06 October 2009
Riccardo Cassin was born in 1909 in San Vito al Tagliamento (Friuli). When he was 17, his family moved to Lecco where the young Riccardo started to work as a builder. He joined a sports club and boxed, with good results, until 1929, when he started climbing on the pinnacles of the Grignetta, overlooking Lecco. Just two years later, he was putting up his own new route, conceived and climbed with the legendary Mary Varale, a fascinating person who’d often climb with Riccardo.
The pair opened the route Mary on the east face of the Guglia Angelina in Grignetta, a short but difficult route: V+/A0. In just a few years, with Mary Varale and other very strong partners such as Mario Dell’Oro (Boga), Riccardo explored the rocky wilderness of the Grigne, climbing a significant number of new routes. His meeting in 1933 with Emilio Comici, alpinism’s aesthete , played a crucial role in the development of Riccardo’s technique.
Comici, beyond being a versatile and graceful climber who seemed to dance like a ballerina on the rock, showed the Lecco climbers his secrets for artificial climbing and how to best use etriers and double ropes. The “outdoor gym” where this training took place was the Corno del Nibbio, an overhanging tower not far from the houses of the Piani Resinelli, above Lecco.
Cassin made full use of Comici’s teachings, and with this training a whole new world, full of new possibilities on the Alps’ most repulsive faces, was opened up for him. Comici and Cassin respected one another and became friends, and Cassin invited Comici from Trieste to open a new route on the Zuccone dei Campelli (Valsassina); Mario Dell'Oro, Mary Varale and Mario Spreafico also accompanied them. Still in 1933 Cassin made his first foray outside his home mountains, to those that were most similar to the Grigne: the Dolomites. Riccardo, with Antonio Piloni, made the first repeat of the Comici route on the west face of the Torre del Diavolo in the Cadini di Misurina.
His experience on the Monti Pallidi made its mark, and Cassin soon returned to these impressive walls, not only to repeat other top climbers’ routes, but also to climb his own. The following year, in fact, he repeated the route his friends Panzeri, dell’Oro and Giudici had just opened on the Popena (Cristallo massif), the Spigolo Giallo of the Cima Piccola di Lavaredo and the Comici on the north face of the Cima Grande. But, most importantly, he finished his first new route in the Dolomites on the south-east face of the Cima Piccolissima di Lavaredo. This route, like many others of Cassin’s, became a classic.
Riccardo really started to make a name for himself in 1935, when with Vittorio Ratti he climbed the splendid SE arete of the Torre Trieste in the Civetta massif, 600 vertical or overhanging metres which go at VI+ and A1. The next step was the climbing of the impossible overhangs of the north face of the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo, which means a drop underneath you from which you can’t retreat. The route had had several previous attempts, but all had stopped at the horizontal traverse after which retreat is no longer possible. Cassin and Vittorio Ratti, secure in their capabilities, climbed this face easily, as if they were on the Grigne, at their first attempt to bag one of the most audacious climbs up to then made in the Dolomites 550m, VI+ and A1.
This is Cassin and his companions’ consecration on the limestone Alps’ most sought-after walls. It wasn’t hard for Riccardo to find unexplored spaces, since there were many unsolved problems in the Alps that were there for all to see, having received unsuccessful attempts which only added to their perceived difficulty. But the difference Cassin and his team made with their approach. They don’t need long studies or reccies: when you decide to set off, you need to be technically and physically prepared for the most difficult struggles and have an eye for the best route, the one that leads to the summit.
With this philosophy, in the summer of 1937, Cassin climbed the smooth granite north-east face of the Pizzo Badile. With him were the inseparable Vittorio Ratti, and Gino Esposito, and Ugo Tizzoni; the Como climbers Mario Molteni and Giuseppe Valsecchi – who’d tried the route previously – joined up with the Lecco climbers when they were already on the first part of the north east face. Unfortunately this fine climb, which took 3 days and was impeded by terrible weather, cost the lives of Molteni and Valsecchi whose energies were exhausted in the course of the descent from the summit. This was a heavy burden to bear for Cassin who, with his generous nature, had welcomed into his party two climbers who probably weren’t up to climbing a big wall such as the Badile’s.
The following summer was that of 1938. If Riccardo had resolved the north-east face of the Badile, one of the last great problems that Europe’s best climbers had in their sights, others remained, equally evident but more committing. The north face of the Eiger was certainly one of these. From the 21st to the 24th of July 1938 though, after an infinite series of attempts and a frightening list of deaths, the Austrians Heckmair, Kasparek and Vorg got the better of the face and emerged victorious onto the summit. Equally challenging was the enigma of the Walker Spur’s dark bastion to resolve on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, in the Mont Blanc Massif.
Cassin set off just a few days after the conquest of the Eiger, and before this, he’d never been to the Mont Blanc massif. He had his usual competent companions, this time there was no Ratti, but in his place there were Ugo Tizzoni and Gino Esposito. They had with them a postcard of the north face of the Jorasses. Cassin’s eye had already picked out a line on that immense pillar which leads to the summit of the Point Walker. The climbers abseiled down from the colle del Gigante and descended the Mer de Glace to its junction with the Leschaux glacier, which they climbed back up until they were in front of the gigantic wall.
