Riccardo Cassin: A climber who leads them all

“Riccardo Cassin had figured out the way forward at this point,”
writes contemporary climber Jocelyn Chavy in his log of climbing the
north-east face of a stunning lump of Alpine granite known as Piz Badile. “There
are no other cracks, no alternative corners as distinct as the ones …
right in the centre of the face. How did they do it? No bolts, no climbing
shoes. Just sheer willpower and lots of audacity: the will to invent and
follow their route right to the apex of this gigantic funnel. The Badile is
a gift to the present from the climbers of the Thirties, a masterpiece of
modern climbing”.

These days, Italy’s most celebrated living climber gets around in a
wheelchair, and he has been down with influenza for the past week, so an
event scheduled for yesterday afternoon, in which he was due to receive an
award from the mayor of Lecco, his home town on the edge of Lake Como, had
to be postponed. Yet only five years ago, he was still following his daily
regimen of push-ups and sit-ups, and he was climbing mountains deep into his
eighties.

“His temperature has come down,” said his grand-daughter Marta
Cassin, 31, “and he’s feeling much better but we didn’t want to risk
him getting flu again. Mentally, he’s in good shape, he talks a lot and has
many memories. As his birthday approaches, lots of old friends have been
coming over to see him. Reinhold Messner was here a couple of weeks ago with
Walter Bonatti, they ate together and stayed all afternoon talking about the
climbs of 50 years ago.”

Celebrations of the big event have already begun in the town where he has
lived for more than 80 years. Fondazione Riccardo Cassin, run from his home
on the outskirts of the town by Marta and other members of his family, is
marking his centenary with a series of events intended to continue
throughout 2009. Restaurants in the town have launched “Riccardo Cassin”
themed menus; and a book of tributes and recollections by fellow climbing
heroes such as Messner and Sir Edmund Hillary, 100 Faces of a Great
Alpinist, is published today.

Born in 1909 in Friuli, on the other side of the peninsula, Cassin was the
first in his family to climb. “My secret was certainly not genetic,”
he told Federica Valabrega for climbing.com. “My papa died working in a
mine in Canada when he was 24, and he never climbed.” And Cassin’s
first sport was boxing. “I boxed for three years before I started
climbing. I was in the habit of training in the gym and that built my
strength up.”

In 1926, aged 17, he moved to Lecco, a town with the Alps on its doorstep, and
while toiling as a blacksmith he discovered his life’s passion. He and a
group of friends who became known as the ragni di Lecco (the Lecco spiders)
started tramping up into the peaks at the weekends, first trying the
well-trodden local routes then venturing into the Dolomites.

“We had no money but a very strong passion for climbing,” Cassin
remembers, “so we pitched in 5 cents each and bought a 50-metre rope
and some carabiners. Unfortunately, eight of us had to tie into the rope, so
we took turns: two at a time would go up, and then they’d throw the rope
down and up went the next two.”

Climbing was crammed into the little spare time he and his fellow-spiders
could steal ? and even getting to the start of the climbs could be a feat. “I
had to work from Monday to Friday at the steel factory, so I could only
climb at the weekend,” he said. “I had no choice but to reach the
top before dark, because I had to get back to work the next day. And there
weren’t aeroplanes at the time, just trains, bicycles and lots of walking.
To get to Mont Blanc to climb the Grande Jorasses” ? a climb still
regarded as one of his greatest achievements ? “I had to take the
train to Pre-Saint-Didier, bike until Courmayeur, and then walk to the Col
du Gigante, do half of the Mer de Glace uphill as far as the Rifugio
Leschaux, and then get to the tavola (plateau) of the Grandes Jorasses and
start the climb. So I was already warmed up.”

On the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, part of the Mont Blanc massif, in
August 1938, Cassin and two companions conquered what was, according to an
Alpine historian, “universally acknowledged as the finest alpine
challenge”.

“They knew nothing of the Chamonix district,” writes Claire Engel in
Mountaineering in the Alps, “had never been there before, and in a
vague fashion asked the hut keeper where the Grandes Jorasses were. Even
more vaguely, the man made a sweeping gesture and said, ‘somewhere there.’
He had not recognised the Italians and thought the question was a joke. He
was greatly surprised when, the next evening, he saw a bivouac light fairly
high up the Walker spur.”

These were the glory years when Cassin and his friends opened up many of the
most famous slopes in Europe. He made more than 2,500 ascents, of which more
than 100 were first ascents. With the simplest equipment, crude ropes and
hand-made steel pitons, with no helicopters on hand in case of trouble, he
wrote the future of his sport on the sides of these mountains. “I
always climbed with severity,” he told Ms Valabrega. “That is how
the mountain became my friend, and never hurt my climbing partners or me. I
always brought home everyone who came along, and never lost a friend on a
rope.”

After the fall of Mussolini, Cassin fought as a partisan. His best friend and
fellow climber, Vittorio Ratti, was shot dead at his side as they fought the
Germans in the streets of Lecco.

After the war, it was back to the slopes. Cassin had reinvented himself as a
designer and manufacturer of mountaineering equipment, and now took on some
of the toughest mountains in the world.

The one incident that brings out a little bitterness in Cassin was his
exclusion from the Italian team that took on K2, the world’s second highest
mountain, in 1952. But nine years later, Cassin opened a new route to the
top of Mt McKinley in Alaska, America’s highest mountain, and received a
telegram of congratulations from President Kennedy.

Fifty years after he created the Cassin Route up Piz Padile ? the route that
so impressed Jocelyn Chavy ? he retraced his steps, at the age of 78, and as
the press wasn’t there to see him do it, later that week he did it again. “I’m
stubborn,” Cassin admits. “What I start I have to finish. I never
came down from a mountain without reaching the top.”

Riccardo Cassin: Greatest climbs

*Piz Badile

The north-east face of the 3,308m Piz Badile in Switzerland had never been
tried when Cassin succeeded on 14-16 July 1937. He repeated the feat in
1988, aged 78, and again later the same week.

*Grandes Jorasses

On 4-6 August 1938, Cassin climbed the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses on
Mont Blanc. In extreme cold, it took 82 hours.

*Mt McKinley

In 1961 he reached 6,178m Mt McKinley in the US by a tough southern route, now
known as the Cassin Ridge.

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