Riccardo Cassin: A climber who leads them all

Italy's Riccardo Cassin turns 100 next month, and the mountaineering world is preparing to honoura true pioneer. Peter Popham reports

The trophies and honours are piling up in his home, but the best memorials to the life of Riccardo Cassin, who turns 100 on 2 January, are the soaring lines on mountain maps which show the way up the many dizzying peaks which he was the first man in the world to work out how to climb.

"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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral