By Emanuele Confortin
photo by Matteo Bailo & Emanuele Confortin
The premise is simple enough: attempting to repeat a route opened by Renato Casarotto means you are in for a tough journey. I realized that a few years ago when I had the opportunity to ascend the route traced by the strong mountaineer from Vicenza on the west face of the Cima della Busazza (2894 m) in the Civetta group. I was joined by my friend Matteo Bailo who, I must point out, carried the burden of being the leader on the key section.
I had known that crag for a very long time, including the infamous yellow overhanging crack sent by Casarotto in May 1976, together with Giuseppe Cogato and Giacomo Albiero. While climbing the nearby Torre Venezia, or the Cima del Bancon, or the Torre di Babele in the amphitheatre of the Val Corpassa, it’s hard to ignore the bulk of the Busazza. One thousand vertical metres, isolated from the world, hardly ever repeated, and even less popular. With Matteo we had been whispering to each other for three years «Casarotto… Busazza», but be it the weather, fitness, or (my lack of) courage, the project kept being postponed from season to season. The report however was always there in the same place, on page 180 of Passione Verticale, the guide authored by Pier Verri, Liana Chiodero, Lucio Faccin and Aldo de Zordi (DBS, Danilo Zanetti Editore), resting on my bedside table. I must have read it over and over at least fifty times, to the point that I now know by heart those 955 metres measured from base to summit.
Beyond the grades, which are tough, even when “only” a 5, what held me back was that R3 marked by Verri, together with the legend of the broom handle wedged in half way through the crack in order to protect a passage which could not be protected any other way. A section which only later I discovered had been successfully cleared by means of a particularly ingenious aid-climbing technique, by using a sort of metal extendable jackscrew, fixed by the leader into the crack to overcome the most challenging tract. The “confidential” tip regarding the jackscrew was given to me at the Olimpico theatre in Vicenza, in April 2016, during the evening of Due Amori, organized for the 30th anniversary of Casarotto’s passing There, in the stands, almost by chance I met an older gentleman who had been sitting comfortably in his seat, holding his walking stick firmly in his hand. He was Giacomo Albiero, a veteran of the historical ascent of ’76, moved to tears as he found out that 40 years later someone still had in mind to “suffer” on such a challenging route.
To give an idea of the route I’ll borrow Pier Verri’s words, author of the first solo ascent (27 August 1971) and the first free climb – graded 8 – together with Gianpaolo Galiazzo (summer 1996): “The first route of the dolomites given a grade Seven, the Casarotto route on the Busazza opens the doors to “new” grades, preparing the history of mountaineering to new adventures, marked by hard work and ability, but also ethics. Renato Casarotto, with his feats, has opened routes that have left a mark along important walls, often on high grades, facing it all with “exasperating” patience and humility. One of the masterpieces of his first climbing years lies right here on the great route of the Busazza, underlining the firm character of Casarotto who knew how to stay loyal to his own ideas, so much so as to remove bolts from previous attempts… It’s an important route, it’s pure mountaineering, with a very demanding segment that requires margins in order to protect yourself adequately. A worthy ascent, which still today counts few repetitions, but which deserves to be reconsidered, appreciated, and climbed”.
It’s that “margin” which Verri quotes that has kept me sleepless. Then the solution, found long before I made my way up the Val Corpassa towards the bastions of the Busazza. “Matteo, that’s your business”, and that is how it went. To be sure, there were no broom handles, and barring a metal piton wedged upwards, the crack had little to offer except for a 30 centimetre split – overhanging and not particularly resistant – where I would recommend going along with a monster-friend, one to be carried over by teleferic, something I advise for future repetitions. That said, it was the first and last time I have ever seen Matteo heaving like that, and, when finally belaying me, letting out the adrenaline with a shout, muffled just enough so as not to disturb the surrounding peace. Bravo!
The Busazza aside, it seems impossible that an alpinist like Renato Casarotto is still unknown to most. Born in 1948, this prodigy from Vicenza must be acknowledged in the hall of the greatest mountaineers, such as Walter Bonatti and Reinhold Messner, among the few in Italy. His dazzling mountaineering successes spanned across the Seventies and Eighties, though often overlooked for a long time, overshadowed perhaps by the other great accomplishments of those years. Again, maybe because they stopped abruptly at the bottom of a crevice, at the foot of K2, or maybe because they were just too original, even for those times.
Casarotto brought forward his own style of mountaineering, unique and barely imitable, at a time when everything else was happening: the rush to conquer the eight-thousanders in alpine style, light and without oxygen; the increase of the difficulty in rock climbing which followed the revolution led by the Nuovo Mattino movement, which open-ended the ‘closed scale’ imposed by the UIAA; then the free climbing repetitions of the super routes previously opened by aid-climbing; and again the refusal of bolts or any other non ethical tool. Renato Casarotto was a part of this change, bringing forward, however, a distinctly personal version, difficult to understand, known as “total mountaineering”.
