Showing posts with label Alps. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alps. Show all posts

2 January 2018

Riccardo Cassin – mountaineer

Long life of partisan who was fascinated by mountains

Riccardo Cassin developed a fascination with mountains as a boy
Riccardo Cassin developed a fascination
with mountains as a boy
The climber and war hero Riccardo Cassin was born on this day in 1909 at San Vito al Tagliamento in Friuli.

Despite his daring mountain ascents and his brave conduct against the Germans during the Second World War, he was to live past the age of 100.

By the age of four, Cassin had lost his father, who was killed in a mining accident in Canada. He left school when he was 12 to work for a blacksmith but moved to Lecco when he was 17 to work at a steel plant.

Cassin was to become fascinated by the mountains that tower over the lakes of Lecco, Como and Garda and he started climbing with a group known as the Ragni di Lecco - the Spiders of Lecco.

In 1934 he made his first ascent of the smallest of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites. The following year, after repeating another climber’s route on the north west face of the Civetta, he climbed the south eastern ridge of the Trieste Tower and established a new route on 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 he made the first ascent of the north east face of Piz Badile in the Val Bregaglia in Switzerland. Two of the climbers accompanying him died of exhaustion and exposure on the descent.

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where Cassin embarked on some of his earliest climbing challenges
The Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where Cassin embarked on some
of his earliest climbing challenges
This is known today as the Cassin Route, or Via Cassin and he confirmed his mountaineering prowess by climbing the route again at the age of 78.

His most celebrated first ascent was the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif in 1938, which was universally acknowledged as the toughest Alpine challenge. Even though Cassin knew little about the area before going there he reached the summit and made a successful descent during a violent storm.

Cassin made a total of 2,500 ascents, of which more than 100 were first ascents.

During the Second World War, Cassin fought on the side of the Italian partisans against the Germans. In 1945 along with another partisan he attempted to stop a group of Germans escaping along an alpine pass into Germany. His comrade was shot dead by them but Cassin survived and was later decorated for his heroic actions.

Cassin was supposed to have been part of the Italian expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in the Karakoram, having sketched the route and done all the organisation.  But the expedition leader left him out after sending Cassin for a medical examination in Rome where he was told he had cardiac problems.

The Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif, where Cassin scaled the Walker Spur
The Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc
massif, where Cassin scaled the Walker Spur
Cassin realised the expedition leader had felt threatened by his experience and from then on he organised and led expeditions himself, such as the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Karakorum range and an ascent of Jirishanca in the Andes.

In 1961 he led a successful ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska. The ridge was later named Cassin Ridge in his honour and he received a telegram of congratulations from President Kennedy.

Cassin began designing and producing mountaineering equipment in the 1940s and formed a limited company in 1967. In 1997 the CAMP company bought the Cassin trademark from him.

Cassin wrote two books about climbing and received two honours from the Italian Republic. He became Grand’Ufficiale dell Ordine al merito in 1980 and Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al merito in 1999.

The book, Riccardo Cassin: Cento volti di un grande alpinista, was produced for his 100th birthday, containing 100 testimonials from people who had been associated with him, including President Kennedy.

Cassin died in August 2009, more than seven months after his 100th birthday, in Piano dei Resinelli, Lecco.

The main square - Piazza del Popolo - in San Vito al Tagliamento
The main square - Piazza del Popolo - in
San Vito al Tagliamento
Travel tip:

San Vito al Tagliamento, where Riccardo Cassin was born, is a medieval town in the province of Pordenone in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, about 80 kilometres northwest of Trieste . It still has three towers of its medieval walls and a Duomo with a triptych by Andrea Bellunello. Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo, taught there for several years and his nephew, Vito, also lived and worked there.

Lago di Lecco
Lago di Lecco
Travel tip:

Lecco, where Riccardo Cassin eventually settled, lies at the end of the south eastern branch of Lago di Como, which is known as Lago di Lecco. The Bergamo Alps rise to the north and east of the lake. The writer Alessandro Manzoni lived there for part of his life and based his famous novel, I promessi sposi, there.  

1 September 2017

Guido Deiro - vaudeville star

Accordion player who wowed America

Guido Deiro with the instrument that made  him a highly-paid vaudeville star
Guido Deiro with the instrument that made
him a highly-paid vaudeville star
The musician Guido Deiro, who was the first artist to become a star playing the piano-accordion, was born on this day in 1886 in an Alpine village north of Turin.

For a while, in the early part of the 20th century, he and his brother Pietro were among the highest-paid performers on the booming American vaudeville circuit. Using his stage name, which was simply ‘Deiro’, he made more than 110 recordings, which sold in large numbers.

