Riccardo Cassin, 100, Dies; Daring Climbs Marked Mountaineer's 60-Year Career

Cassin on the northeastern side of the
Cassin on the northeastern side of the "Badile" mountain in 1987 at age 78, celebrating the anniversary of the first climb up that side of the mountain, which he made with Vittorio Ratti and Ginetto Esposito in 1937. (Courtesy of Archive of the Fondazione Riccardo Cassin)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Riccardo Cassin, who died Aug. 6 at age 100, was a legendary Italian alpinist fondly known as "Il Padre." He was credited with more than 2,500 climbs and 100 first ascents around the world and discovered routes that 70 years later are still considered benchmarks reserved only for the sport's elite. Mr. Cassin, who started a premier climbing-equipment company in 1947, died at his home in Piani Resinelli, a town north of Milan.

During a 60-year career, Mr. Cassin led hundreds of expeditions, including treks through the Alps, the Himalayas, the Caucasus and the Andes. He ascended some of the world's most challenging peaks with equipment today's mountain climbers would consider primitive: tawny hemp ropes and handmade anchors he forged in a blacksmith's shop from spare parts.

Mr. Cassin willingly sought out the world's most audacious and riskiest routes. In July 1961, he led a team up Mount McKinley in Alaska -- the highest peak in North America -- over a precarious southern ridge previously deemed impossible to traverse.

More than 300 climbers have died so far on expeditions up Mount McKinley, which is 20,320 feet high. Temperatures on the face have been recorded as low as 100 below zero. Weather can be so unpredictable that a consecutive 12-hour climbing window is considered a godsend.

Mr. Cassin's trip was no different. He chose a southern route that experts at the time asserted was "unclimbable," because it had a sheer granite face that ascended 10,000 vertical feet in just 1.6 miles that "no man could scale." Only five of the 30 days the Italians spent on the mountain were climbable. All six were hospitalized afterward for frostbite.

The team's success on what is now known as "Cassin Ridge" made international news. President John F. Kennedy sent Mr. Cassin a telegram offering "warmest congratulations," calling the frigid trip a "splendid mountaineering feat." Mr. Cassin told Climbing magazine that Kennedy had intended to meet the mountaineer at Mount McKinley's base but that the president could not make it because of continuing political repercussions from the Bay of Pigs incident that April.

Mr. Cassin was notable for navigating up mountains by intuition and down them by memory. Fosco Maraini, the Italian ethnographer and travel writer who accompanied Mr. Cassin on multiple expeditions, learned this firsthand.

"There is something indestructible about this man; Paleolithic and Neanderthalish. Climbing with him you sense an inner force utterly alien to our complicated, mechanized, intellectualized world," Maraini told the authors of "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America." Mr. Cassin had "a supreme and subtle contact with rocks and sky, with ice and wind. Any Zen master would claim him as one of his own."

Riccardo Cassin was born on Jan. 2, 1909, to a peasant family in San Vito al Tagliamento in northeastern Italy. Cassin was 3 when his father died of asphyxiation in a mining accident while in Canada supporting the family.

The younger Cassin left home at age 17 to work the bellows at a blacksmith forge in Lecco, a small valley village nestled near the southeastern neck of Lake Como. His first passion had been boxing, but on the weekends, Mr. Cassin accompanied his ragtag group of friends that called themselves the "Ragni Di Lecco," or spiders of Lecco, on climbing trips to the smaller local 7,000-foot summits.

Mr. Cassin soon dropped boxing because climbing slowed his reflexes in the ring. Shortly thereafter, the Ragni began to take on more ambitious climbs, including three of the Alps' famous North Faces.

"We had no money but a very strong passion for climbing," Mr. Cassin told the London Independent in 2008. "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."

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