Legendary alpinist Riccardo Cassin died last Thursday, 6 August, at the age of 100. Born on 2 January 1909 in the province of Friuli, Italy, Cassin was orphaned at a very young age and started work at the age of 13 as a blacksmith, a mason and then as a mechanic.
It was during this time that his natural ability and passion for the mountains enabled him to develop into a premiere talent. He began climbing with the Ragni di Lecco (Lecco Spiders) and opened his first routes in 1931 at the age of 22. In 1935 he astounded the international climbing community by climbing the north face of the Cime Ovest di Lavaredo (Italian VIII°/VI° /500m / A0 or 5.11d/5.9 A0) in the Dolomites. This route was coveted by the biggest names in climbing at the time and had developed a reputation as being unconquerable. Federica Valabrega describes the route in a Climbing magazine interview:
…a 500-meter line alternating overhanging sections with some more technical roofs, both requiring a large number of pitons. At that time, the ascent lasted over 60 hours, during which three terrible rainstorms lashed the wall, making snow condition very precarious.
July 1937 – Cassin leads the first ascent of Via Cassin, the northeast face of Piz Badile in the Bregaglia, Switzerland with best friend and climbing buddy Vittorio Ratti and Gino Esposito. M. Molteni and G. Valsecchi had reached the wall earlier and asked to rope in when the parties merged. www.Cassin.it illustrates the epic struggle:
In the evening during the first camp on the wall, Molteni asked Cassin to rope in. The second day of climbing was full of great technical difficulties worsened by the absolute isolation and the frequent stonefall.
During the night of the second bivvy a terrible rainstorm broke out that put the five alpinists to the test especially Molteni and Valsecchi who were already exhausted by the efforts of the climb.
On the third day the team conquered the wall after climbing many hours in rain that transformed into hail and then into heavy snow.
The descent down the Italian side was difficult due to cold weather, poor visibility and rapidly diminishing light. Molteni and Valsecchi, physically and psychologically exhausted, did not reach their salvation.
In August 1938 he followed with perhaps his greatest triumph. Along with with Gino Esposito and Ugo Tizzoni, the team climbed what was at that time widely known as the greatest alpine challenge, the Walker Spur (Italian V+, or 5.7) on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses (4208m). The team spent 80 hours on the mountain, 35 of which were spent on mixed terrain. Mountaineering in the Alps recounts the infamous story,
They knew nothing of the Chamonix district, 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 he thought their question was a joke. He was greatly surprised when, the next evening, he saw a bivouac light fairly high up the Walker spur; by the next night the light ha[d] crept up the face. On August 6th the party reached the summit ridge, where it was caught by a violent storm which compelled the men to bivouac on the way down.
Cassin’s comment on the climb?
“We climb straight up, on a line of pitons, without pushing the route unnaturally. We take the necessary material, we plan the bivouacs; only bad weather can come between us and our line.”
Many more remarkable achievements were to follow in the coming years:
1939 – Cassin and Tizzoni – first ascent, northeast face of the Aiguille de Leschaux (ED-/800 m).
1943-45 – Decorated for his actions with the Italian resistance movement which fought against German occupiers in Italy.
1947 – Began producing mountaineering equipment in Lecco including pitons, then hammers in 1948, ice axes 1949, carabiners 1950, the “first eiderdown duvet jackets for non-European mountaineering expeditions” 1950, his first harness prototype 1958, and the first titanium crampons in 1960.
1958 – expedition leader, first ascent of Gasherbrum IV (7925m) by Bonatti and Mauri.
1960 – expedition leader, Jirishanca (6126m), Peruvian Andes.
1961 – expedition leader/climber, Cassin Ridge, Denali (6,194 m. the most technical route on the mountain at the time).
1975 – expedition leader, unclimbed south face of Lhotse (8516m).
Riccardo Cassin is an honorary president of the C.A.I. section of Lecco, of the Spider (Ragni) group, an academician of the C.A.I., and a national climbing instructor. He is an honorary member of the Italian Alpine Club, French Groupe Haute Montagne, American Alpine Club, Club Academico de Montanismo Espanol, and Swiss Alpine Club Bregaglia section.
In December 1971 he received the honour of Commendatore della Repubblica and in 1976 the honorary citizenship of Lecco. He has been designated Grande Ufficiale della Repubblica.
Riccardo Cassin’s legendary achievements have been recognized in a book produced for his 100th birthday celebration, entitled Riccardo Cassin: Cento volti di un grande alpinista (“Riccardo Cassin: One Hundred Faces of a Great Alpinist”).