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 By: Sean Langeveldt  | Date: 2009-11-25  | Category: Interviews    | (1) Comment  
 8a.nu

Riccardo Cassin - Rock Climber, Alpinist, Legend

Interview by Tony Lourens

When you hear the name Riccardo Cassin, you cannot help conjuring up pictures of dramatic alpine climbing scenes of yesteryear. Hard men climbing hard routes with antiquated equipment, dressed in tweed trousers and woollen pullovers.

This year Riccardo Cassin turned one hundred; a hundred years that included many forays into the mountains of his native Italy and also to the bigger ranges of the world, where he put up classic routes of astounding character.


Cassin was born in 1909 in Friuli, Italy and started climbing at a young age on the limestone cliffs of Grigna near Lecco. Having little money but a huge passion for climbing, Cassin and a group of friends each put five cents into a kitty to buy a rope and some carabiners. The only problem was that there were eight of them and only one rope. This was soon solved. The first two would climb up, then after reaching the first stance, would untie and throw the rope down for the next two, and so on.


As a young man coming onto the climbing scene, Cassin fell into the same era as quite a few other brilliant mountaineers. Climbers such as Giuosto Gervasutti (known as Il Fortissimo in Turin climbing circles); Emilio Comici, who opened the famous Comici route on the north face of the Cima Grande, one of the Dolomites’ most famous classics; Raymond Lambert, the Swiss ace and, of course, Anderl Heckmair who went on to Eiger fame, to name but a few. Among climbers like these, ‘Last Great Problems’ were never safe and Cassin wasted no time in rising through the ranks and started looking at the walls of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo to see where he could make his own mark.

He started with the Cima Piccolissima’s southeast face in 1933, then in 1935 made the first ascent of the huge and overhanging north face of the Cima Ovest. This route really put Cassin on the map. It entailed serious and committed climbing through huge overhangs using a lot of aid to overcome the difficulties. The route was an instant classic and sees regular ascents today by climbers from all over the world.


In 1937, together with his close friend and climbing partner Vitorio Ratti, Cassin climbed the beautiful and enticing northeast face of the Piz Badile, an extraordinarily elegant line, crossing a massive 500-metre rock amphitheatre. Cassin, at the age of 78, climbed this route again in 1987 on its 50th anniversary. Not only that, but he re-climbed it a week later for the press – a remarkable feat for a man of that age.


Then in 1938 came Cassin’s most famous creation: the first ascent of the huge and impressive Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. One thousand metres of sweeping granite slabs and corners, covered in most part with ice and verglas. Cassin and party were in fact headed for the infamous north face of the Eiger, to see if they could become the first climbers to bag the coveted first ascent of the ‘wall of death’, which had had climbers around Europe captivated for the past few years. Unfortunately, when they arrived at Grindelwald the news of the successful ascent by Heckmair, Vorg, Kasparek and Harrer was all over the place. They had missed it by a few days. On his return to Lecco, Cassin found a postcard from a journalist which read: “This is the wall for you.” It was of course a picture of the hitherto unclimbed Walker Spur. Without hesitation, Cassin grabbed his bag and headed for Courmayeur. Never having seen the wall before and armed only with a postcard, Cassin made a quick recce of the wall with Ugo Tizzoni. He then urgently sent for Luigi Esposito to join them and on the cold grey dawn of August 4 the trio set foot on the spur looking up at one thousand metres of untouched rock and ice. Their ascent crossed ice-encrusted slabs and up perfect soaring corners cleaving huge granite towers. Two thirds of the way up they reached a point where progress was only possible by a long pendulum to gain more climbable rock. The problem was of course, that once across this pendulum, all retreat would be effectively cut off. Undaunted, they made their ‘king swing’ and carried on through a vicious storm and two bivouacs to gain the summit on August 6. It was late and a third bivouac was necessary, but for the three climbers this did not matter. They had made the first ascent of what would become one of the most famous routes in the world.


Then came the bigger ranges. In 1958 Cassin was chosen by the Italian Alpine Club to lead an expedition to the Himalaya. Their objective was to be the foreboding Gasherbrum IV. At a shade under the magical 8 000-metre mark, this gigantic golden pyramid remains to this day one of the most difficult mountains and most coveted summits to tread on and has in fact seen only a smattering of ascents over the 50 years since the first. Approaching from the south side, Cassin’s expedition, which included the brilliant alpinist Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri, climbed the North East Ridge which entailed a long glacier approach, a difficult icefall and hard rock and mixed pitches at high altitude which eventually put Bonatti and Mauri on the summit. It was nearly 30 years before the main summit saw a second ascent.

