Born into a peasant family at San Vito al Tagliamento in Friuli, when this region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Riccardo Cassin had humble origins. When Riccardo was three his father, Valentino, emigrated to Canada where he died in a mining accident in 1913 when aged 29. Cassin left schools at 12 to work for a blacksmith. In 1926, when 17, Cassin moved to Lecco where he found a job at a steel plant. His first love was boxing, but he soon became fascinated by the mountains that tower over Lake Como and Lake Garda.
Cassin was one of the leading mountaineers of the inter-war period; in all, Cassin made a total of 2,500 ascents, of which over 100 first ascents. In 1940 he married Irma, with whom he had three sons – Valentino, Pierantonio and Guido.
Cassin started mountaineering around 1930 together with a group known as the Ragni di Lecco (spiders of Lecco). In 1934, he made the first ascent of the Piccolissima of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. In 1935, after having repeated Emilio Comici's route on the north-west face of the Civetta, he climbed the south-eastern ridge of the Trieste Tower and, with Vittorio Ratti, made a new route of the north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo. In 1937, Cassin made his first climb on the granite of the Western Alps. Over the course of three days, 14–16 July, he made the first ascent of the north-east face of Piz Badile in the Val Bregaglia (Bergell), Switzerland, accompanied by Ratti, Gino Esposito, M. Molteni and G. Valsecchi, the latter two of whom died of exhaustion and exposure on the descent. This route is known today as the Cassin Route or the Via Cassin. He would confirm his extraordinary skills climbing again this route, 50 years later, when aged 78.
Perhaps his most celebrated first ascent was of the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif on 4–6 August 1938 with Esposito and Ugo Tizzoni. The alpine historian Helmut Dumler comments that this was "by then universally acknowledged as the finest alpine challenge." According to Claire Engel:
They knew nothing of the Chamonix district, had never been there before, and in a vague fashion asked the hut keeper where the Grandes Jorasses were. Even more vaguely, the man made a sweeping gesture and said: "somewhere there". He had not recognised the Italians and he thought their question was a joke. He was greatly surprised when, the next evening, he saw a bivouac light fairly high up the Walker spur; by the next night the light has crept up the face. On August 6th the party reached the summit ridge, where it was caught by a violent storm which compelled the men to bivouac on the way down.—
In 1939, together with Tizzoni, Cassin made the first ascent of a steep line on the north face of the Aiguille de Leschaux.
World War II
During World War II Cassin fought on the side of the partisans against the German occupiers. On 26 April 1945, when he was chief partisan, both he and Ratti (who had accompanied him on several first ascents) attempted to stop a group of German soldiers from escaping to the Valtellina and St Moritz, and Ratti was shot dead. Cassin was decorated for his actions in the partisan campaign during the years 1943–45.
Cassin was supposed to have been on the Italian expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in the Karakoram in 1954, but Ardito Desio, the chief expedition leader for the Italian Alpine Club, preferred to leave Cassin home. According to Cassin himself:
In 1952 he [Ardito Desio] 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.
Following this experience, Cassin concentrated on organizing and leading expeditions, including the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Karakoram by Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri on 6 August 1958 and an expedition that climbed Jirishanca in the Andes in 1960.
In 1961, Cassin was both leader and a successful ascentionist on the expedition that made the first ascent of the eponymous Cassin Ridge on Mount McKinley in Alaska, at that date the most technical route on the mountain. After this ascent President Kennedy sent Cassin a telegram of congratulation, and had the Bay of Pigs crisis not intervened, he was scheduled to meet Cassin. In 1975, Cassin led an expedition to the unclimbed south face of Lhotse in the Himalaya, but this was unsuccessful as a result of bad weather.
Cassin began designing and producing mountaineering equipment in Lecco in 1947. That year he produced his first rock pitons; in 1948 he produced his first hammers, his first ice axes appeared in 1949, and 1950 saw the introduction of his karabiners. That same year he produced the "first eiderdown duvet jackets for non-European mountaineering expeditions", these going into production two years later. In 1958 he and his son produced their first harness prototype; this went into production two years later, the same year that he introduced titanium crampons.
100th birthday celebrations
Cassin's 100th birthday was on 2 January 2009. A book, entitled Riccardo Cassin: Cento volti di un grande alpinista ("Riccardo Cassin: One Hundred Faces of a Great Alpinist"), was produced to mark the occasion, containing one hundred testimonies from people connected with Cassin, including Edouard Frendo, Georges Livanos, John F. Kennedy, Reinhold Messner, Carlo Mauri, Walter Bonatti, Gianni Brera and Candido Cannavò.
He died in Piano dei Resinelli, Lecco, on 6 August 2009, aged 100.
- Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al merito della Repubblica Italiana (Rome, 9 February 1999)
- Grand'Ufficiale dell'Ordine al merito della Repubblica Italiana (5 January 1980)
- Riccardo Cassin, Alpi occidentali: Bianco, Cervino, Rosa, Grafica e Arte Bergamo, 1990, ISBN 8872011043
- Riccardo Cassin, Fifty Years of Alpinism, Diadem, 1980, ISBN 0898860601
- Alessandro Gogna, Laura Melesi and Daniele Redaelli, Riccardo Cassin: Cento volti di un grande alpinista, Bellavite Editore, 2008, ISBN 9788875110925
- Obituary of Cassin on The Telegraph, 10 August 2009
- Cassin 100th birthday celebrations
- Cassin interview
- Claire Engel, Mountaineering in the Alps, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971, p. 247
- Robin G. Collomb, Bregaglia West, Goring: West Col Productions, 1984, p. 98. In 1987 the 78-year-old Cassin celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his first ascent by again ascending the north-east face.
- Helmut Dumler and Willi P. Burkhardt, The High Mountains of the Alps, London: Diadem, 1994, p. 190
- The High Mountains of the Alps, p. 190
- Mountaineering in the Alps, p. 231
- The story of the Cassin company
- Death of Riccardo Cassin kairn.com, accessed 9 August 2009
- Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana award to Cassin by the President of the Republic
- Grande Ufficiale Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana award to Cassin on the initiative of the President of the Council
- Biography on SummitPost
- Cassin Ridge (Mount McKinley) page on SummitPost, with description, itinerary and topo
- Interview with Cassin at climbing.com
- Photos of the Cassin Ridge (Mount McKinley)
- Riccardo Cassin - Daily Telegraph obituary
- Obituary by the Associated Press
- Riccardo Cassin: Mountaineer whose exploits across five decades gave him legendary status, The Independent Obituary