Claudio Corti, goodbye to the alpinist and man
Italian alpinist Claudio Corti died during the night of 3 February at the age of 81 at his home in Lecco. He will be remembered as a member of the Gruppo Ragni della Grignetta but also as a man who knew how to tackle great tests, both in the mountains and in life in general.
Do men like Claudio Corti come to life? What I mean is, so strong and good that they can endure and survive his "nude" and "battling" alpinism, but above all all those testing moments which life reserved for him, both as an alpinist and person? Clearly there is no right answer. But what is certain is that in his lifetime Claudio Corti had to endure numerous hardships, always accompanied by deep bitterness, which would have got the better of anyone. Or rather, of anyone who wasn't Claudio Corti, a man who managed to overcome not only adversity but also the darker shadows of life, those of malice and slander.
The most famous episode, the one which left its deepest mark, is obviously that of the Eiger. In 1957 the mountaineer from Olginate played a leading role in an unrecountable odyssey on the terrible North Face of the Ogre, together with his climbing partner Stefano Longhi and the Germans Gunther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer. During those days the Eiger took no prisoners and presented itself in the worst of all possible ways. After eight days on the wall, Stefano Longhi's hands were suffering from frostbite and he was no longer able to continue. Corti, who up until then had been leading the climb, attempted everything to rescue him and was helped also by the two German mountaineers who, finding themselves in difficulty on day 3, had joined forces with the climbers from Lecco. But there was nothing they could do other then lower Longhi to a terrace.
The storm raged on. Slightly higher up, on the White Spider, Corti was struck on the head by falling rocks. At this point Nothdurft and Mayer left their tent to Corti and attempted to reach the summit, to call for rescue. In the meantime a spontaneous, large-scale international rescue operation had already been mounted. Many mountaineers gathered at the summit of Eiger, some extremely famous such as Riccardo Cassin, Lionel Terray and Carlo Mauri. After two days of attempts Alfred Hellepart was lowered from a complicated and ingenious system of winches to Corti and managed to rescue him, hauling him back up to the summit. The rescue operation for Longhi had to be called off that day due to terrible weather and he died of exhaustion the next day. There was no trace of the two German mountaineers.
This marked the start of the most difficult chapter for Corti who had miraculously escaped the Eiger's grasp. That of the "trials". He was accused of being unprepared but above all he was strongly suspected of being responsible for the deaths of Nothdurft and Mayer. The most active advocate of this theory was Heinrich Harrer through his book "The White Spider", published in 1959. As a result Corti found himself almost completely alone. It was almost as if it had been a crime to aspire to (one secretly mumbles) the first Italian ascent of the Eiger. Or worse still, of being the only survivor of the tragedy. Little changed when, in 1961, Harrer's thesis as well as those who doubted Corti were proven wrong when the bodies of the two German mountaineers were discovered. Corti continued to bear the slander and this was mitigated by Jack Olsen's beautiful book "The Cimb up to hell" which shed light onto the real turn of events of those terrible days on the Eiger.
It was only in 2008, more than 50 years after the tragedy, that Giorgio Spreafico gave a voice to Claudio Corti and his thoughts through his courageous book "Il prigioniero dell 'Eiger", the prisoner of the Eiger. This book finally reassessed this alpinist from Lecco who belonged to that glorious first generation of Ragni di Lecco climbers. Clearly though this arrived too late. And what is certain is that Corti did not deserve all this. Also because, apart from imprisoning him for all his life, the Eiger controversy prevented Corti from being assessed for his true mountaineering skills.
All one needs to do is glance at his list of ascents to understand the mettle he was made of. To comprehend the proverbial strength of "Marna" - the nickname with which Corti was recognised in all of Lecco. All one needs to do is name his new routes on Pizzo Cengalo, Pizzi Gemelli and that on Pizzo Badile, which cost the life of his climbing partner Felice Battaglia, to whom he dedicated the route. But also the other new routes in Grigna, his first repeats in the Dolomites and that impressive fall down the infamous gully on the Bonatti route on the Dru. All these serve to comprehend that he could dare to climb the North Face of the Eiger.
The period that followed the Eiger was marked by first repeats on Grand Capucin, numerous first ascents in Grigna and also, and above all, his participation in the historic 1974 first ascent of the West Face of Cerro Torre, all of which underline his value as a mountaineer. And his simple, boundless love for the mountains.
Corti was not a man of many words, he neither searched for nor wasted them. He preferred to dare and do. To him, I dare say, whom we owe something, then it is certainly an apology. Who knows if this will make him smile? Who knows. What is clear is that he won't cease to be that simple, strong and good man he has always been.