A few years later in 1961, Cassin received some pictures of Denali (North Americaís highest peak) from the American pilot Dom Sheldon. He didn’t even know exactly where the peak was, but when he saw the pictures he knew there was a ‘problem’ to be solved and picked the most attractive unclimbed line. The rest, as they say, is history. Cassin chose a small experienced team and without much ado headed for Alaska. It really was a case of ‘he came, he saw, he conquered’. The team was dropped off at their Base Camp and started work immediately. With an uncanny ability to spot a classic line and gifted with brilliant route-finding abilities, Cassin set to work on the huge prominent ridge on the south side of the massif and managed to put every member of the six-strong expedition on the summit. The route soon earned the reputation as one of the mountain’s revered classics and became known as the Cassin Ridge. It involves demanding mixed climbing with some steeper ice sections and pitches of moderate rock climbing on the arête high up the route. Parties today can expect to spend between seven and fourteen days on the route.


After leading two ambitious attempts to climb the west face of Jirishanca in the Peruvian Andes in 1969 and then to the south face of Lhotse in 1975, Cassin retired from extreme alpinism, but still kept active. In fact, in 1994 at the age of 85 he climbed Luna Nascente, a climb rated at 6a+/20 in Val di Mello, Italy, and only five years ago at the age of 95, he still did 30 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups every morning and used to love walking his dog in the foothills of his beloved mountains.

Riccardo Cassin may be in a wheelchair today, but inside that barrel chest beats the heart of a man whose passion for the mountains has left a wake that will be followed by many climbers till the end of time.


Riccardo Cassin has documented his many climbing exploits in four books, with at least one, 50 Years of Alpinism, having been translated into English. For more information on Riccardo Cassin, his climbing exploits, books, etc. visit www.fondazionecassin.org.

This is a great site that is run by his son and grandson.


SA Mountain Sport would like to thank the Fondazione Cassin for the use of the photographs and also for facilitating the interview. Mille grazie.



TL: HOW OLD WERE YOU AND HOW DID YOU START CLIMBING?

RC: It was many years ago, but it feels like it was yesterday. In 1926 I left my hometown San Vito al Tagliamento (in the Friuli region), and moved to Lecco. I left my mother and sister behind, promising that we would get reunited as soon as I had got a secure job. I soon noticed the mountains around the city: the Rosegone, the Grigna and the Coltigone, the Medale, the San Martino, the Moregallo and the Barro. The most important thing though was to look for work. My first experience with the mountains (I am not sure if it was in 1927 or in 1928), was when my ‘boss’ took me on a Sunday day trip to Mt Rosegone. We had lots of enthusiasm, but little gear, and a lot of bread, which was all gone by the time we reached the top.


WAS CLIMBING AN INSTANT PASSION FOR YOU?

Of course! We used to go the mountains every Sunday and work during the week; I never stopped since my first Sunday trip.


DID YOU HAVE ANY BROTHERS AND SISTERS AND DID THEY ALSO CLIMB? WAS YOUR FATHER A CLIMBER?

I had a sister, my dear Gina. She was two years younger. Once I found a job and a decent house in Lecco I asked my sister and my mother to come and move in with me.

We used to go to the mountains every Sunday with friends and occasionally my sister, my mother, and Irma (who later became my wife), would join us too. My father, Valentino, emigrated searching for work, and unfortunately he died in 1913 in a Canadian mine at the age of 30. I don’t have many memories of my father, as I was only two when he left Friuli. Only in 1998, thanks to the help of his dear Canadian friends, I managed to be reunited with his body and put some flowers on his grave; but this is another story.

WHAT WAS GROWING UP IN THE MOUNTAINS OF NORTHERN ITALY LIKE?

In my life, I had the chance to see many towns and mountains, but every time I used to return to Lecco, my eyes would always look for ‘my’ (Mount) Grigna.


I REMEMBER READING ABOUT JOE BROWN USING HIS MOTHER’S WASHING LINE AS HIS FIRST CLIMBING ROPE WHEN HE AND HIS FRIENDS USED TO VENTURE OUT ONTO THE GRITESTONE. DID YOU GET UP TO SIMILAR ANTICS IN YOUR EARLY DAYS?

In the 30s, when I first started, we would go up the mountains using anything really.


WERE YOU NATURALLY GIFTED, OR DID YOU TRAIN HARD AT YOUR CLIMBING? YOU BOXED FOR A WHILE WHEN YOU WERE A YOUNG MAN, BUT DID YOU DO ANY CLIMBING SPECIFIC TRAINING?

I used to train with my climbing partners before every ascent; we used to go to the local mountains and train intensively to make sure we were ready. I have always exercised in the morning and still today, at the age of 100, I try to keep myself fit with some help from my physiotherapist.


DID YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR CIRCLE OF FRIENDS THAT YOU ALWAYS CLIMBED WITH?

I had quite a few friends then. Ugo Tizzoni, Vittorio Ratti, Ginetto Esposito, Pino Comi, Mario dell’Oro, whose nickname was ‘Boga’, Antonio Piloni, Carlo Corti, Giovanni Riva but also Mary and Vittorio Varale and Emilio Comici.


VITTORIO RATTI SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN WITH YOU ON SOME OF YOUR MOST FAMOUS CLIMBS. WAS HE YOUR REGULAR CLIMBING PARTNER? AND WHAT ABOUT ESPOSITO?

Well, we were up to so much, my dear Vittorio and I. We climbed a few mountains together, including the South Spur of Torre Trieste, the Piz Badile north face, then the war got in the way. And then we got back together on the Brigade ‘Rocciatori’, and later on 27th April 1945, during Lecco’s Liberation, Vittorio lost his life. Ginetto Esposito was another of my mountain partners, and much more; he was an untiring climbing partner and a friend for life!


WHERE WAS RATTI ON THE WALKER SPUR?

Ratti was replaced by Ugo Tizzoni, after he left for the army.


IT MUST HAVE BEEN A TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE WHEN RATTI WAS KILLED BY YOUR SIDE DURING THE WAR. DID YOU LOSE ANY OTHER CLOSE FRIENDS TO THE MOUNTAINS?

Yes unfortunately, and not just on the mountains; it’s the disadvantage of being 100! Still today, when climbing accidents happen I feel a deep sense of loss, even if they are not people I know, but they are still climbers and mountain lovers, so I am close to them in thought.


WHAT DO YOU THINK WAS THE SINGLE MOST DANGEROUS MOMENT IN YOUR CLIMBING CAREER?

I cannot remember. All mountains are difficult in their own way, the secret is to use their difficulty to your own advantage, but the main thing is to be prepared and use your head.


DID YOU TAKE ANY MAJOR FALLS?

I fell a few times, but I never had painful landings.


WHAT KIND OF CLOTHING AND CLIMBING GEAR DID YOU HAVE WHEN YOU CLIMBED THE WALKER SPUR AND GENERALLY ON OTHER ROUTES AS WELL? IT ALWAYS AMAZES ME WHEN I SEE PICTURES OF CLIMBERS IN THE 1930s, ’40s AND ’50s ON EXTREME ROUTES WITH CLOTHING I WOULDN’T EVEN WEAR ON A CHILLY NIGHT OUT TO THE TRATORIA. HOW DID YOU SURVIVE SUCH EXTREME CONDITIONS WITH SUCH LIMITED EQUIPMENT?

Our climbing gear was what was available at the time, and what we could afford then. It was cold for sure, our clothing used to get very heavy once soaked in water and would take ages to dry, but that’s what we had and knew then, not much of a choice.


YOU MADE YOUR OWN PITONS. WERE THESE THE FIRST PITONS MADE IN THE WORLD AND DID YOU MAKE ANY OTHER GEAR?

I used to be a blacksmith, and used my skills to make my own pitons, which I thought were more suitable to the type of rock I used to climb. Over the years, I gained more experience and knowledge and managed to make also hammers, crampons, carabiners and ice tools.


I KNOW YOU HAD YOUR EYE ON THE EIGER NORTH FACE, BUT YOU WERE JUST BEATEN TO IT BY TWO WEEKS. WHY DID YOU NOT EVER REPEAT THE ROUTE?

Our trip was delayed by the heavy snowing on the Eiger, and then by the Austrians and the Germans. We then got to Kleine Scheidegg, and waited anxiously, and finally celebrated their great victory. Since the mountain was sliding down and collapsing, especially on our route, we decided to give up.


WHAT AN INCREDIBLE FEAT TO HAVE CLIMBED YOUR ROUTE ON THE PIZ BADILE ON THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY AT THE AGE OF 78, AND THEN TWICE IN ONE WEEK. WHO DID YOU CLIMB IT WITH?

