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
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links