From 4-6 August the trio climbed a logical line which leads straight to the summit, without any hesitation. Difficult rock climbing, ice, mixed round, altitude, the harsh environment and the length of the route make this one of the hardest climbs ever done up to then. 1200m VI and A1 are the numbers which don’t really convey the enormity of Cassin’s achievement. Even today this climb, unlike some others of Riccardo, which have lost their aura of difficulty, "the Walker" (as Alpinists call this route) has not lost any of its original austere beauty. It is still regarded as an impressive climb. In August of 1939 Cassin was once again on Mont Blanc, this time on the Italian side, with Ugo Tizzoni, at the end of the Val Ferret, tackling a beautiful unclimbed face. This was the north east face of the Aiguille de Leschaux, 750 metres of granite, ice and mixed round which wouldn’t become as famous as the Walker, but which would maintain their harsh character, never becoming fashionable after lots of repeats.
In the following years, Cassin returned to Mont Blanc to repeat some great classics, such as the south ride of the Aiguille Noire and the Innominata ridge. In the war years, from 1940 to 1945, Cassin climbed less, also because from the armistice of 8 September 1943, he became a leader of the Resistance, fighting the fascists who were still occupying the north of Italy. The group of partisans he led carried out daring military actions of great strategic importance for the liberation of the north of Italy from the occupying army and fascist militias. Unfortunately, in this period, Cassin lost one of his most able companions and friends, when Vittorio Ratti was killed by the Fascists at Lecco.
We had to wait until 1947, to find Riccardo climbing new routes again, this time in the Dolomites on the NW face of the Prima Sorella del Sorapiss where, with Felice Butti,m he climbs a grade V and VI route. With Carlo Mauri he then made the first ascent of the south-east arete of the Torre del Diavolo (Cadini di Misurina). Between 1940 and 1950 we find in his CV prestigious repeats in the Mont Blanc Massif and in the Central Alps, such as the Ratti Vitali on the west face of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, the NW Pillar of the Cengalo, the NW arete of the Pizzi Gemelli or the north face of the Piz Roseg.
Cassin went with Ardito Desio to Pakistan in 1953 to reconnoitre a possible route up the then-unclimbed K2. But for Riccardo 1954 was a year of great disappointment, when he was excluded from the expedition after medical tests suggested he’d have problems at altitude. These test results were subsequently shown to be false, probably organised by Ardito Desio himself to avoid having to deal with Cassin’s leadership and the respect the other climbers had for him.
In 1958 Cassin got his own back, returning in Pakistan as leader of an expedition with Gasherbrum IV as its objective. With him were some of Italy’s top alpinists: Walter Bonatti, Bepi de Francesch, Toni Gobbi, Fosco Maraini, Carlo Mauri, Giuseppe Oberto and Donato Zeni. The expedition was a great success, climbing this almost-8000m mountain for the first time via a very technical and difficult route. On the summit Bonatti and Mauri. Cassin, beyond leading the climbed, tried, solo, to climb Gasherbrum III from the north ridge, reaching 7350m.
In 1961 there was another grand success for Riccardo Cassin: Mount McKinley, the Alaskan colossus. Here once again Riccardo was the leader of a very determined team made up of: Luigi Airoldi, Gigi Alippi, Jack Canali, Romano Perego and Annibale Zucchi. The ascent of the interminable central spur of the south face required immense energy, technical skill and audacity, taking place in the wild setting of the far North with very low temperatures and fierce winds. Despite the difficulties, all the team reached the summit, an unprecedented feat. To this day, this route, known as the Cassin Ridge, enjoys a special reputation among mountaineers.
In 1969 Riccardo led an expedition to South America, to the Peruvian Andes where a splendid 900 metre route was climbed on the west face of the Nevado Jirishanca. His team was Natale Airoldi, Gigi Alippi, Casimiro Ferrari, Giuseppe Lafranconi, Mimmo Lanzetta, Sandro Liati and Annibale Zucchi. At 66 years of age, in 1975, Riccardo Cassin led an expedition with a very ambitious objective, the south face of Lhotse (8501m, the world’s fourth.-highest peak), a very difficult and dangerous Himalayan face.
The team included some of Italy’s best climbers, including Reinhold Messner. Cassin identified a line while his intuition told him would lead directly and logically to the summit. The team, though, found another line, and Riccardo agreed to go with it. They got fairly high, almost to 7500m, to then be forced to descend for the continuous snow slides which even buried a camp. This is the only mountain on which Cassin failed. It’s meagre consolation, but Lhotse’s south face was climbed only in 1991 by one of the best climbers of the time, the Slovenia Tomo Cesen, who climbed Cassin’s line!
Almost 80,in 1987, on the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of the NE face of the Pizzo Badile, Riccardo repeated not once, but twice, his route on this Bregaglia mountain. From then until his death, he always passionately followed what was happening in the world of Alpinism, and providing clear comments, not too caught up by modern attitudes to climbing, and with particular regard for young climbers and their aspirations and news.
Cassin was one of the most important alpinists of all time, but also a discrete and modest person. His pale, bright eyes, in later years slightly less sparkling, never stopped seeing what most climbers never see, and giving a simple but effective interpretation of the evolution of climbing.
He passed away on 6 August 2009 in Piani Resinelli (Lecco), having celebrated his 100th birthday the previous 2 January.
“To those who ask me where climbing is going, I simply reply: into the mountains. This is what counts. All the rest is icing on the cake». Riccardo Cassin
transl by Peter Herold