Part 4 - The death
Published on 17/3/2023
The end of the 1960s mark a period of great change and transformation in society. In Italy, the economic boom brought a strong improvement in lifestyle, leading to the protests of Sixty-eight, until the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan, on 12th December 1969, which left 17 people dead and 88 injured and marked the beginning of the “anni di piombo” (Years of Lead). The Americans succeed in landing on the moon on 21st July 1969, but the Vietnam War ties up resources and causes much discontent. We are in the midst of the Cold War.
(4.1 Vietnam war, moon landing and Piazza Fontana)
At the beginning of 1970, Toni is 55 years old and he is in the midst of his professional maturity. He is no longer a top mountaineer, but remains a member of the French GHM and the British Alpine Club. His sports shop in Courmayeur is a point of reference throughout the Alps, both for the products he sells and for Toni's own willingness to advise, listen and discuss with mountaineers stopping by. His activity as a mountain guide is intense and continuous, always carried out under the banner of prudence and with great attention to safety: in 24 years of activity, he has never a serious accident.
His main creature, the “Settimane Sci-alpinisitche di Alta Montagna” (High Mountain Ski-Mountaineering Weeks), have become an international reference in the field and during the season they employ, in addition to Toni, 4 guides and several porters. In the spring-summer of 1969, they involved 66 clients on various itineraries, 7 of whom took part in the second Italian ski-mountaineering expedition to Greenland (15th June – 8th July 1969). Its “National High Mountain Ski-Mountaineering School” enters its fourth year of activity, with the “introductory ski-mountaineering courses” and the “off-piste technique improvement courses” starting on 22nd February 1970 in Courmayeur. The programme for the “Settimane” of 1970 proposes 8 weeks (from the classic Haute Route, to the Dolomites, to the Dauphiné, to the Maurienne) and also, from 1st May to 9th May, the fourth extra-European expedition, the “ski-mountaineering Decade to Damavand (5770m) in Iran”.
(4.2 Toni Gobbi, Grand Combin Week 1962, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Sunday 15th March 1970 is the start of the first Week proposed by the programme, the “Haute Route dei Monti Pallidi”, in its third edition, with the meeting point at the Costalunga Pass in the Fassa Valley in the Dolomites. Ten customers accompanied by Toni, Mario Senoner (from Val Gardena), Remo Passera (from Gressoney) and porter Mirko Minuzzo (from Cervinia) participate.
After the first two days of skiing, the group sleeps in the night of 17th March at the Kristiania hotel in Santa Cristina in Val Gardena. The goal for Wednesday 18th March is the ascent to Sassopiatto - Plattkofel (2955m) with the subsequent descent into Val di Fassa.
(4.3 The Sassopiatto – Plattkofel, on the right, and the Sassolungo - Langkofel, Photo Grivel archive)
The group sets off at 5.30 a.m. and around 10 a.m. arrives at the Giogo di Fassa, which at around 2300m marks the border between the Alpe di Siusi and the Val di Fassa. There they begin the actual ascent to the mountain. They ascend on skis up to three quarters of the way up the slope, then take off their skis to continue on foot and tie up in three roped parties. The first rope group is led by Toni and includes Camilla (known as Cicci) Turati (45 years old from Milan, the most loyal client with 22 Weeks and 2 expeditions in 16 years), Raffaele Polin (47 years old from Milan, in his second week) Antonio Moneta (48 years old from Milan, in his third), Mario Belli (21 years old from Varese, in his first Week) and is closed by the porter Mirko Minuzzo. The second rope team is led by Mario Senoner with three clients, and the last one is led by Remo Passera with three more clients.
(4.4 Ascent of the final slope of Sassopiatto on 18th March 1970, Photo Mario Belli)
Toni reaches the last summit of his life around lunchtime. The group stays on the summit for about half an hour, and as Mario Senoner recalls, "we ate, drank and gave geography lessons to explain the surrounding mountains to the clients."
