Riccardo Cassin (1909-2009): much more than a mountaineer, but a mountain legend. A man of few words, who would glance at you and smile. His face would tell the story of his life and his style: he never stopped when difficulties arose. He wasted no time with small talk: thoughts would merely anticipate action, nothing other than that. Cassin looked at the mountains and climbed them, just like a climbing machine. Period.
Was he made a silent type by time? Not really, for that had been his nature all along. After he climbed the Comici route on the north face of the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, in 1934, he told the journalist who wanted to interview him that a pen was unnecessary with him: he would have needed a cork screw…. The same journalist, however, painted a perfect portrait of him. “An all-rounder, a concrete athlete from any point of view – strong, agile, calm and cautious, in the extremely difficult sections and in the easier ones alike, and almost looks foreign to all his extraordinary skills and his exceptional feats. Cassin would appear not to care so much about himself and this carelessness almost equals ingenuity.”
Still in Lavaredo, a few days before the north face of the Cima Grande, Cassin conquered the south-east face of the Cima Piccolissima, as well. The second repetition of the Comici route on the northwest face of the Civetta then took place in 1935, his feat on the southeast pillar of the Trieste Tower and the solution to the great problem: the overhangs on the north face of the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo, previously attempted an astonishing twenty-seven times. Cassin and Vittorio Ratti will succeed at their first attempt, solving that famous crossing which acted like the Rubicon: once on the other side, there was no way back.
The essence of this figure was clear: “Cassin strikes wherever he goes – they would say at the time – He would face the impossible with a firm hand, without hesitations nor rethinking. That was simply part of his style.”
1937 played a big part with the ascent of the northeast face of Piz Badile and, between 4 and 6 August 1938, a masterpiece took shape, i.e. what for many is a turning point in mountaineering development: the first ascent of the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, in the Mont Blanc Massif. Together with Ugo Tizzoni and Luigi Esposito, Cassin reached the top of that enigmatic peak, crushing the worries of those who had tried that very same route, but never really dared going all the way.
Also thanks to those marvellous pitons he produced himself, Cassin conquered icy granite, moving with the precision and correctness of a Swiss watch. It was impossible to stop that machine, that perfect rope-partnership which had stemmed from working-class Lecco.
In 1958, Cassin led the Gasherbrum IV expedition and, on 6 August, exactly twenty years after the Walker success, his protégés Carlo Mauri and Walter Bonatti reached the zenith of that 7925 metre-high monster. His exploit on the south face of Mount McKinley dates back to 1961 – a superb success, where all the team members reached the top - after the pretty good 1969 Jirishanca victory, the only waiver in the career of this tireless athlete. The Lhotse south face, which would have only been climbed in 1990, obliged the team to surrender; members of this team were, among others, Reinhold Messner, Alessandro Gogna, Ignazio Piussi, Giuseppe “Det” Alippi and Mario Curnis.
Talking about Cassin means talking about climbs and pure actions: he used to say that each and every one of them did play a special part in his mind. The old man, who will always stand for heroic alpinism at the time of artisan pitons, aid climbs and canvas ropes, always smiled at young people, supporting them and encouraging them not to give up. He himself never threw in the towel when he was on the walls everyone talked about; instead, he gave his best and people applauded him for his ideal interpretations of seemingly impossible routes.
Mountains were tangible objects according to Cassin. He thought hands had to go in search of good holds and his eyes had to look for the right crumples to put in the pitons. This challenge, a proper test bench, was a severe lesson in life, as Riccardo used to repeat.
“If you want to go to the mountains”, he said one day, “you’ll need passion, a very big passion, because that’s where fatigue and sacrifice lie. Reaching the summit also brings, however, an incredible satisfaction...
If someone asks me where mountaineering is going today, my answer will simply be... to the mountains. This is all that matters. Nothing more than this.”