Skip to main content

A Prince of Climbers

ISSUE:  Winter 2000

Before he was 40 he had become one of the greatest modern mountaineers, and perhaps the greatest overall explorer of his time. When he died in an African village, The New York Times recalled that when he was a boy, he had met a Gypsy woman along a road in Italy, who told him “You will one day sit on the throne, and your papa will get you the most beautiful Queen in the world.” But, said the paper, the boy named Luigi Amedeo replied “Rot! A lot you know! I shall be a sailor and I shall sail all over the world and marry whom I please.”

Young Luigi Amedeo’s vision was clearer than that of the old woman. He never sat on a throne, although he was a royal prince and his father was briefly a king. He did become a sailor, and commanded a major fleet in World War I. It was a life of many adventures. Before he died he had climbed higher, in the Karakoram, than any human before him. After climbing Europe’s highest peaks, he was the first to reach the top of a great peak in Alaska, and the top of many unclimbed peaks in Africa’s Ruwenzori range. Nor was he only a great mountaineer; this daring prince led an expedition that reached farther north than any previous attempt, and a final expedition up an African river whose headwaters he was first to find in the unmapped highlands of Ethiopia. And while he could not have his American love, he found a love in Africa.

His full name was Luigi Amedeo Giuseppe Maria Ferdinando Francesco. He belonged to the Savoys, a family who in the 19th century became the kings of reunited Italy. When Luigi Amedeo was born in Madrid in 1873 his father Amedeo, son of the king of Italy, was king of Spain. Soon after his son’s birth, with a Spanish republic likely, Amedeo abdicated and took his family home to Turin. There was not much hope of another kingship, either for Amedeo or for young Luigi Amedeo, the youngest of three brothers. Their father Amedeo’s older brother Umberto was on the Italian throne, and the next in line was Umberto’s son Vittorio Emanuele, who indeed became king in 1900, when Umberto was assassinated by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci; and Vittorio Emanuele III remained king until 1946. At last century’s end Italy was far from becoming the prosperous democracy of today. It was a country of poverty and injustice. Bresci had returned from New Jersey to kill King Umberto in revenge, after artillery was used against demonstrators in Milan and hundreds of people died.

Perhaps it was just as well that, as Luigi Amedeo told the Gypsy, he would become a sailor. At age 11 he entered the Italian naval academy at Livorno. At 20, in 1893, he had his first view of Africa as a lieutenant on the gunboat Volturno, which took part in a punitive expedition against Somali clans fighting the imposition of Italian colonial rule.

King Umberto of Italy created a new title for his young nephew: Duke of the Abruzzi. It was an apt title. The Abruzzi is a rugged region where even today one can climb a peak and sit alone in the sun, looking over other peaks and ridges, far from other humans. Luigi Amedeo started climbing as a boy, in the Alps. Before he sailed to Africa he had a number of major Alpine summits to his credit including Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Matterhorn, which he had climbed via the Breuil route. In August 1894, after his return from Africa, the duke climbed the Matterhorn at the age of 21 via the difficult Zmutt ridge. The Zmutt route had been pioneered in 1879 by the great English mountaineer (and economist) Albert Frederick Mummery, and had been successfully climbed only once since then. The duke was a friend of Mummery, and it was Mummery who led the duke up the ridge to the summit.

Two months later, Luigi Amedeo left for a voyage around the world as a lieutenant on the cruiser Cristoforo Colombo, and for the first time he saw North America. He missed seeing Alaska, but he had been reading about it, and particularly about Mount St. Elias, an unclimbed peak which rose above the Gulf of Alaska to an altitude of 18,000 feet. It was, and is, the second-highest peak in U.S. territory. The first European to see the mountain had been Vitus Bering the Russian explorer, on the feast of St. Elias in 1741. There was an Italian connection; the height of the peak had first been calculated, with fair accuracy, in 1792 by an Italian sea captain in the service of Spain, Alessandro Malaspina.

