William J. Mosconi, 1951-2003

Publication Year: 2004.

William J. Mosconi 1951-2003

Bill Mosconi began his climbing career relatively late; he was nearly 30. He learned to ski in the Alps and tried sky diving. With characteristic pragmatism, Bill sought the best climbing mentor available to him, hiring Richard Goldstone as his instructor. Richard referred Bill to me in 1982 for ice climbing. We spent a December week in North Conway and decided to end with a day on Cannon Cliff. We roped up in an old stomped out platform and climbed up the tracks on the snow cone below the Black Dike. The entire slope gave way and we were swept down the talus field in an avalanche of a scale unlikely for New Hampshire. My descent was stopped by a scrubby birch tree about halfway down the slope—I was upside-down with broken ribs. After frantically extricating myself, still unable to breathe, I looked for Bill. About 30 yards above me, I saw a leg sticking out of the snow, near the edge of some small birches. I stupidly pulled on the rope still between us, trying to reach him as quickly as possible, thinking with horror that I had killed my client. As I approached, the leg kicked the air—to my great relief.

The conversation that followed was nearly as comical as the stories that followed. Gasping for breath—the wind was knocked out of me, with two cracked ribs—I said “Are you OK?”

“Of course,” he said. “Are you?”

“Yes,” I said, “But I’m sore. My side hurts.”

He then looked at me with what I later learned was the “Mosconi Look,” the baleful stare of icc blue eyes and an expression inscrutable behind his gigantic Austro-Hungarian Empire mustache.

“Bouch, we still have all the gear and after this, there won’t be another avalanche. Right?”

I knew what he was about to say.

I said “Right.”

“So, I came all this way, and I’m not coming back here to this podunk town, so let’s finish it.” I had to explain that I hurt too much and besides, I was no longer in the mood for climbing.

Our next jaunt was Chamonix the following August. I was to meet Bill at Geneva airport. He would change into his climbing clothes in the car while we drove to Chamonix, and we would sleep at the base of a big route that night, the American Direct on the Dru. I didn’t believe it possible for a New Yorker to go straight onto the Dru after a six-hour flight, and I changed the plan to the Cordier Route on the Pic du Roc—technically, a more difficult, and elegant route, but with less “engagement.” We climbed it and descended to the Montenvers Hotel the next day. Bill could have climbed Dru straight off. I was wrong and he berated me for the rest of the trip after the big rains arrived.

It was awkward. I was his employee and I had failed him. But I knew that if he made the decisions, we would eventually have a bad accident. Bill had a most intimidating stare and he demanded rational explanations for decisions. My saying “I just don’t have a good feeling about this route” was not acceptable. The intuitive decision making of climbing annoyed his own precise logic, but I couldn’t let him bully me into a bad situation. But Bill could afford to climb anywhere and the fees I charged him were impressive and tempting. So I decided to quit being his guide. I told Bill that I would climb anywhere with him, any time, as a friend and not for money. The result was an extraordinary run of climbing that lasted several years and a friendship that developed into a lifelong relationship.

Unable to climb the Nose during a rainy spring, we climbed the East Buttress of El Capitan and the regular route up Higher Cathedral Spire. That summer, we went to the Dolomites.

Bill had a flair for drama. Hemingway mentioned the Hotel Della Poste in Cortina in one of his books, so we stayed there while we climbed. Our first season we climbed the Punta Fiamma, The Spigollo Giallo, the Comici Route of the Cima Grande, the Pilastro on the Tofana, the Micheluzzi-Buhl on the Ciavazzes. Our final objective was the North Face of the Civetta. The family who ran the Coldai Hut was intrigued with Bill, initially because of his striking Franz Josef mustache, then for his Italian surname, and finally for his coming from New York City dressed like a well-to-do mountain walker but aiming for the North Face of the Civetta. We settled on the Andrich-Fae, but rain cancelled our plans.

The second trip, we climbed the Steger on the Catinaccio, another route on the Tofana, but our main objective was still the Andrich Fae. When we walked back into the hut, the girls who ran the hut burst into laughter, saying “Mosconi, Andrich Fae!” with the thumbs up sign. Again it rained.

What occurred next was pure Bill.

“Bouch, I’m not staying here. Let’s go to Venice.” So we went to Venice where Bill booked us rooms at the Hotel Danielli, the luxury hotel preferred by discerning visitors to Venice for generations. Instead of festering in the rain in a drab hut, we visited the legendary Basilica of St. Mark, the Doge’s Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs.

The next year, we again returned to the Dolomites for the Andrich Fae. It was to be our last climbing trip, but we didn’t know it. We climbed the Fehrmann on the Campanile Basso as a warmup, then drove to the Civetta area. We attempted the West Face of the Torre Venezia. After climbing the easy but unprotected and mossy slabs, we climbed the traverse that begins the real climbing. That day, I didn’t bring a helmet and was clunked by a stone kicked off above us. It knocked me out briefly, and took my desire to finish the route. My face covered with blood, we returned to the hut.

That was our last climb. A few weeks later I started flying paragliders and didn’t climb for five years. During that time Bill stopped climbing also, and during that period his shoulders fell apart. When I resumed climbing again in 1993, Bill’s shoulders could no longer take the stress. We made a half-hearted attempt to climb again in Chamonix in 1994, but we both knew our great climbing days together were behind us. In spite of that we stayed in close contact; we spoke several times a week, meeting once or twice a year in New York for American Alpine Club or Explorers Club functions. He was more than a friend; he was a great friend to me and I miss him terribly. [Editor’s note: Bill Mosconi died suddenly in his sleep in New York City on July 29, leaving his wife Linda Ianeri and two young sons. An accountant and consultant by profession, Bill was the Treasurer of the Explorers Club.]

John Bouchard, AAC