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Riccardo Cassin – The Full Interview

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Photo courtesy of Fondazione Cassin

Riccardo Cassin is like the grandpa you always wanted—a big smile, a warm sense of humor, and two big, blue eyes in which you see reflected the snowy peaks of his past, mountains he remembers more meticulously than last night’s dinner. Today Cassin is 99, but his hand can still grip mines as strongly as if he were clasping one of Rifle’s slippery pinches.

You might think that with him confined to a wheelchair, Cassin’s sprit might be broken, but when you ask Cassin how he feels, he smiles and says he is happy to be alive and that it was just four years ago when 30 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups were part of his morning routine. That is why at 85 he was able to climb the 5.10b Luna Nascente, in Val di Mello, Italy.

From parents, to grandparents, to sons and grandsons oftraditional or sport climbing, Cassin’s name resounds the world over for having created the “Ragni di Lecco,” a group of adventurous climbers that in the early 1930s, with a simple rope and some hand-made pitons,made climbing their Sunday mass, climbing near town on peaks like the Resegone (,1877 meters) and Grigna (2,177 meters), and a few decades later topping out the unreachable Mount McKinley via the legendary Cassin Ridge (1961).

As the leading “Ragno,” Cassin conquered three of today’s most famous Italian north walls despite the limited equipment of the day—simple sleeping bags, hand-made crampons, primitive ropes, and steel pitons—the precarious climbing conditions, and long days on the wall. In 1935 Cassin made his first ascent of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo (Italian VIII°/VI°, A0 or 5.11d/5.9 A0) in the Italian Alps, 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. In 1937, Cassin climbed the Northeast Face of Piz Badile (Italian VI/V+ obligatory, or 5.9/5.8), in the Swiss Alps, at the same time rescuing two Italian climbers, Mario Molteni and Giuseppe Valsecchi, who had been stuck for a whole week on the 800-meter wall.

But possibly Cassin’s most renowned ascent was his 1938 FA of the Walker Spur of the Grand Jorasses (Italian V+, or 5.7), a 4,208-meter peak that took 82 hours to defeat mostly due to the very frigid temperature and the technical chimneys often filled with ice. (The climb, along with the 1938 Eigernordwand ascent, is still known as one of the best lines opened between the two World Wars.) But Cassin is also well know for his multiple expeditions to the 8,000-meters giants, including Pakistan’s Gasherbrurm IV (7,925 meters), the 17th highest mountain in the world, and to the Peruvian Andes to climb Jirishanca (6,126 meters).

The Grandes Jorasses.

MY BEST FRIEND AND CLIMBING BUDDY was, without a doubt Vittorio Ratti, with whom I opened the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo and the Piz Badile, but who I missed when I did my fist ascent on the Walker Spur.

On April 26, 1945, I was chief partisan, and Ratti and I were in the city center of Lecco. I was lying down with a bazooka given to my by American soldiers trying to stop some German soldiers from escaping to the Valtellina and Saint Moritz. Ratti was only holding a smaller gun, so when he fired on the Germans, they shot him dead by my side. He was one of the only ones who could keep up with me. He was very resistant on the wall.

YES, MY PITONS WERE HANDMADE. I used to make them using a cold press so they were more resistant, without air bubbles, compared to the ones using fused metal that sometimes were more malleable. I would cut two sheets of steel into which I’d engrave the shape of half a piton on each side. Then I would heat some steel raw at 1,200 degrees Celsius. to be placed between the two sheets, which I’d then press together. And—Voila!—here it is, the piton!

MY SECRET was definitely not genetic. My dad died working in a mine in Canada when he was 24, and he never climbed. What I had more than other climbers was that, since I boxed for three years before I started climbing, I was used to visiting the gym to do conditioning, and that built my strength. And also, well, my stubbornness—what I started I had to finish. I never came down from a mountain without reaching the top.

MY STUBORNESS BROUGHT ME TO spend four hours on the overhanging face of the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo trying to place a piton. It just did not want to go in, but I wanted to go up, so we took the time we needed. I wanted to make a pendulum that I would use to traverse the wall, so I needed [the piton] to be well-placed—it had to make the “bell” sound, otherwise it would have come out. At the end it was so well placed I was never able to get it out; it remained there to mark the route for the German climbers who attempted the route the next day.

Federica Valabrega with Cassin.

HOW DID I PREPARE FOR MOUNT MCKINLEY? Well, as with all my routes, I tried to find the most logical route, the least dangerous, and the one I was convinced I could finish without danger. Dom Sheldon, the famous American pilot, sent me some pictures of the mountain from which I chose the way I wanted to go up, and then I did it. I did not know where the mountain was, but I knew there was a problem to be solved—how to get on top of this imminent peak left undefeated by so many Americans beforehand. By the time the airplane took us to basecamp, I had looked at the pictures so many times I had to correct Sheldon, because he landed at the wrong camp.

YES, PRESIDENT JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY wrote a telegram to congratulate me for the [Denali] ascent. He was actually supposed to come visit me, but then the Bay of Pigs incident happened, and he had to stay.

K2 REMAINS A NEVER-CROWNED CLIMB, becauseArdito Desio, the chief expedition leader for the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano), did all he could to leave me at home—he felt threatened by my experience, even if in 1952 he took me to the Himalaya to sketch the route, organize the expedition, and [figure out] the material to bring. Before we left for Kathmandu, he sent me to do a physical in Rome, where I was told I had some cardiac problems and had to stay home while the expedition members conquered the mountain.

THERE WERE NO SLEEPING BAGS AND GOURMET DEHYDRATED FOODS ON THE WALL—[instead], we cuddled in our jackets, put our feet in the backpack, and tied into two pitons. I could sleep anywhere at any temperature. We ate lots of chocolate, dried fruits and nuts, and carried a little stove to heat the water to make tea. And then, when we had it, we would eat some bred crumbs and bacon.

SPORT CLIMBING IS STILL CLIMBING, but it is not the type of climbing I’m used to. Not because it is easier it is, [but] because the other one—the traditional one—is more normal for me.

I HAVE NO FAVORITES—all the routes I opened have a certain beauty in them. I love them all.

AFTER THE 100th BIRTHDAY, there will be many more to come!