When the young duke returned to Italy in 1896, he decided it was time to organize a major mountaineering expedition. His first plan was to go to the Himalayas and climb the 26,660-foot peak of Nanga Parbat, as a tribute to his friend Mummery who, at the age of 40, had recently attempted Nanga Parbat and had vanished forever on the mountain together with two Gurkha porters. The British Indian government refused the duke permission, because of a cholera epidemic.

Luigi Amedeo now turned to Mount St. Elias. Four American expeditions, including one sponsored by The New York Times in 1886 and the first ever sent out by the National Geographic Society, in 1890, had failed to reach the peak. It was difficult even to reach the foot of the mountain; the only way inland led across trackless glaciers from an exposed, wave-swept shore. The duke set off for Alaska in the spring of 1897. He took with him a party composed of four Italian Alpine guides and several friends who would also accompany him on future adventures: Umberto Cagni, a naval ordnance officer and trusted comrade; Vittorio Sella, a fearless Alpinist whose uncle had founded the Club Alpino Italiano in 1863 and who was also the greatest of mountain photographers; a 30-year-old physician, Filippo de Filippi, who became the chronicler of this and later expeditions; and the duke’s partner on several earlier climbs in the Alps, Francesco Gonella. Sella brought with him an assistant photographer, making a total of ten Italians. The duke and his colleagues had prepared carefully for the trip, helped by useful advice from Professor Israel Russell of the University of Michigan who had led the 1890 National Geographic expedition and had made a second try at the mountain in 1891. Russell, however, along with others in Italy, doubted the usefulness of Alpine guides who had never climbed in Alaska.

The Italians crossed the Atlantic on the Cunard Lines’ Lucania, a smaller predecessor of the Titanic. On arrival in New York they were besieged by reporters; how could they think to succeed on a mountain where Americans had failed four times? The party went on by train to the West Coast, where they ordered their provisions, including both dried foods like chocolate and navy biscuits and many heavy cases of canned meats, soups, vegetables, and condensed milk. From Seattle the party sailed to Sitka, where they were joined by a Seattle outfitter recommended by Professor Russell, Major E.S. Ingraham, who led a team of ten young porters, including four American college students and four sailors, chosen for strength rather than mountaineering experience.

From Sitka the expedition sailed to Yakutat Bay, the nearest coastal point to Mount St. Elias. On June 23, 1897 the expedition landed on the beach at the mouth of Yakutat Bay. East, west, and north of them lay the huge Malaspina Glacier. The peak lay nearly 50 miles northwest in a straight line; the actual route would be longer. The duke hired several Tlingit men from Yakutat village to help carry the supplies inland across a band of forest to the edge of the glacier.

By July 1 the duke and his party were on the glacier and began their march inland. They would have no chance of resupply from the time they set out until their return to the coast, and so they carried equipment and food to last them seven weeks, most of which they pulled on four large sledges although the duke, like the others, also carried a 50-pound pack. Like their canned goods, their sledges, fabricated from wood and iron, were very heavy. The photographic equipment alone weighed more than 200 pounds. The tents, some designed by A.F. Mummery and others by Edward Whymper, conqueror of the Matterhorn, were relatively light, as were the down-filled sleeping bags, but the duke and several of the other Italians also had collapsible iron beds which, while relatively light-weight, would have to be left behind when the sledges were, somewhere short of the summit. Altogether the four loaded sledges weighed more than a ton and a half—1400 kilograms—when the march began. It took up to four men to pull each sledge.

The party was not encouraged by the news that the climber Henry Bryant of Philadelphia (later president of the American Alpine Club) had landed at Yakutat Bay and headed inland ten days ahead of them with a party of seven men. The duke and his party went on, with the duke often going ahead of the others, despite his heavy pack, to scout out the terrain. In three days, though slowed by rain that made the snow stick to their boots and to the sledge runners, they crossed the Malaspina. This was not the end of glaciers; they went on and on, across the Seward, Pinnacle, and Agassiz glaciers.