(4.5 Summit of Sassopiatto on 18th March 1970, Photo Mario Belli)
(4.6 Toni Gobbi and Mario Senoner on the summit of Sassopiatto, around 1pm of 18th March 1970. It is the last photo of Toni Gobbi alive, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Around 1.30 p.m. they begin their descent, on foot, retracing the ascent route. In the lead was Toni's rope group, then Senoner's and at the back Passera's. Mario remembers that moment very well: “I have seen many things, but that one left its mark on me, I still have it in front of my eyes. I was a little behind Toni's rope team and at a certain point I saw them sliding down the slope, together with a little bit of snow. I didn't see them start, ... they were sliding slowly and I thought they were going to stop, but they were giving each other snatches and accelerating each other." Toni tries hard to stop the slide and even breaks the shaft of his ice axe, but there is nothing to be done: the rope party slides for about 300 metres then plummets over a rockfall, disappearing from view.
(4.7 The ice axe used by Toni Gobbi on 18th March 1970, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Mario and Remo calm their clients and return to the point where they had taken off their skis. There Remo stays with the group and Mario rushes off to find Toni's roped party. He finds them a hundred metres below: "I wouldn't wish this on anyone!" No one is covered by the snow, but the impacts against the rocks are fatal for Toni, Cicci Turati, Raffaele Polin and Antonio Moneta, who lie lifeless in the snow. On the other hand, Mario Belli and Mirko Minuzzo are miraculously still alive, although seriously injured. Senoner rushes down into the valley to raise the alarm and organise the rescue operations. The injured are evacuated by helicopter to Bolzano hospital: both are in shock, suffering head injuries and multiple lacerated contusion wounds.
Mario Senoner immediately returns to check the scene of the accident and finds just below the track of the ascent the sign of the breakage of a small wind slab, about 15 cm thick. A matter of moments and centimetres, with fate getting in the way. "Probably someone walked just off the track and dislodged the slab, dragging the other rope mates ... if it had been me, the same thing could have happened!" Remo Passera confirms to the press: "the tragedy is due to pure fatality." The bodies of Toni, Turati, Moneta and Polin are recovered by the rescue team only the following day, 19th March, and transported down the valley by sledges.
(4.8 Mario Senoner, 87 years old, shows the place of the accident on an aerial image, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Toni's death is a thunderbolt for the entire mountaineering world and beyond.
Ruggero Pellin, guide and former president of the Courmayeur Mountain Guides Association, as well as Romilda's cousin, recalls. "Toni Gobbi died ... What? Who said that? It's not possible, it can't be ... the news arrived in a fragmentary manner and many of us didn't even know where Sassopiatto was. We gathered in the guide's office to ask what could be done and decided that someone had to go and see. The whole village was in shock." Renzino Cosson is a young porter at the time and has worked with Toni in the Weeks: "I was always amazed at Gobbi's death ... The prudence that he had no one else had, about everything and anything. Everything was calculated and had to be precise. If it happened to him, it can happen to anyone, you can be as experienced as you want but you need luck."
The memory of that moment is still vivid in those who experienced it, despite so many years having passed.
"I was annihilated. The idea that Toni Gobbi could die in the mountains was out of all sense ... he could die in a car accident, but not in the mountains!" recalls Leonardo Lenti, who at the end of the ‘60s was a young client. Giacomo Bozzi, son of Irene who was one of Toni's main customers, says: “Toni's death still moves me deeply, both because of my bond with Toni and that of my mother. I still remember as if it were yesterday the phone call from Cicci Turati's brother announcing the death of Toni and Cicci, a great friend of my mother's."
Renato Petigax was one of Toni's main collaborators from the late 1950s, both as a guide in the Weeks and in the Courmayeur shop. He does not participate in the “Haute Route dei Monti Pallidi” in March 1970 because Toni has asked him to stay in the shop, where there is so much work. He remembers well the afternoon of 18th March: “We were in the shop, a phone call came in, Gioachino answered. He turned around and told me 'Dad died under an avalanche'."
Maria Barbara, Toni's daughter, is about to turn 21 in March 1970 and is studying at university: "On 18th March, I had gone to Milan with my mother to place orders for the shop, in the evening we returned to Courmayeur and it was already a bit dark. We arrived home and all the lights were on in all the rooms. Mum said 'something must have happened' ... I even scolded her a bit ... but why does something have to have happened? We arrived at the garage and were given the news. We went up to the house and the parish priest, Don Cirillo, was there too. We immediately left for Val Gardena."
Toni's death makes the news and is reported in the main national newspapers on 19th March. On the front page of the “Corriere della Sera”: 'Four dead under the avalanche. They are the famous guide Toni Gobbi and three people from Milan."