He ‘covered’ many popular hits and well known classical and operatic pieces and wrote compositions of his own, the most famous of them the song Kismet, which became the theme song for the Broadway musical and was used in two film versions of the story, which was based on a play by Edward Knoblauch.

Deiro became something of a celebrity and was seldom short of glamorous female company. He was married four times, on the first occasion to his fellow vaudeville star Mae West, who would go on to become much more famous as a movie actress.

He was born Count Guido Pietro Deiro in the village of Salto Canavese, near Courgnè, about 45km (28m) north of Turin. His family were long-standing rural nobility.

The generation in which he was raised farmed dairy cattle, kept vineyards and fruit orchards, and sold their produce from a number of general stores in their ownership.

Pietro Deiro tried to take credit for his brother's achievements by making false claims
Pietro Deiro tried to take credit for his brother's
achievements by making false claims 
As a young boy growing up, Guido showed a talent for music when he entertained himself on the ocarina, a kind of flute. It was his uncle, Frederico, who introduced him to the accordion, which at that time required the player to press buttons to create sound.

Guido taught himself and his father was happy to let him play in the street outside his general stores, reasoning that the crowds who gathered to listen were potential customers.

He decided to turn his talent into a career partially to avoid the marriage his parents had planned for him, to the daughter of another noble family.

Despite being offered the chance to succeed his father in running the family business, he left home to become a professional musician in France and Germany.  He ended up in America after Ronco-Vercelli, an Italian accordion manufacturer, asked if he would travel to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition to demonstrate their new piano-accordion, which has buttons on one side and a piano-style keyboard on the other.

The event was held in Seattle from June to October 1909, after which he stayed on in Seattle. He played the piano-accordion in saloons, soon becoming a highly skilled player and attracting the attention of agents looking for new acts.

Hired by the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, he made his debut at the American Theatre in San Francisco in June, 1910, and never looked back.

Mae West often starred on the same bill as Deiro in her vaudeville days
Mae West often starred on the same bill as
Deiro in her vaudeville days
Soon he was a headline act, playing at music halls across the United States and Canada, and even beyond.  As the piano-accordion became more and more popular, he was its biggest star.  At his peak, he was earning as much as $600 dollars per week, at a time when an ordinary worker might earn as little as $5.

He continued to appear in vaudeville until about 1930, when he began to wind down. He concentrated on selling piano-accordions and coaching would-be players, setting up a number of studios on the west coast of America.  He married four times, although none of his marriages lasted many years.

Deiro suffered badly in the financial crash, which not only saw his stage appearances fall away drastically as vaudeville companies ran into difficulties, but the value of his investments diminished massively, in some cases wiped out.  He never recovered and when he died in 1950 his lifestyle was barely recognisable from that he enjoyed as a high roller in the 1920s.

His brother, Pietro, was never as good a musician, but was more shrewd with his money and his decision to start a publishing company producing accordion music helped his build his own fortune.

Controversially, though, he did so in part by seeming to rewrite history, allegedly making outrageous claims about he and his brother’s early days in Seattle so that he could take credit for Guido’s achievements.  He wrote a book in which he claimed he had been the first to play the piano-accordion, in San Francisco in 1907, a year before Guido arrived.

He had indeed been in America in 1907, but worked as a coal miner in Washington State, living with a relative who had emigrated. He did not learn to play the piano-accordion until Guido taught him, yet built an entire profile for himself around this and other falsehoods, brazenly passing himself off as the ‘Daddy of the Accordion’.

Medieval win towers dominate the
skyline of Courgnè
Pietro died in 1954 and it was not until many years later that Count Guido Roberto Deiro, Guido’s son by his fourth marriage, enlisted the help of Peter Muir, a scholar of early American music, in putting the record straight and giving his father the credit he deserved.

Travel tip:

Salto Canavese is a village in the Valle dell’Orco, which stretches into the mountains to the north of Turin, descending from the Gran Paradiso National Park. It is close to the town of Courgnè, which has some well-preserved medieval buildings around the Via Arduino, the town’s former commercial centre.  The old town is dominated by two towers – the round tower, known as Carlevato, probably dating back to 1200 and part of a larger castle, and the square tower, called the Clock, originally of the 14th century.

A wintry scene in Valle delle'Orco
A wintry scene in Valle delle'Orco
Travel tip:

The Valle dell’Orco, particularly in its upper reaches, offers some dramatic Alpine scenery and is very popular with walkers and climbers, with many towering rock faces. Indeed, the famous cliffhanger scene from the film The Italian Job was shot in the village of Ceresole Reale, which sits alongside the beautiful Lago di Ceresole.

