50 Years of Alpinism. Riccardo Cassin. Diadem Books Ltd., London and The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1982. 207 pages, black and white photographs, diagrams, maps. $17.50.
Riccardo Cassin has written a masterpiece of an autobiography—possibly the most important mountaineering book to be published in the last twenty-five years! It’s all here—a scintillating record of a half century of high-standard Alpine endeavor: his first climbs in the Grigna, the Dolomites, the north face of the Cima Ovest, the north face of the Piz Badile, the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, the Cassin Ridge of McKinley, Jirishanca, Gasherbrum IV and Lhotse. Perhaps the world’s best climbs done by one its best climbers. What more could one ask for?
But Cassin does deliver more. Recorded in these pages are tales usually ignored by his predecessors—tales of the roles of patriotism and nationalism within the framework of mountaineering. The joy expressed at making the first “Italian” ascent of a Dolomite north wall was clearly a source of great satisfaction to the young Cassin. It was also a significant step in overcoming the territorial constraints of a twentieth century Europe about to go to war. Neglected by most authors as taboo subjects, nationalistic feelings are discussed quite openly by Cassin—to his great credit. It may prove very surprising to the modem climbing generation to discover how profound these feelings actually were during the prewar period and how much psychological pressure each leading superstar of his day felt due to outside political forces beyond his control. Not free to luxuriate in the endless expanses of the North American landscape of space and liberty, the leading European climbers were thrust into the midst of political currents which were as difficult to navigate as were the outstanding routes they pioneered.
Cassin’s views on the continuing search for and overcoming of difficulties in the mountains are presented in one very interesting chapter. Cassin was one of the first to adopt artificial means to overcome impossible routes where his predecessors had decided to retreat rather than use aid. He notes that progress has and always will occur in mountaineering. The search for greater difficulty gives its just rewards and satisfaction. But he ends this section with an appeal to all to seek also the aesthetic and ethical sensations which the mountains offer. Here, finally, is a glimpse of Cassin’s personality and he is not shy about telling it as he believes it is.
The translation from Italian to English is excellent and faithfully records Cassin’s style. The only obvious defect is the lack of color photographs which were present in the original Italian edition. Nonetheless, ninety photographs— some of them never before published—record the climb, the climbers and the action.
It is rare when one man has such an outstanding record and career. Even rarer is the ability to write about climbing in a logical and flowing fashion. This book is surely destined to become one of the great classics of modern mountaineering literature.