Casarotto found this dimension on his own, repeating or opening routes on great walls, often in the cold season, refusing radio connections, external support or other equipment to be “deposited” along the routes. He had chosen total isolation favouring instead prolonged stays on the walls, regardless of the cold, the blizzards and other very real dangers. Through alpinism he was able to dive deep within his human condition, pushing his limits until he would find the key to overcome them. This is what transpires in “Solo di Cordata”, a film portrait of Renato Casarotto, produced in 2015 by Davide Riva, winner or the prize “Città di Imola” as the best Italian film at the Trento Film Festival 2016.
To try and illustrate the total mountaineering of Casarotto we must necessarily focus on his main solo accomplishments. In June 1977, in 17 days he opened a new 1,600 metre route on the north wall of the Huascaran (6,769) in Peru. With him was his inseparable wife Goretta Traverso – his muse and lifelong companion, as well as being the first Italian woman to have climbed an eight-thousander -, who waited at base-camp, where she experienced her husband’s same solitude.
Two years later he opened a 1,500 metre route on the untouched north-eastern pillar of the Fitz Roy, in Patagonia, renamed Goretta Pillar.
Between 21 and 28 June 1983 he completed an extraordinary ascent on the north ridge of Broad Peak, in Karakorum, coming out at 7,550 metres. A particularly impressive feat not just because of the technical and psychological difficulties he had to overcome, alone and autonomously, but also because of the idea itself: by limiting himself to the ridge, and not necessarily the peak, he was therefore giving priority to the itinerary rather than the ascent of an eight-thousander. A brave choice in the age of the rush to the highest mountains on earth, and which denoted the modernity of Casarotto’s mountaineering.
1982 is the year of one his longest odysseys, the Three Monts route on Mont Blanc. An experience which lasted 15 days, spent alone in the dead of winter, with no external contact, without radio, and all his equipment packed in a 40 litre backpack. The route he chose was particularly classy, and it started on February 1 attacking the Ratti-Vitali route on the Aiguille Nour de Peuterey. Following the difficult descent and the move towards the glacier, came the Gervasutti-Boccalatte route on the Picco Guglielmina, between February 7 and 9. The ascent then continued along the famous Bonnington route on the Central Pillar of Freney, where he survived entire days in blizzard and extreme conditions. The whole enterprise ended on February 15, as he reached Chamonix.
The experience on Mont Blanc is the prelude to another extraordinary accomplishment. In June 1985 he arrived in Alaska, where he completed the first ascent of the south-east ridge of Denali (at the time known as Mount McKinley), known as the ridge of no return, so called by Peter Metcalf and Glenn Randall after their failed attempt. Renato Casarotto took twelve days to reach the 6,190 metres of the summit, alone and independently, experiencing for the first time a new feeling – as he later confided to his friends – that he had never known before, not in those terms anyway: fear.
The last project chosen by the prodigy from Vicenza took him back to Pakistan to complete the crowning achievement of his career. This was summer of 1986 when he returned to K2, seven years after the failure of the expedition on the Magic Line led by Reinhold Messner. Casarotto was striving for perfection: to open a new route on the south-west ridge of the mountain. After days of climbing and descending he finally managed to overcome the hardest sections of the wall, but at 8,300, only 300 metres from the peak, he was forced to throw in the towel. A retreat owed to the adverse weather, for security reasons, which ended with the collapse of a snow bridge and the fatal fall in a crevice, almost down in the valley, very close to the base-camp and to Goretta.
Only today, over three decades after Casarotto’s death, is his mountaineering legacy finally weighing in. One of the main biographers of Renato Casarotto is without a doubt Roberto Mantovani, a historian of alpinism as well as a close friend of Renato and Goretta Traverso: «his mountaineering experience has long remained silent because of the lack of common benchmarks that could measure the mountaineers of the time», who were bound to speed as the absolute value. Casarotto managed to stir wonder and amazement, his alpinism is a «magic box that opens a double dimension, the natural landscape and the internal landscape, the personal dimension of the human condition». According to Mantovani, the “visible” aspect of Casarotto’s style was distinctly technical, overcoming challenges, isolation, weather conditions. There is then a more subtle and hidden part of his mountain experience. «He wanted to prepare himself in order to come close to his true limit, one that puts at stake every aspect of a person. The ability to overcome fear and insecurity, to find the necessary push to climb further and further by willpower alone.»
Doubtlessly Renato Casarotto has played a part in expanding the standards of mountaineering of his time, offering a personal interpretation, undoubtedly modern, of alpinism. Now it is probably time to recognise his legacy, by repeating his routes perhaps, or at least by listening to the first-hand accounts of those who knew him well, accompanying him on mountain walls and in life.
Translation from Italian by Chris Dowling