Good news came on the Agassiz glacier; they encountered four men from the Bryant party, who told them Bryant had turned back. But after two weeks the Italians were only 3739 feet above sea level, leaving more than 14,000 feet to climb. They had left one sledge on the Malaspina glacier, and two others as they marched on. Now they reached the farthest point to which they could draw the last sledge. From here on everything had to be carried on men’s backs, with the American porters making several trips back to the sledges to pick up and bring on more supplies. The weather remained rainy and miserable, with a persistent wind, but the party took some comfort from the fact that the temperature was above freezing. Beyond the Agassiz glacier, on the Newton icefall, they found dangerous crevasses and frequent avalanches; several times men fell through snow bridges, but none was hurt. On July 19, on the Newton glacier, the last of the porters turned back as planned. The Italians were tired, but they kept on. The temperature had dropped, not sharply, and the rain turned to snow. Fortunately there was now no wind, and occasionally the clouds cleared away and there was bright sunshine.

On July 29, after a four-week march from the coast, the ten Italians camped at 8659 feet. The weather cleared and they could see ahead of them the great northeast ridge of Mount St. Elias, which they hoped to follow to the peak. The final ridge was not steep and did not appear to present impossible obstacles, but ahead of them at the glacier’s edge rose a steep rock wall. Up this wall narrow snow terraces rose in a sort of zig-zag, the obvious route to take. Three of the guides went ahead that afternoon to cut footholds up the terraces, and then returned to camp.

At four o’clock on the morning of July 30, the party left most of their gear where they had camped and set off with two tents, food for two and a half days, and a minimum of other equipment including two cameras for Vittorio Sella’s use. At one point they confronted an abyss, deep and more than two meters wide. One by one each of the party dropped his load, climbed up on the shoulders of the strongest guide, and leaped across. Finally the guide threw the loads over, and then jumped over himself. The party reached 12,293 feet and camped just below the long broad ridge which rose above them toward the summit. Far below them, avalanches fell and produced great clouds of pulverized ice. Farther off stretched the great Malaspina glacier, and beyond it they could see Yakutat Bay and a blue sea, 60 miles away.

At midnight, after several hours’ rest if not sleep, the climbers got up and drank some coffee. The night was cold but not intolerably so, 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Venus shone bright in a starry sky. The ten men started off, in three parties, the first party composed of the duke, Umberto Cagni, and two guides who led the way, Giuseppe Petigax from Courmayeur and Antonio Maquignaz from Valtournanche. There was some hard snow where the guides cut steps, then better snow. After an hour they encountered a rock face which they avoided by climbing up a snowfield next to it. Toward five a.m., at about 14,760 feet, they came to another rock face which they climbed without difficulty. This was the highest point reached by Russell, in 1891. Soon the Italians were higher than Mont Blanc; higher than any of them had ever climbed before. The snow was good and the weather continued calm and clear. There was nothing technically difficult, but it was an extremely long way at high altitude and several climbers began to feel ill. Just after eleven a.m. on July 31, after the party had been climbing for ten and a half hours, the men toward the rear saw Petigax and Maquignaz, still in the lead, stop and stand aside. The duke walked a few steps forward and was on the summit of Mount St. Elias, 18,008 feet above sea level. Within a half-hour he had been joined by all the others, and he planted the Italian flag, tied to an ice axe. The sky was clear except for clouds over the Malaspina glacier and the sea far southward. The view, de Filippi wrote later, was like a dream. They had climbed 5792 feet from their last camp, and 9349 feet in the last two days. Great peaks which two days earlier had loomed above them were now at their feet. Twenty miles north they saw Mount Logan, named by Professor Russell in 1890 and clearly higher than the summit where they stood. De Filippi estimated that the farthest peaks visible were 200 miles away.

The party descended without difficulty, crossed the glaciers in better weather than before, and reached the beach on August 11, the exact date they had estimated. If the climb had not been technically difficult, the Italians had nevertheless gone from sea level to 18,000 feet and back again, on an exhausting trip of 125 miles. They had not lost a man; in fact there had been no serious accidents. It was a triumph of physical endurance, good planning, and leadership, and the credit was due above all to Luigi Amedeo, aged 24. The San Francisco Examiner said flatly that “It was the most successful expedition ever undertaken.” It would be another half-century before the next group of climbers, from the Harvard Mountaineering Club, reached the top of Mount St. Elias.