(4.9 first page of “Il Corriere della Sera” of 19th March 1970)
On the front page of “La Stampa”: "Toni Gobbi swept away and killed with three students by an avalanche." On the same front page there is also a photo of Toni with the headline “Death of a mountain guide”. Inside, we find the articles, including the editorial “A legendary guide” by Carlo Moriondo, the beginning of which clearly conveys the public image of the man: “It is impossible not to know Toni Gobbi for those who barely know the mountains; and, once known, it is impossible not to admire him."
(4.10 first page of “La Stampa” of 19th March 1970)
An intense analysis and touching recollection is in “Il Giorno” of 20th March, by Giorgio Bocca, a friend of Toni and Romilda, entitled "The big Boss has paid in person". The beginning is peremptory: "The last mountaineering lesson of Toni Gobbi, the prudent one, is implicit in his death: whoever you are, however good you are, remember that in the high mountains death can also come to you."
(4.11 “Il Giorno” of 20th March 1970)
Brought back down to the valley on the afternoon of 19th March, the bodies are laid to rest in the church of Castelrotto, where family members and a delegation of Courmayeur guides led by the their president, Aldo Cosmacini, arrive. Transport is then organised and Toni's coffin arrives in Courmayeur on the morning of Saturday 21st March. The funeral chamber is set up in the Guides' Association headquarters. Pellin recalls: "It was the first time that a coffin was placed in the Guides' house. It didn't seem right to us to let him go, not so much us young people but the old guides who had known Toni kept him as if he were their son and brother, they wanted him there." The body is watched over in turn by colleagues. “La Stampa” of Sunday 22nd March recounts: "Throughout the day [ed: of Saturday], hundreds and hundreds of people came to pay their respects, not only from all over the valley but also from France and Switzerland.[...] More than 400 telegrams arrived for the family and the Courmayeur Mountain Guides Association.
The funeral is for the following day, Sunday 22nd March at 10.30am, officiated by Don Cirillo Perron, a mountaineering parish priest, who served in Courmayeur for 50 years from 1939 to 1989. It was he who married Toni and Romilda on 18th October 1943. From the sermon: 'We are here in our dear Church of Courmayeur, carrying in our hearts an immense sorrow for the tragic death of Dr Toni Gobbi; [...] In a photo taken on the summit of the Dent du Geant while I am celebrating Holy Mass, Dr Gobbi holds the chalice for me ... so that the wind does not overturn it ... his hands are confused with the hands of the priest ... on that day he was an offerer with the offering priest. Today he has become a victim offered to the ideal of the mountain. Passion demanded immolation, it is a law of all great human endeavours ... and immolation always comes to the most generous and Dr Gobbi was a generous man ... [... Yes, our dear friend Gobbi was rich in faith in that God whom he knew how to seek and contemplate in the whiteness of the snows, in the immensity of the glaciers, in the majesty of the peaks, in that Jesus God who wanted to be the viaticum and companion of his expeditions ...[...] so how do we feel that the words of Jesus 'I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in Me, even if dead, will live. ' Goodbye dear Gobbi, see you in God."
(4.12 The Church of Courmayeur, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Ruggero Pellin again recalls: "Toni Gobbi's funeral was epoch-making, it left its mark. There were people from all over ... they were all here. All the 'crowned heads' of European mountaineering were there! The square was packed ... the procession to the cemetery filled up ... the procession lasted all afternoon." Leonardo Lenti also recalls: "Courmayeur was under siege at the funeral. The road from the church to the cemetery was all full ...”. On leaving the church, Toni's coffin is carried by Renato Petigax, Mario Senoner, Oliviero Frachey and Giorgio Colli, who were among Toni's main collaborators and who for the occasion, in homage to the 'Big Boss', wear the red jumper of the Weeks instead of the traditional guide's uniform.
