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Death on the Piz Badile

Of the “Six Great North Faces of the Alps,” the Piz Badile is the least known, yet the tragedy that unfolded during its first ascent, with four dead, ranks as one of climbing's bleakest epics.

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By 1937, six climbers had perished attempting the Eiger North Face, while the Dru, Matterhorn and Cima Grande’s big faces had already fallen. To the 18-year-old Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin, the most arresting remaining problem was the unclimbed 3,000-foot sweep of rock that is the north face of the Piz Badile. He arrived near the base to stay at the Sciora Hut with his fellow Lecco climbers Gino Esposito and Vittorio Ratti. With the mountain face hidden by storm, they hunkered down to wait for a clearing, only to see a rival team from Como, Mario Molteni and Giuseppe Valsecchi, appear. This would be Molteni’s third try at the face.

After the first day of climbing and a bivy exposed to “veritable torrents of water,” wrote Cassin, Molteni asked Cassin if he and Valsecchi might join his team and climb as a party of five. Cassin hesitated, but out of pity agreed. Slowed by the weakened Como climbers, the group plodded up the face. Further complicating matters, Molteni and Valsecchi dropped all of their food along the way.After the first day of climbing and a bivy exposed to “veritable torrents of water,” wrote Cassin, Molteni asked Cassin if he and Valsecchi might join his team and climb as a party of five. Cassin hesitated, but out of pity agreed. Slowed by the weakened Como climbers, the group plodded up the face. Further complicating matters, Molteni and Valsecchi dropped all of their food along the way.Too poor or simply unwilling to pay the hut fee, Molteni and Valsecchi bivied outside, near the hut, for 10 days in continuously wet and cold conditions. Weakened by the weather, but spurred by the threat of the Lecco team, they eventually headed up to the face at the same time as the others, taking a slightly different line.

That evening the face was again racked by storm. Freezing rain turned to snow, and when dawn came, getting to the top and off the back side was a matter of survival. By that point, wrote Cassin in 50 Years of Alpinism, Molteni and Valsecchi had given up “morally and physically.” They practically had to be carried to the summit. But there, as Cassin wrote, the epic only began:

Molteni and Valsecchi were in a serious crisis, and we were terribly worried. Desperately, we searched for a way down but the icy storm swirled round us more and more. The savage elements were gradually defeating the weakest of us. Ratti and Valsecchi were ahead, Esposito and I behind with the collapsing Molteni. We did everything possible to ward off the death that was stalking us. We poured all our cognac between Molteni’s lips. I tried to support him when he no longer had the strength to continue, but in vain. Without so much as a moan he sank to the ground, never to rise again.

We stopped for a moment in silence. Our feelings demanded that we take poor Molteni’s remains with us and for a moment, emotion defeated reason. Loading him on my shoulders, I tried to go on down, but the effort was super-human in those uncontrolled elements. On the advice of Esposito, who had stayed to help me, I tucked the body by a boulder, to shelter it a bit from the storm.

Our thoughts were fixed on our dead friends, only a little way from us, under the snow, and we wondered silently, which one of us would be next.

We then joined Ratti and Valsecchi, who were unaware of the tragedy. We said nothing to Valsecchi, so as not to upset him too much in his disastrous condition. But when an unexpected difficulty blocked the way and we bunched up, Valsecchi looked for Molteni and, not seeing him, guessed what had happened. Standing near a boulder, he wept silently. Suddenly, he dropped to the ground. In vain we held him up, trying to shake him out of the torpor that had invaded him, but he, too, without a word, was left lifeless in our arms.

We were all dumbfounded over this second painful loss: we put his body in a safe place and, seeing the impossibility of going on because the night was so dark, we got into our bivouac sack for the third time. Nobody could sleep, though. Our thoughts were fixed on our dead friends, only a little way from us, under the snow, and we wondered silently, which one of us would be next.

Toward midnight the violence of the storm which had lasted a good 12 hours, subsided, giving way to an impressive calm. At dawn the sky was clear; the heat of the sun revitalized us. We looked around and 100 meters away recognized the snowfield at the foot of the Badile.

We carried Valsecchi’s body to the bottom, covered it carefully with his bivouac sack and turned toward the hut. In an hour we were at the Gianetti Hut to tell our painful news and collapsed exhausted on the bunks: we had been on the face for 52 hours, climbing for 34, and for 12 hours the storm had lashed us without respite.

Next day we went back up the Badile with the rescue team, which had come up from the valley, to recover our friends’ bodies.                                    

Excerpt from 50 Years of Alpinism, published 1981, by Riccardo Cassin

This story was first published in Rock and Ice No. 227, July 2015. To access over 3,000 articles from Rock and Ice, go to rockandice.com