Two years later, in 1899, the duke of the Abruzzi set out for another goal no man had yet reached: the North Pole. Fridtjof Nansen, the intrepid Norwegian who had been first to cross the Greenland ice cap on skis, had tried for the Pole in 1893, setting out from his ship the Fram with one companion. They had gone farther north than any other man, but had not reached the Pole. The duke went to seek Nansen’s advice in Norway, prepared his expedition, and sailed north. Leading the first trip northward from his ship, the duke froze his hands, had to have parts of several fingers amputated, and after his hands continued to give him trouble, gave over command of the Pole party to his friend Umberto Cagni. After the party had been gone three months the duke gave them up for lost; but Cagni and his three men (including Giuseppe Petigax the Alpine guide) returned, 104 days after they had left. They had been reduced to killing their sled dogs one by one for food until only seven dogs were left; the weather had been awful; after freezing his hand Cagni had amputated his own index finger with a pair of scissors. But he had reached 86° 34’, more than 20 miles farther north than Nansen had gone. Cagni turned back 237 miles short of the Pole, but it was a great feat. It would be seven more years before the American Robert Peary returned from the Arctic claiming—and the claim has long been disputed—that he, Matthew Henson, and four Inuit had finally stood on the top of the world.

As an explorer the duke was not only intrepid but, where most explorers of his time concentrated on one region, he was wideranging. Having done the Alps, Alaska, and the Arctic, he aimed at Africa. Southwest of the seas he had sailed as a young officer, and so far inland as to be still almost unknown to white men, lay the Ruwenzori Range. These were high mountains, almost always wrapped in clouds and mist. They were probably the Mountains of the Moon described by Ptolemy in his second-century Geography, but in modern times they had remained unknown until Sir Henry Stanley reported their existence in 1890. Several Englishmen had reached the Ruwenzori after Stanley, and had made some ascents. But it was Luigi Amedeo and his expedition of 1906—including Cagni, Sella, and Petigax the guide—who made the first ascent of 16 summits of more than 15,000 feet in the range, including 16,763-foot Margherita Peak which the duke named for the queen mother of Italy. As in the case of his earlier expeditions, the duke had not just gone adventuring. His party produced the first adequate maps of the Ruwenzori, as well as reports on the area’s flora, geology, hydrology, and glaciology. Although the range was almost on the Equator, it turned out to have a dozen glaciers.

When the duke returned from the Ruwenzori he was 33, world famous, and had been promoted to admiral. Someone in Naples had published a scandalous little book called Il Duca si diverte (“The Duke Amuses Himself”) on his alleged sexual adventures. The book did not amuse the duke; the Naples police were ordered to seize and destroy all copies. Whatever the allegations amounted to, the duke had been of marriageable age for more than a decade but had not found a wife.

In 1907 the U.S. celebrated the 300th anniversary of English settlement in this country with a major Jamestown Exposition. The duke of the Abruzzi sailed to represent Italy with the cruisers Varese and Etruria. Visiting Washington, the duke was invited to a private luncheon at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt, an outdoorsman and later explorer in his own right, and was entertained at dinner by the Postmaster General, George von L. Meyer, who had met the duke six years earlier when Meyer was ambassador to Italy. At this dinner Luigi Amedeo met an attractive young woman named Katherine Elkins. Later, she was in the party that sailed down the Potomac with the duke to Mount Vernon, where he laid a wreath of orchids at George Washington’s tomb and planted a tree on the lawn. Katherine Elkins was the daughter of a wealthy senator, Stephen Elkins of West Virginia. A romance blossomed, and soon it appeared that the duke intended to marry the young American. But the Royal House of Savoy was unwilling to see a royal prince, who might conceivably someday sit on the throne, marry an American commoner and a Protestant at that. For six years the affair continued. There were reports that the duke would renounce his right to royal succession; but he did not do so. There was a report that the impediment would be removed by the bride being named a princess and becoming a Catholic; but neither of these things happened. In 1912, when Albania became independent, there was talk of Luigi Amedeo becoming its king—at which point he could presumably marry whomever he chose—but like an earlier possibility of his ascending the throne of Greece, it did not come to pass. Finally, after six years, the rumors and speculation ended. Katherine Elkins married the son of a wealthy congressman from Illinois.

