The Centurian: Riccardo Cassin

The legendary and beloved Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin, known fondly to climbers as Il Padrino, died on August 6 at his home in Piani Resinelli, Italy.

By Jesse Mattner | January 16th, 2013

The legendary and beloved Italian alpinist Riccardo Cassin, known fondly to climbers as “Il Padrino,” died on August 6 at his home in Piani Resinelli, a town north of Milan. He was 100.

Cassin will be remembered as one of the first to give himself wholly to his passion for the mountains, to see an unreachable summit and decide it must be overcome. As much as any other climber, Cassin created what we know today as the climbing life.

He first became entranced with mountaineering with his revolutionary climbing club Ragni di Lecco (Lecco Spiders) in northern Italy during the 1930s and moved swiftly to establish a trifecta of climbs in the Alps known to this day as elite summits (Cima Ovest di Lavaredo in the Italian Alps in 1935, the Piz Badile in the Swiss Alps in 1937 and the Walker Spur on the northeast face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif in 1938). At the time, most had considered the faces unclimbable and the Walker Spur is still a lifetime achievement for many mid- to high-level mountaineers. His crowning North American achievement is the Cassin Ridge on Denali, on which Cassin led a team of six Italian alpinists to the summit of North America’s tallest peak over the course of 30 days through terrible storms and frigid temperatures. Six members of the expedition suffered frostbite, but all survived and Cassin was honored by President John F. Kennedy via telegram.

During his 60-year career, Cassin led hundreds of expeditions to the Alps, the Himalaya and the Andes, ascending technical peaks using hemp ropes and pitons improvised in a blacksmith’s shop from spare parts. In the end, he completed more than 2,500 climbs, with 100 first ascents.

To achieve so much success with so little loss is perhaps Cassin’s most striking accomplishment. Though two climbers on the Piz Badile in 1937 died of exhaustion, they were not part of the original Lecco Spiders. Following the leadership of Cassin, they reached the summit and nearly survived the descent.

He lost his best friend and climbing partner, Vittorio Ratti, fighting against Mussolini and the German occupation during the Second World War. “The Germans had occupied our land and our houses,” Cassin said. “What else could I do, other than send them away?”

He was held back from attempting K2 when he was diagnosed with a heart problem. The expedition, which he had helped to plan, captured the first ascent of the mountain. Yet these were atypical points of defeat, and it seemed that whatever Cassin attempted, he conquered.

In the 1940s he founded the Cassin company and revolutionized climbing equipment. Cassin was the first company to manufacture dedicated harnesses, down jackets and titanium crampons.

Yet Cassin remained foremost a climber, re-summiting his famous Via Cassin route on the Piz Badile at the age of 78 twice in the same week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first ascent. He also climbed La Nascente (5.10b) in the Val di Mello at the age of 85.

He passed away 71 years to the day after his famous first ascent of the Piz Badile. He will be remembered as a pioneer, a leader and a climber who proved himself capable of amazing feats over the course of his entire life.

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