12 May 2017

Zeno Colò - Olympic skiing champion

Downhill ace reached speeds of almost 100mph with no helmet

Zeno Colò, pictured on the way to his 1947 skiing world speed record
Zeno Colò, pictured on the way to his 1947
skiing world speed record
Zeno Colò, the first Italian to win an Olympic alpine skiing title when he took the downhill gold at the 1952 Oslo Winter Games, died on this day in 1993, aged 72.

The winner, too, of the downhill and giant slalom World championship titles in Aspen in 1950, Colò achieved his success during a brief window in a life spent on skis.

Deprived of prime competitive years by the Second World War, part of which he spent as a prisoner of war, he began his career late, in 1947 at the age of 27, only to be banned for life in 1954 under the strict rules defining amateur status after he endorsed a brand of ski boots and a ski jacket.

Colò was born in Tuscany but in a mountainous part of the region in the village of Cutigliano, which is 678m (2,044ft) above sea level and is just 14km (9 miles) from Abetone, one of the largest ski resorts in the Apennines, with more than 50km (31 miles) of ski slopes, several of which were designed by Colò himself.

He began competitive skiing at the age of 14 and was selected for the Italian national team at 15. The outbreak of war brought his career to a stop but he maintained his skills as a member of an army alpine patrol in Cervinia, close to the Swiss border.

He remained in Cervinia after the war had finished and in 1947, the first year of his resumed career, on the Italian side of the nearby Klein Matterhorn (the Little Matterhorn), he set a world speed record of 158.8kph (98.7 mph), which stood for 13 years. The previous record of 136 kph (85mph), set by Leo Gasperl had stood for 16 years.

Using wooden skis,Zeno Colo won Olympic and world titles in downhill and giant slalom competitions
Using wooden skis,Zeno Colò won Olympic and world
titles in downhill and giant slalom competitions
Colò thus established himself as one of the first great downhill skiers. His so-called “turtle egg" position was the precursor of egg position that skiers still use today to reduce drag. His achievement in clocking such a speed was all the more remarkable, considering he used skis from wood and did not wear a helmet.

His big successes came at the World championships in 1950 in Aspen, when he won gold medals in both downhill and giant slalom, and the silver in slalom, followed two years later, at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, with gold in the downhill.

Colò also finished fourth in the giant slalom and the slalom. Italy would wait two decades for its next Olympic gold in alpine skiing until Gustav Thöni's took giant slalom gold in 1972.

He was the first Italian to win the downhill title at the World championships and the first of any nationality to win the giant slalom, which was contested for the first time that year. Staying on in Aspen afterwards, he took in the North American championships, where he was also winner of the downhill.

Colò was Italy's torch bearer at the 1956 Olympics despite being banned
Colò was Italy's torch bearer at the 1956
Olympics despite being banned
After the Oslo Games, Colò linked his name to a ski boot maker and a ski jacket. According to the regulations of the time, this breached his amateur status and in 1954 he was barred from participating in subsequent competitions.

Colò protested against the disqualification but his appeals were dismissed. Although he was allowed to compete in the national championships, it was the end of his international career. Pointedly, Italy selected him for the Olympics of Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956 as a simple torchbearer.

He retired from competition with a record in the Italian Alpine ski championships of 29 wins in downhill, four in giant slalom, 10 in special slalom and six in combined disciplines.

Skiing remained the focus of his life, however. Leaving behind competitive skiing, he became a ski instructor at the Abetone resort, which he helped promote and develop as the ski resort of the Pistoia province. In 1973 he designed three ski slopes, which he named Zeno 1, 2 and 3.

He retained his connection with the Alps as director of the ski school in Madesimo, in the province of Sondrio in northern Lombardy.

In 1989 the Italian Winter Sports Federation finally revoked the disqualification imposed on him in 1954, although by then his days of competition were in the distant past. A lifelong smoker, his death in 1972 was the result of lung cancer.

Since Colò won his Olympic gold, Italy has won 12 more Alpine skiing gold medals, three of the them collected by the great Alberto Tomba.

The Palazzo Pretorio in Cutigliano
The Palazzo Pretorio in Cutigliano
Travel tip:

Colò was born in Cutigliano and died in San Marcello Pistoiese, a small town less than 10km (6 miles) away. Cutigliano is an attractive medieval village, its roots possibly going back to Roman times but more likely to have origins in the eighth or ninth centuries, when it was a staging post on the mountain road linking Pistoia with Modena.  The 14th-century Palazzo Pretorio is built in Florentine Renaissance style.

Travel tip:

San Marcello Pistoiese is a much larger place than Cutigliano, with a population of about 7,000 and again with a medieval heritage.  The churches of Santa Caterina and San Marcello are worth visiting, the latter featuring a mural by the 18th century Florentine artist Giuseppe Gricci.  San Marcello is home to the Pistoia Mountains Astronomical Observatory.

