Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denz

Posted on: May 9, 2013

New Zealand alpinist Bill Denz follows David Austin along a rivet ladder during their link-up of Mescalito and the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in 1978. Five years later, Denz would die in an avalanche on the West Pillar of Makalu. [Photo] David Austin

In a collaborative effort to profile the late Bill Denz for our spring issue, Peter Haan and Paul Maxim enlisted David "Zappa" Austin to record his memories of one hard-fought link-up of Mescalito and the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in 1978. A snippet of Austin's story helps shape Denz's tough and tenacious character in "Boldness, Genius Magic: The Life of Bill Denz," Alpinist 42. Here, Austin tells the rest of the unpublished story.—Ed.

"Surely you heard about Bill Denz." The letter trembled in my hand. I hadn't.


Bill, killed on Makalu. My God.

I sat stunned and alone in my apartment in Rio de Janeiro, so far from home, tossed into vivid memory.

"So Bill", I asked him one night high on El Capitan, "What is your life dream?"

"I want to be an old man puttering naked about me garden," he replied emphatically.

That didn't seem like much of an ambition to me then, in 1978. Now, as I stand on the edge of old age, it seems a wise and fine ambition. I putter around my garden, clothes on, and I sometimes think of Bill.

Our climb was a kind of lunatic epic and horror show. The sun baked us for days and days into halfwits. Sometimes we cursed and raged at each other. His epic adventures leaped out of his past, unwelcome, onto our adventure. Yet the truth of the matter is that we connected deeply and did a great climb at the limits of our endurance, emotional and physical. And we forgave each other soon thereafter.

Even now, 30 years later, his death hurts. I never asked him, would his be a vegetable or flower garden?

Bill was already a legend in Yosemite when I met him. Everyone knew about his grudge match with Tis-sa-ack: the flake, the savage gash in his leg, the rescue, long recovery, and then he went back and did it.

He was a real hardman. Everyone on the rescue site gave him a nod of respect that was seldom given.

David Austin in Camp 4, 1978. [Photo] Bill Denz

So I was thrilled to sit at the picnic table with him talking about routes on The Captain. I had done it once, something like the tenth ascent of The Shield. It still had a rep back then, but I think that rep was demolished when John Flemming and I did it a year earlier. John and I joked that ours was the first turkey ascent of The Shield. Still, Bill thought it a good credential.

Bill was friendly and blunt. He took and he gave jibes and wisecracks. His opinions were strong and forcefully argued. His easy aura of hardman confidence needed no swagger. There was a pit-bull kind of toughness about him, like he would just clamp onto a climb and shake it dead. Here was a guy who would not easily back off. And he looked the part, compact and probably dangerous in a fight. I wanted badly to do a wall with him. I liked him immensely.

I had my eye on Mesca-Dawn, starting up on Mescalito and finishing on the Dawn Wall. It seemed to me then to be the true line that Harding and Caldwell should have taken. As far as I knew, we would be the third party up the section of wall bypassed by New Dawn. Bill thought it worth doing.

Bill warmed up as the conversation went on. Finally, he let on that he planned to solo Excalibur, starting in the next day or two. I was impressed. That route was for the chosen few. I knew the rack would be hard to manage because it included a pile of bongs and blocks to aid the wide cracks. No one imagined then freeing them because big cams had not been invented yet. I offered to help him carry his gear and ferry loads with my car. He accepted.

Austin follows Denz up to a belay on Mescalito. [Photo] Bill Denz

The next day or two, we staggered in with huge loads of water and gear, stashing them in a carefully camouflaged location in the forest just below Excalibur. Then we went back to Camp 4. The next day I dropped him off with a more gear and wished him luck.

I was surprised to see him a couple days later. He was a stubborn bulldog, but not a fool. The racks were just too huge to manage solo he said. Did I still want to do Mesca-Dawn? I helped him retrieve his gear and then we got down to planning.

We did the usual layout of gear. We agreed on food and bought it. Bill was big on carrying lots of water, so we scrounged a pile of water jugs. We thought that we would fix for one or two days, take a rest day, and then hump in our loads early and blast off for a six-day ascent.

It was normal-hot when we started fixing. No big deal. It kept getting hotter. The day we started it got blast-furnace hot. That wall is shining white rock that reflects the sun right back at you. Facing southeast, it catches the first rays of light and holds them until mid-afternoon. We guzzled water to avoid shriveling up in the cruel sun.