Meanwhile the restless duke had fixed his attention again on Asia, where he had yet to go climbing. In 1909 Luigi Amedeo led a group of expert mountaineers into the mountains of the Karakoram, on the northern edge of India. In addition to Petigax and other Italian Alpine guides—who had now proven their usefulness both on Mount St. Elias and in the Ruwenzori, as well as on the Polar expedition— the expedition included Filippo de Filippi, who was later to publish a full account of the expedition, and Vittorio Sella who again furnished the pictorial record. Luigi Amedeo’s goal was to conquer K2, which at 28,250 feet is the world’s second highest peak and which was then still unclimbed. He had been preceded in the Karakoram by several other expeditions, including one led by Martin Conway in 1892 for the Royal Geographical Society of London. Conway had done valuable mapping, and the duke made good use of it. Nevertheless the Italians failed to make it to the top of K2, slowed by awful weather and finding what seemed impassable walls ahead of them on both the southeast ridge—later called the Abruzzi Spur—and the west side of the mountain. The highest point they reached on K2 was just short of 22,000 feet, more than six thousand feet below the summit.

The duke now turned to another unclimbed mountain 25 miles south of K2: Chogolisa, which Conway had called Bride Peak. On Chogolisa the duke of the Abruzzi and three companions, climbing without oxygen supplies, reached 24,600 feet, higher than any man had gone before them. But after successfully traversing a long knife-edged ridge and then a difficult stretch of ice-coated rock, the Italians were once again forced to turn back, in thick fog, just five hundred feet below the peak. The duke’s altitude record was to stand for 13 years until, in 1922, G.H.L. Mallory reached 27,000 feet during his first attempt on Mt. Everest. The duke and his guides had moreover spent nine days above 21,000 feet, which no one had ever done before them.

K2 remained unconquered until an Italian expedition led by Ardito Desio reached the peak in 1954, a year after Edmund Hillary’s first successful ascent of Mt. Everest. Desio, another wide-ranging explorer and mountaineer who celebrated his 100th birthday in Italy in 1997, had hoped before World War II to lead an Italian party up Everest. He asked Filippo de Filippi to make soundings in British climbing circles. Desio wrote years later that “the outcome was negative.” Apparently the British indicated that they would not look kindly on an Italian attempt on “their” mountain. So Desio turned his attention to K2.The war stopped Italian mountaineering, but as soon as Italy’s postwar recovery permitted, Desio mounted his successful expedition.

After the duke of the Abruzzi returned from the Karakoram, he returned to his naval duties. During the Italo-Turkish War of 1911—12 he directed successful operations off the coast of Albania. When Italy finally entered the First World War in 1915 on the side of the Allies, the duke became commander of Allied naval forces in the Adriatic Sea. His greatest wartime feat was to save the Serbian army, which in 1915 was crushed between the Austrian and Bulgarian armies and made a difficult winter retreat over the mountains to the Adriatic. Luigi Amedeo’s warships and transports, under fire of Austrian guns, took off the shore more than 150,000 Serbs, as well as 25,000 Austrian soldiers whom the Serbs had captured and forced to flee with them across the mountains. Now things began to go badly. Saboteurs destroyed two naval vessels in Italian ports and the cruiser Regina Margherita, leaving port in stormy weather, went off course and blew up in a minefield. Commissions were named to investigate the losses, and although the duke was not blamed directly the overall responsibility was his. Late in 1917 it was decided to remove the duke from the Adriatic command and name a French admiral as commander. The duke of the Abruzzi took this as an insult and resigned his commission—requesting that he be permitted to form and lead a kind of green-beret unit of arditi to fight on land. Permission was refused. When the Great War ended in 1918, the offended duke of the Abruzzi left Italy for Somalia, then an Italian colony, whose shores he had first seen as a young naval lieutenant on the Volturno, a quarter-century earlier.

