Climbing the Cassin - Ratti on Cima Ovest di Lavaredo, Dolomites. By Carlo Cosi
The historic Cassin - Ratti route the north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo in the Dolomites, established by Riccardo Cassin and Vittorio Ratti with two bivouacs from 28-30 August 1935, is a landmark in climbing history. Italian Mountain Guide Carlo Cosi recalls his summer 2019 repeat with Sara Mastel.
Try closing your eyes and imagine climbing on a foggy day in August 1935. Now imagine hanging off a dubious peg you’ve just placed, with a hemp rope tied around your waist, the huge north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo spanning out above you and two young Germans hot on your heels. Above you those huge yellow overhangs seem unbreachable (and were in fact only climbed in 1959 with the advent of Spigolo Scoiattoli), while to your left there’s a narrow, yellow ledge with chossy rock, 350 meters above the ground and immediately above some extremely impressive overhangs. Got it figured? If yes, then you’re imagining exactly how Riccardo Cassin must have felt while being belayed carefully by Vittorio Ratti in 1935.
What would you have done? Would you have traversed left across that narrow ledge? And would you then have continued leftwards when the ledge transformed into an overhanging horizontal crack with poor footholds? And would you really have continued pushing on, not knowing if there was a way to retreat? Knowing, full-well, that a retreat would actually have been pretty much impossible? Yes, because a retreat after the traverse is a crazy undertaking nowadays, let alone back in 1935.
I found myself in this situation last summer; I was at the belay with Sara after the 7a pitch and therefore just before the infinite traverse, and I asked here is she really was convinced that she wanted to continue. I was more tense than she was but, just like any good guide, I pretended I wasn’t. Yep, even guides get afraid, they’re just much better than others at hiding it.
Deep down inside me I hoped Sara would tell me she’d had enough of the cosmic void below us and that she wanted to turn back, but on the other hand I was really curious to see for myself what this bit of climbing history dating back to 1935 felt like. Hey, Cassin did it more than 80 years ago, surely I can’t get into too much trouble now?
Fortunately all doubts disappeared in a matter of seconds as Sara told me she wanted to push on and that she was ready for the notorious traverse. We continued! My heart started racing but fortunately the climb is easier than it seems (read: pretty tough nevertheless but not impossible) and despite the rotten rock and some “embarrassingly tattered" slings, I held my nerve and raced across to the belay 50 horizontal meters away. Below my bum the void was impressive, actually, it’s one of the most exposed routes I’ve ever done (and I have climbed a fair few routes in my career).
The Cassin route is definitely the climb where I felt the exposure the most… Yes, because when you’re on super overhanging terrain a fall is almost pleasant and fun... You’re "relaxed" knowing that thanks to the void you’ll never slam into the rock and hurt yourself… But on a traverse!? On a traverse it’s a whole different ball game...
What do I think about Riccardo Cassin and Vittorio Ratti back in 1935? Two visionaries... Astounding alpinists who wrote an immense chapter in the history of history. You can't define this as the most beautiful route in the world (from a climbing point of view, at least, unless you really love traverses)... But certainly the Cassin Ratti on the north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo is a true Dolomites masterpiece and, for this reason, it has become an absolute "classic" that deserves to be repeated
You’ll need to be able to keep a cool head due to the drop, the rock which is far from excellent and the dubious in-situ gear. After the traverse there’s still one hard pitch which shouldn’t be underestimated (VI+). From here though the difficulties diminish (read grade V throughout) as you continue to the upper ledge. Congratulations to Sara for overcoming her fear of traverses ;-)
Enjoy, stay safe!
by Carlo Cosi, mountain guide