22 June 2016

Walter Bonatti - mountaineer

Climber's outstanding career marred by 50-year row

Photo of Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti, pictured in 1964
Walter Bonatti, the Italian who some would argue is the greatest alpine mountain climber that ever lived, was born on this day in 1930 in Bergamo in Lombardy.

He was the first to complete some of the most demanding climbs in the Alps and the Himalayas, including the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.

But those achievements were marred for half a century by the bitter row that sprang from the part he played in the 1954 Italian expedition to conquer K2, the 8,611-metre peak north-east of the Himalayas that is the second highest in the world - behind Mount Everest (8,848 metres) - but is regarded as the more difficult climb.

Incredibly fit and able to survive at high altitudes without oxygen, he was already such an accomplished climber at just 24 years of age that he was chosen to join the expedition, which aimed to succeed where five previous attempts over 52 years had failed.

The row stemmed from the decision taken by expedition leader Ardito Desio as the party neared the summit that the more experienced Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni should be the climbers to make the final ascent, even though Bonatti was in better physical condition than either.  Compagnoni was 39 years old.

Bonatti and the Pakistani climber Amir Mehdi were charged with following behind with oxygen supplies to be delivered to the final base camp, but when they reached the point agreed they found that Lacedelli and Compagnoni had placed the camp at a higher location.

By then it was almost nightfall and too dangerous for Bonatti and Mehdi to reach the relocated final base camp or return to the penultimate one.  He and Mehdi were forced to spend the night in the open, without tents or sleeping bags, at temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.  They survived, setting a record for the highest open bivouac (8,100 metres) but Mehdi lost all his toes to frostbite and spent eight months in hospital.

Photo of K2 mountain in the Himalayas
The imposing K2 mountain in the Himalayas
The following day, as they made their way back down the mountain, Lacedelli and Compagnoni collected the oxygen cylinders and reached the summit.  They were acclaimed as national heroes.

A furious Bonatti accused them of deliberately moving the base camp so that he would not be able to join them in climbing to the summit.  They denied this, insisting the location originally agreed had been too dangerous, counter-accusing Bonatti of using some of their oxygen, which ran out close to the summit.

Bonatti was blamed for Mehdi's plight and for years he was vilified by a substantial part of the Italian climbing community, who preferred to protect the reputation of Lacedelli and Compagnoni and not discredit their triumph.

It was not until 2004, when Lacedelli admitted in a book about the expedition that Bonatti's account was correct, that his name was cleared.  Lacedelli and Compagnoni knew that had he been given the chance, Bonatti would have completed the ascent without the need for supplemental oxygen and his achievement would have overshadowed theirs, so they moved the base camp in an attempt to deter him.

Photo of the Matterhorn
The east and north faces of the Matterhorn
The son of a fabric merchant, Bonatti grew up near Monza in the vast Po Valley. During the war years he spent part of his time with relatives in Gazzaniga, in Bergamo province, and his first climbing experiences were in the mountains close to Bergamo, specifically the Grigne range above Lecco. An adventurer by nature, he took on serious climbs from the age of 18 upwards. His achievements were all the more worthy for the fact that he had a poorly paid job in a steel mill and could not afford expensive equipment.

After the K2 row he found it hard to trust other climbers and set about achieving records on his own.

Among his triumphs were a solo climb of a new route on the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru in the Mont Blanc massif in August 1955, the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Himalayas in 1958 and in 1965 the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.

Immediately after his solo climb on the Matterhorn, Bonatti announced his retirement from professional climbing at the age of 35 and after only 17 years.

Subsequently, he wrote many mountaineering books and travelled the world as a journalist for the Italian magazine Epoca. 

In his later years, married to the actress Rossana Podestà, he lived in a house above the mountain village of Dubino, close to Lake Como.

He died in 2011 in Rome, where he was being treated for pancreatic cancer.

Travel tip:

Dubino is just a few kilometres from the northern tip of Lake Como in an area of alpine terrain close to the border of Italy and Switzerland.  The area is notable for its spectacular scenery, for speciality foods such as bresaola (cured beef) and bitto, a cheese made from the milk of cows that feed in high alpine meadows.

Photo of Monza cathedral
The marble facade of the Duomo at Monza
Travel tip:

Monza is a city of around 120,000 inhabitants in the Po Valley.  It is best known for its Formula One motor racing circuit but has many notable buildings, including a Romanesque-Gothic style cathedral with a black and-white marble arcaded façade erected in the mid-14th century.

(Photo of K2 by Svy123 CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of the Matterhorn by CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Monza Cathedral by Francescogb CC BY-SA 3.0)