European conquest of Somalia was almost completed. Some clans in the northeastern regions of the Italian colony were still fighting against Italian rule. Westward in British Somaliland, the great Somali warrior Mohamed Abdallah Hassan, whom the British misnamed the Mad Mullah, would continue to resist until in 1920 he was bombed out of his remote fortress by an unknown new weapon, airplanes.

The Italian colony of Somalia stretched along the east coast of Africa for a thousand miles, from the Kenyan border northeast to the Horn of Africa. Dozens of ships a day bound to or from Europe via the Suez Canal sailed past the Horn, where the Gulf of Aden met the great blue Indian Ocean. There was also a less modern traffic of small Somali dhows, carrying cargoes to the distant Persian Gulf and India.

But it was to inland and not coastal Somalia that the former admiral turned his attention. Inland, arid grasslands stretched west-ward for several hundred miles, to the borders of Ethiopia and beyond. Most Somalis were nomadic herders, wandering hundreds of miles in search of scarce forage and water. But Somalia was not all arid grasslands. There were two rivers, the Shebeli and the Juba. In the area between the rivers enough rain fell in most years to support agriculture, and there was a population of small farmers.

The duke arrived in Somalia late in 1918, in the wake of press reports that he planned to explore the headwaters of the Shebeli, which flowed down into Somalia from a source somewhere in the Ethiopian highlands. He found that source, much later. For now, he motored up and down the sleepy Italian colony over rough dusty tracks, looking for the best site to launch his new idea: a major agricultural project. He had long taken an interest in land-reclamation projects in Italy. It was time now to put Italian experience to work in the tropics.

In the end the duke decided to create a large complex of plantations along the Shebeli River, inland from Mogadishu. Here there was at least 15 inches of rain a year, and sometimes twice that. However, most of this rain fell in just two summer months, and near the Equator the evaporation rate was very high. The new plantations would therefore be irrigated, with water from the Shebeli. But the Shebeli was an unusual river. It rose in Ethiopia’s rainy highlands but in Somalia, in the long dry season, the Shebeli stopped flowing. It would therefore be necessary to build a large dam and reservoir, to hoard the river’s waters over the dry months.

The duke returned to Italy in 1919 to launch his plans. There were press reports from Budapest that he was a possible candidate for the vacant Hungarian throne. The reports seem not to have diverted his attention from Somalia—which was just as well, since for the next quarter-century Admiral Miklos Horthy, who had fought against the duke in the Adriatic, ruled Hungary as Regent behind a throne which remained empty.

In 1920 the duke created a new corporation for his project, the Societa Agricola Italo-Somala or SAIS. His personal fortune was not great, so SAIS would need extensive outside financing. He soon found it. He was after all a royal prince proposing a major step forward in the development of Italy’s Indian Ocean colony, still a backwater. The corporation’s shares were bought by Italy’s main banks and business interests. The Italian government did its part, granting SAIS a concession of more than 60,000 acres along the Shebeli, providing surplus war materials and low-interest loans, and guaranteeing a protected Italian market for SAIS production. By 1923 a large earthen dam and reservoir had been built on the Shebeli and a network of irrigation channels was being dug. By 1928, more than 10,000 acres were producing bananas, cane sugar, and cotton almost all of which was shipped to Italy. There were 200 resident Italian managers and foremen, and 6,000 Somali laborers from the local farming tribes; Somali nomads disdained such work. The plantations needed still more labor, but many farmers preferred to work their own plots rather than labor for SAIS, even though SAIS provided better housing and health facilities. In 1922 Mussolini’s Fascists had taken over Italy, and the Duce’s strong-arm ways now extended to the colonies. With the help of local clan leaders, many Somalis were forced against their will to become SAIS laborers. The duke’s use of forced labor in Somalia was perhaps the most negative aspect of his life.