The first time, on 29th July, I was with Daniele Bianchi, Floriano Castelnuovo, Mario Conti and Danilo Valsecchi; About 10 days later I did it with Floriano Castelnuovo, to allow a Swiss film crew, who had heard about my climbing, to shoot my ascent. The first sunny day we went back on the Piz Badile.


WHAT MADE YOU GO FOR THE CASSIN RIDGE ON DENALI? WERE YOU TOLD ABOUT IT? DID YOU SEE A PICTURE THAT LURED YOU, OR WHAT? DID YOU FORESEE THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE ROUTE AND HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR SUCH A ROUTE?

The idea of reaching the top of Mt McKinley took me to North America, for the first time. It was thanks to Mr Washburn, (Boston Science Museum Director) who knew the mountain inside out, that we decided to hit the unreachable South Face. I remember when one of his house guests showed me some pictures of Mountain McKinley, which I had never seen before. I was accompanied by 5 young climbers, whom I admired for their technical skills and reliability, and whom I led with honour.


ARE YOU PLANNING ON A 50TH ANNIVERSARY ASCENT OF THE CASSIN RIDGE IN 2011 (LAUGHING)?

Not a bad idea . . . I will think about it.


THE FIRST ASCENT OF K2 SEEMS TO BE FRAUGHT WITH CONTROVERSY. FIRST YOU WERE NOT INVITED ON THE EXPEDITION AND THEN THE WHOLE DEBACLE INVOLVING BONATTI NEAR THE SUMMIT. WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED AND DID IT LEAVE A BITTER-SWEET TASTE IN YOUR MOUTH?

It’s my experience and my 100 years of age that allow me to remember what I have been able to do after my exclusion from K2, and what I can still do now in my everyday life.


GASHERBRUM IV MUST HAVE BEEN A BRILLIANT ACHIEVEMENT FOR YOU. WAS THIS YOUR FIRST MAJOR EXPEDITION TO THE HIMALAYA AND HAVE YOU DONE ANY OTHER IMPORTANT ASCENTS TOGETHER WITH WALTER BONATTI?

GIV was a great victory, and a satisfying revenge. I didn’t get the chance to go on any more expeditions with Walter, nevertheless our friendship is still very strong. We have recently celebrated my birthday together joined by our friend Reinhold Messner, a few months ago.


WHAT OTHER MAJOR HIMALAYAN EXPEDITIONS HAVE YOU BEEN A PART OF?

In 1975 I lead an expedition to Lhotse, but the difficult weather conditions forced us to give up. I think the route I had in mind then, was eventually used by a later expedition that made it to the top.


AT WHAT AGE DID YOU FINALLY STOP CLIMBING? I HEARD THAT YOU CLIMBED A GRADE 6A+ WHEN YOU WERE 85. IS THIS TRUE? WHAT WAS THE ROUTE?

I don’t believe you ever stop being a climber. Every day, in my little way I climb a grade 6.


IT MUST BE UNBELIEVABLE TO HAVE WITNESSED THE EVOLUTION OF CLIMBING OVER THE PAST 100 YEARS. SO MUCH HAS CHANGED. WHAT IS YOUR FEELING ABOUT ALL THE BOLTING OF ROUTES TODAY. NOT ONLY AT SPORT CRAGS, BUT ALSO THE MULTI-PITCH ROUTES IN THE HIGH MOUNTAINS?

The development of new materials and climbing gear has allowed climbers to face new grades. Yes, possibilities and safety have increased, but the human being certainly evolved. The most important thing is to

keep the right spirit towards mountaineering, together with respect, preparation and the head on your shoulders, not in your rucksack.


I CAN ONLY IMAGINE WHAT IT MUST BE LIKE TO HAVE SUCH A WEALTH OF MEMORIES TO LOOK BACK ON OVER SO MANY YEARS OF INTENSE AND EXTREME CLIMBING ADVENTURE, BUT THERE MUST BE SOME MEMORIES THAT STAND OUT AMONGST THE REST?

I have meaningful memories of all the mountains I’ve climbed. I relive those moments every time I talk to my friends, and tell my grandchildren about their granddad climbing those wonderful peaks.


WHAT A PLEASURE IT MUST BE TO LOOK UP AT THE MOUNTAINS SURROUNDING YOUR HOME WHILE ENJOYING YOUR MORNING ESPRESSO. WELL DONE ON YOUR 100 YEARS AND THANK YOU FROM CLIMBERS AROUND THE WORLD FOR BRINGING WHAT YOU HAVE TO CLIMBING.

I am the one that needs to thank you, because you are pursuing this wonderful way of living. Happy mountaineering to everyone!

8a.nu