Bill was a great partner. His climbing was solid and he was a superb story teller. Our first night on the wall—dangling, he in his hammock, me in my portaledge—stories and conversation were heart to heart. Bivy conversations are a part of wall climbing not much talked about. Sure, there is a lot of dope smoking and listing to tunes, but some of the best conversations of my life have been with partners on a wall. Souls open up in ways that seldom happen when we plod the earth below.

Austin traverses out onto the rivet ladder. [Photo] Bill Denz

I asked him about Tis-sa-ack. He told me the story in detail. I asked why he went back to do it. "I wasn't going to hang me hammer up on that one," he stated as if there were no honorable alternative.

Then he told me the tragic tale of his friend, Phill Herron, killed in Patagonia. There was open joy in his voice as he spoke of the climbs they did in New Zealand, bold and tough. He said that Phill was his inspiration, that he was the one who dreamed up many of the climbs. Bill was clearly proud of him and loved him, like a kid brother who suddenly burst into glorious manhood and turned out to be an inseparable pal.

Then his voice changed to heartbreak—no tears, just tones of raw agony—as he told of Phill plunging into the crevasse. They had been used to unroped glacier travel in New Zealand. Patagonia does not forgive such a thing. Phill's companion had rapped down to him, just able to touch his fingers in the blue, frigid gloom. Phil was hopelessly wedged and frozen in, nothing to be done except wait for death. The two had talked for hours until Phill slipped into the long sleep of hypothermia. Bill got the news when a solitary figure trudged back to camp. I think that Bill would have preferred a bullet to it.

He left the mountains to find his wife, Christine, desperate for solace, for comfort in the wildness of his grief. But she had run off with an Argentine lover. Bill spent two weeks traveling all over Argentina trying to find her. When he did, she told him to "fuck off."

"Goddamn, Bill. What did you do?" I asked.

"What did I do? What did I do?" he said, voice rising to some climax. "Why, I just lay down on the grass and cried and cried. That's what I did, Zappa." The hero revealed that he was human.

Every story I had told him about love lost and friends killed kind of paled next to that one. It wasn't my story, but it broke my heart, too.

Austin continues his rivet traverse. [Photo] Bill Denz

Dawn blazed and the solar furnace brutally roasted us. Our first day had been pretty much getting started with all of our gear. We had to do two hauls at first. It would have been slow going anyway, but the heat hammered our schedule down to about two or three pitches per day. It was late in the season. Days were short and should have been cool, but there we were in the worst summer heat without summer daylight. At the end of the day, we knew we did not have enough water to make it.

We pondered the options. We had seen all the other parties on the east side of The Captain bail off to flee the heat. If either of us had tried to talk the other into bailing, it would have been successful. I am sure of it. But both of us were too stubborn and pig-headed give in first.

At that time, I had spent more time in Yosemite than Bill. My collection of Captain route lore told me that if we sacrificed one pitch, then our three ropes would just make it to the valley floor. We could rap down a pitch and fix our lines the next morning, get more water and be back at it the next day.

That night we talked about why we climb. Bill thought that climbing was like war. He had trained hard as a commando and was heartbroken when New Zealand pulled out of Vietnam before he could go. He had very much wanted to go. He spoke of his dentist, a World War II vet, who told him that young men must go into the mountains because they long for war.

I don't think that I quite agreed with him. I felt that climbing was more of a spiritual journey. Still, the force of his argument, like pretty much everything else about him, was hard to resist. Looking back, I think that much of what he said was right. Certain young men with no family to care for, no daily demands of compassion, are called by a fierce life. I was one of them and pretty much as ruthless as the next. To me, spirituality may have been a justification to paper over something more elemental. Bill rejected any kind of the climbing mysticism that I espoused at the time because it turned one away from reality. "You've got to be completely plugged into reality to climb," he told me with flat finality.

We executed our plan the next day. By the time we got to the bottom, the rope hung a short walk away from the wall. At no spot did it touch the wall.

That night Bill and I had split for a bit. I walked into Camp 4. As usual, I read the bulletin board. I saw a note, "BILL DENZ. EMERGENCY. CALL PARK DISPATCH," with a number. I grabbed it and headed back toward the lounge to find Bill. I handed it to him and off he went.

A while later he found me. "Bill, what's the deal? Is our climb still on?"