By 1928 SAIS was one of the two largest income-producers in Italian Somalia. (The other was a huge salt works at a remote headland near the Horn, which exported a quarter-million tons of salt a year.) The duke of the Abruzzi decided it was time to go on one more expedition, to find the headwaters of the Shebeli. He paved the way during a diplomatic mission to Addis Ababa which he undertook mainly to conclude a new commercial agreement. Seven years later, Mussolini would invade Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie would be forced to flee; for now, bilateral relations remained good, and the emperor’s government promised its full cooperation with the duke’s expedition. For four months Luigi Amedeo and a small group of Italians drawn mainly from SAIS staff—none of his old climbing companions—traveled almost the entire thousand-mile course of the Shebeli. They passed through country largely unknown to the developed world, traversing 13,000-foot Ethiopian peaks and locating the river’s source in a grassy mountain meadow nine thousand feet above sea level, near a village whose people had never seen a European.

Luigi Amedeo returned to his pleasant Italian-style villa on the Shebeli in February 1929, a sick man. It was prostate cancer. He underwent an operation the next year in Turin; it was not a cure. He kept on working in Somalia, with occasional visits to Italy where he had been named chairman of the new Italian Line. He was saddened by the death of his old comrade Umberto Cagni, in 1931. In early 1933, just after his 60th birthday, Luigi Amedeo made a final visit to Italy and then sailed for Mogadishu, knowing that his end was near and wanting to die in Somalia. On March 18 he died in his villa in the Shebeli settlement which had been named for him, Villaggio Duca degli Abruzzi. His death in an African village was world news; and then the modern world began to forget about him.

In 1985, more than a half-century after the duke’s death, an American family paid a visit to the village, now called Johar. Somalia had become independent in 1960. In 1969 it had fallen under a military dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, and had become a Soviet client state but then turned against Moscow and sought Western aid. Through all these changes the duke’s former plantations continued to produce, although now in 1985 they were state-owned and production had dropped, partly because of salination of the soil. The plantations were again using forced—prison—labor. The American visitors found the duke’s villa intact, unchanged since his death. Here were his furnishings, linens, pictures, even an ancient American-made air conditioner no longer functioning. On a table stood a bust of a lovely Somali woman. The duke never married, in the eyes of the world; but as the Johar people still remembered, Luigi Amedeo had found in Somalia this lovely companion, Faduma Ali, who was with him when he died.

The duke’s accomplishments around the world transcended both his own princely birth and the overall records of other modern climbers and explorers. He showed time after time that, as he wrote after his Polar journey, “. . .with will, courage, and perseverance, man can dare anything.” In recent decades many people have climbed higher than the duke of the Abruzzi ever did; and both Poles were conquered long ago. Yet it can still be hard to outdo him, a century after he was the first to stand atop Mount St. Elias. The first winter ascent of the mountain was made in early 1997 by David Briggs, Gardner Heaton, and Joe Reichert. It was an admirable feat—although the three stepped from an air taxi onto the Tyndall glacier to begin their climb. Later, as a kind of centennial celebration of the duke’s expedition, Jonathan Waterman and Jeff Hollenbaugh attempted the climb. Waterman subsequently wrote a book on “Re-creating the Duke of Abruzzi’s Historic Expedition” but as one reviewer put it, the title was presumptuous; Waterman gave up 11,000 feet short of the summit.

The duke is well remembered in Italy. His Savoy kin lost the Italian throne when the Italian Republic was created in 1946, but the duke’s name appears on hotels, streets, and restaurants. He is honored among Italian climbers. The national climbing museum in Turin bears his name, as does the well-used climbers’ hut below the Corno Grande, the highest peak in the Abruzzi.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Francesco 's picture
Francesco · 3 years ago

Very interesting, I live in Abruzzo and many times I go on Corno Grande, the highest peak in the Abruzzo. There is a beautiful climbers' hut called "Rifugio Duca degli Abruzzi"


Recommended Reading