From “La Stampa” of Monday 23rd March: “Three thousand people at Toni Gobbi's funeral”. We read in the article: “Three thousand people attended the solemn funeral. Forty wreaths and cushions of flowers, including that of the Prime Minister, Rumor, who had been Gobbi's schoolmate in Vicenza. [... ] Alongside the Mont Blanc guides were those from Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso, the delegations from CAI (Italian Alpine Club) led by President Chabod, from the Union of International Guides with its Secretary General, the Swiss Xavier Kalt, the mountaineers Maurice Herzog, mayor of Chamonix, Jean Franco, director of the French National Ski and Mountaineering School, Jean Bourdet, vice-president of the French Alpine Club, the seventy-year-old Armand Charlet, the most famous guide in France; and Lino Andreotti, from the Himalayan group, Dionisi, from the Gervasutti school in Turin, Cassin, Mauri, Compagnoni, Pagani, Frison Roche, Gala, from the Alpine Club of London, Ubaldo Rey from the K2 expedition. " Since the afternoon of that distant 22nd March 1970, Toni rests in the Courmayeur cemetery under a granite tombstone depicting the Peuterey ridge at Mont Blanc.
(4.13 tomb of Toni Gobbi, Courmayeur, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Toni had created around him a world of collaborators, customers, enthusiasts and friends that he held together with his charisma and his vision of the mountains: the Weeks, the conferences, the meetings, the shop and everything else. With his death, this world disperses very quickly.
His closest collaborators (Petigax, Senoner, Frachey and Passera) decide to carry on with the 1970 Weeks programme, except for the Damavand expedition. In a letter sent to all of them, we can read: “When tragedy and sorrow disrupt our lives, the example and ideas of those who have been able to speak to our hearts must spur us on to the serene will to keep alive what is good and best that has been left to us. [...] To continue is not only to pay homage to the One who had begun, but it means recognising the validity of an idea, the depth of an approach, the continuity of a school. However, the activities of the Weeks do not continue beyond 1970: "no one had the entrepreneurial ability to take over the organisation, no one put together the characteristics that Toni had as a person of culture and at the same time of the mountains," explains Leonardo Lenti.
All of Toni's main collaborators continue to work as guides for all their life.
Renato Petigax is 90 years old and is the doyen of the Courmayeur Guides. Even today, he often dreams about the ski mountaineering of the Weeks at night.
(4.14 Renato Petigax, 90 years old, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Mario Senoner explains: "There was nothing left for me but to continue this work, from which I got great satisfaction!” He also makes a career within the IFMGA, becoming President of the Technical Commission from 1977 to 1981. He is 87 years old and every morning he admires the Sassolungo – Langkofel and the Sassopiatto - Plattkofel from his balcony in Santa Cristina.
(4.15 Mario Senoner, 87 years old, on his balcony. In the background the Sassolungo – Langkofel and the Sassopiatto - Plattkofel, Photo Enrico Veronese for Grivel)
Oliviero Frachey becomes President of the IFMGA from 1977 to 1981. He dies in 1999 at the age of 71.
Giorgo Colli becomes the Technical Director of the Mezzalama Trophy, an important ski mountaineering competition, in the 1970s. He dies in 2014 at the age of 89.
Remo Passera, who escaped the accident on Sassopiatto, dies on the Castor (Monte Rosa group) in the summer of 1970: he is only 44 years old. Ironically, the accident is very similar to Toni's: a client slips and drags the rope party into the void. Also a citizen (from Vigevano), he had moved to Gressoney for love of the mountains and of a local girl, Yvonne.
As for the survivors of Toni's roped party, Mirko Minuzzo becomes a mountain guide and on 5th May 1973 he is the first Italian to summit Everest, together with Rinaldo Carrel, son of Marcello who had been Toni's companion in the 1957/1958 expedition to the Patagonian Andes. He dies in a car accident in 2004, aged 58. Mario Belli also survives another serious climbing accident in 1973 at the Pale di San Martino and a car accident in 1974. He dies of illness in 1994, aged only 45.
Many of Toni's customers continue to go to the mountains, but the world of the Weeks is forever gone. Giacomo Bozzi recalls: 'When Toni disappeared, the world fell apart for my mother. It was a great tragedy that marked and changed her life in a major way, reshaping this wonderful world of ski mountaineering in a violent way. She continued to go to the mountains and ski mountaineering with other guides but it was all different, they had little to do with Toni's world. No one ever again gave her the peace of mind, trust and relationship that he had been able to give her."
