Cassin, center, after climbing Grands Jorasses. Ugo Tizzoni is left, Gino Esposito, right.
In the 1930s, most of the great mountaineering problems of the Alps had been solved, and climbers’ attention turned toward the north faces, specifically the six great north faces of the Alps: the Eiger, the Matterhorn, the Piz Badile, the Petit Dru, Cime Grande, and the Grandes Jorasses.
By the end of the decade, all of them would be climbed, and Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin would lead the first ascents of two of them-the Piz Badile in 1937 and the Grandes Jorasses in 1938. During both climbs, Cassin’s party was pounded with storms, and on the Piz Badile, two members of the party died on the descent-Mario Molteni and Giuseppe Valsecchi, who had started climbing separate from Cassin’s party but asked to join on the way up the 800-meter face.
Cassin was born to a poor Italian family in 1909. His father moved to Canada to work in mines shortly after Cassin was born and was killed when Cassin was three years old. Cassin moved to the town of Lecco at the age of 17 and worked at a steel mill. The mountains above the town on Lake Como caught his eye, and he and a few friends began to explore them in 1930.
By 1935, he had become quite bold in his climbing, and when he and Vittorio Ratti heard that two top German climbers were attempting the daunting north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo, so they hopped a train to try to beat the Germans to the first ascent. Local mountain guides told them that 27 parties had previously tried to find a route up the face, only to be stopped by a “terrible overhang.” Ratti and Cassin battled up the face, at first racing the Germans, through a snow and hail storm, and after 60 hours on the face, reached the summit to find the Germans waiting to congratulate them. The climb today goes at 7a, or hard 5.11. Ratti and Cassin returned to Lecco to a celebration in their honor. Cassin wrote in his book 50 Years of Alpinism, “We had not expected to be famous.”
After the Piz Badile and Walker Spur, World War II broke out and Cassin was excused from military service because of his work in a factory that made military equipment. When the Germans came to Lecco, Cassin and Ratti fought against them, Cassin holding an American bazooka and Ratti a smaller gun. Ratti was hit by German fire and died next to Cassin, his friend and partner on many climbs.
Cassin made many expeditions in his career, but was strangely left off the Italian expedition that climbed K2 in 1954, most likely because expedition leader Ardito Desio was intimidated by Cassin’s reputation and experience. Cassin told climber and writer Nick Clinch that Desio told the doctor doing the expedition’s physicals that Cassin was a communist and had to be kept off the trip, so the doctor told Cassin that he had a heart problem-which apparently didn’t prevent Cassin from living to 100 years old, or putting up more bold first ascents.
In 1961, 52-year-old Cassin led an Italian expedition to Denali, where the group was to attempt a line up the 20,320-foot peak’s south face, that Bradford Washburn had said could hold the “Last and probably the most difficult and dramatic of all potential routes” on the mountain. The team spent just over four weeks on the face, establishing a 9,000-foot route that today is still a committing testpiece for mountaineers. On their summit day, Cassin’s six-man team climbed through temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero before beginning their descent. All of the men survived the climb, and only a few had minor frostbite.
In 1987, after a lifetime of climbing, Cassin returned to the Piz Badile to climb the now-classic 22-pitch Cassin Route on its 50th anniversary. A camera crew was supposed to arrive to document the climb, but was several days late, so the 78-year-old Cassin climbed the route twice in a week. Seven years later, he climbed a seven-pitch 5.10b in Val di Mello, Italy.
In an interview before his 100th birthday, Cassin told a Climbing Magazine writer, “After the 100th birthday, there will be many more to come” and that he had continued 30 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups every morning until he was 95. He died at his home seven months after turning 100.