"It was Christine. She is in San Francisco. She was headed to London from Auckland, had a layover in San Francisco and stepped off the plane without her luggage. She had heard about Tis-sa-ack and felt bad about all that had happened between us. She stepped off the plane because she had to see me."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I told her if she meets me at the top then things will work out. I am not hanging up my hammer on this one."

Relieved, I slept well. And off we went the next day.

Austin negotiates the upper end of the rivet ladder. He was surprised and disappointed to find that Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell had continued their rivet ladder through the dihedral instead of protecting it with A3+ nailing. [Photo] Bill Denz

We hit the Harding-Caldwell rivet ladders the day we got back on the wall. There was Mescalito going off to the right, and the rivets going off to the left. There was a moment of decision. We went left. That was a mistake.

Up to that point we were nailing away. Sure it was bloody hot, but we had water. Nothing was really hard, just tradesman piton-craft and plenty of decent nut placements.

Mescalito had been a dream. On a couple of pitches, swarms of tree frogs jumped, surprised, out of the crack. They would launch into the air and then expertly maneuver with spread legs onto a perch. None went the distance. I remember having several on me while Bill was leading.

But the rivets, my God, those goddamn, fucking rivets—dumb-ass little aluminum plugs hardly punched into the rock. We quickly discovered that only #1 wedges, wee things with the cutest little wires, would strangle the rivets. We thought our pile of wires would do the job. We both thought that we had got the word on these things. Had we been smoking dope at the time? I dunno. We blew it. Anyway, all we had were six wires that fit on the rivets. Harding had popped some on the first ascent. My confidence in them was low.

When we made the discovery, we could have just said "fuck it" and gone right. We would have had a short-pitch day, but so what? I have no recollection of why we continued. I can only speculate that two super stubborn guys wanted a third ascent of the lower blank dihedrals more than we wanted to actually have a good climb. On we went, leapfrogging three wires, leaving the other three as imaginary protection to indulge delusions of safety. If any rivet had popped the leader would have gone the distance. A5 for sure.

The next day, Bill was leading over a long, smooth bulge in the morning before thermals started roaring and violently fluttering our bits of loose gear. If I leaned out from my hanging belay, I could see him alright. Otherwise, he was out of sight. The slow, methodical pace of the aiding gave me plenty of time to take in the sights.

At the toe of the Nose, I saw a yellow dot making its slow, tentative way toward the bottom of the Dawn Wall. Finally, it stopped at the base below us.

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I once did a climb with Bill Denz up the East Ridge of Mount Cook, New Zealand, in 1980. What a character he was! Very recently I wrote a book of short stories called "A Cabbage On Mount Cook and other stories" and its title story tells my tale about meeting and climbing with Bill. There are some people you meet in life who do seem to be larger than life. Bill Denz was such a one, and now, having read what others have written about him, his personality and courage still seem vibrant even though he died so many years ago soon after I met him.

My book of short stories is available in paperback and in Kindle. Best wishes.

2016-07-24 07:19:35

Thank you for writing this David,

I spent a few days spanning a few years with Bill in various huts, and briefly we even worked for the same guiding business.

In all the glamor that sort of surrounded him I often felt he was not fully understand [we can never know anyone truly 'tho]

I miss the great talks and brews we used to have!

Thanks for keeping his essence alive.



2013-05-27 01:20:35
Keese Lane


2013-05-14 14:53:36

i did dream of white horses and a few other routes with him in 81. up until reading this article i had no idea what a great climber he was. he didn't say a word about his achievements. i liked him alot. a sad loss

2013-05-14 13:30:55


Good heavens, how did I botch John's name? I will see to have it corrected.



2013-05-14 07:58:36


I enjoyed that very much. Bill and I had several mutual friends who spoke of him in a mixture of awe and horror. It was, sadly, no real surprise to anyone that he never made it to naked old age.

'John Sheffield', your partner on the The Shield, is John Fleming (from Sheffield). John also did an early ascent of The Zodiac and his tales inspired several of us to visit Ysoemite and get on those big routes.

2013-05-14 05:19:02


One of the best stories I've ever read about climbing, about friendship, about love, about everything.



2013-05-13 23:09:34
Marsupial Rat

Hi David,

Just a note to say how much I enjoyed reading your piece on Bill; a wonderful and evocative account and appreciated for the time and care you took to write it. I held his ropes on a couple of routes at Araps in the summer of '82 and while it was just cragging nonsense, the bloke emanated "real dealness".

Thanks again....

2013-05-13 20:38:51
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