(4.16 Irene Bozzi and Toni Gobbi in the 60s, Photo Bozzi family archive)
The Courmayeur shop is run by the Gobbi family until the mid-1980s, but Toni's death comes so unexpected and painful that the subject becomes almost taboo. His daughter Maria Barbara remembers: “Since then, We talked very little about dad so as not to hurt mum, who was 49 and devastated. It was an unconscious, unreasoned decision, maybe even wrong because we never metabolised his passing." Romilda lives until the spring of 2008, keeping Toni's clothes, objects and documents in the house as if he had just left. She now rests next to Toni.
(4.17 tomb of Toni and Romilda Gobbi in Courmayeur, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Marilena, Toni's younger sister, is 91 years old. She enjoys her three children and five grandchildren but every morning she greets Toni's photo, hanging in plain sight in her apartment in Vicenza.
(4.18 Marilena Gobbi, 91 years old, with the portrait of Toni, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
And what about ski mountaineering? Giorgio Daidola, journalist, writer and skiing historian, explains: “after 1970, ski mountaineering developed a lot, but not so much according to Toni Gobbi's model, which was almost forgotten except by some ski mountaineers on an individual basis. On the one hand, developments in equipment and technique allow for much higher downhill performance, hence also steep skiing and so on. Many proselytes are also attracted from the world of piste skiing, which is booming in the 1970s with the big resorts, but it is a hit and run model. On the other hand, the model that we could call 'of the tracksuits', which is a speed sport and is mainly about athletic ability. Gobbi's model, that of complete and organised adventure, of big crossings, is largely forgotten. What has remained and developed, however, is the aspect of ski travel, which he had first developed by taking clients to the Caucasus and then to Greenland, even if it is carried on in a way that is perhaps less organised than his own.”
While it is true that no one has fully picked up Toni's legacy, his “trace” has nevertheless inspired some of those who were able or willing to see it.
Giorgio Peretti was a client of Toni's in the 1960s, participating in four Weeks. "When I got the news of Toni Gobbi's death I was training for my ski instructor exams in Cortina. I had the feeling that a part of my life was gone ... I immediately went to Castelrotto, to see the bodies in the mortuary. I was very struck by Toni, who had his mouth open a little, almost as if to say 'what happened, how was it possible?' I spent an hour or so looking at him, and that's when I decided to be a mountain guide too, and to try to carry on his message ...”
In the 1970s Giorgio becomes a mountain guide and then a national guide instructor and organises programmes called 'The Weeks', including a ski-mountaineering trip in March each year to commemorate Toni. He is 82 years old and continues to go to the mountains and to ski.
(4.19 Giorgio Peretti’s Programme of activites, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Alberto Re has been a very active mountain guide throughout the world, as well as president of the Piedmont Mountain Guides and also of the Italian Mountain Guides. He is 85 years old and has recently published his biography “Horizon Mountains”, in which he remembers when in the ‘60s he visited Toni’s shop in Courmayeur with Giancarlo Grassi, driven by “the interest to meet the shop owner. […] Toni Gobbi very willingly dispensed information and valuable advice to the mountaineers.” He also writes: “Toni Gobbi was the first to perceive the importance of expanding the area of skiing, as an instrument of knowledge and to promote new perspectives for the work of the guides, anticipating and developing the ski mountaineering of traverses [...] in my opinion the maximum expression of the activity of skiing combined with mountaineering. [...] Even in expeditions, as a professional, he was the forerunner, accompanying a group in 1966 to Elbrus and in 1967 and 1969 to Greenland. [...] His way of carrying out his profession opened up new horizons in my projects."
(4.20 Biography of Alberto Re, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Mario Senoner concludes: "Toni was great, but even the great die sooner or later. For me the consolation is that he looks down on us, waving his finger like in the famous photo."
(4.21 Toni Gobbi, Photo Gobbi family/Grivel archive)
Oliviero Gobbi. After a degree in physics and a master's in management, he worked for a few years as a strategic consultant in large multinationals before joining Grivel, his family business, of which he is now the owner and CEO. He loves all mountain activities, from mountaineering to ice climbing, from rock climbing to ski mountaineering, which he practices when he can. His favorite Grivel product is the one yet to be invented.
Back to The story of Toni Gobbi: from citizen to mountain guide
Back to Part 1 - The man: from the city to the mountains
Back to Part 2 - The mountaineer: from the Alps to the world
Back to Part 3 - The mountain guide: evolution of a profession