Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denz


"I grinned at Bill when we woke up on our last day, well rested from sleeping on a ledge. He burst out laughing and told me to do it again while he took a picture," Austin said. "You can see that I am rather hammered." [Photo] Bill Denz

I heard a tiny, woman's voice, "Bill, Bill, Bill." It had to be Christine. I heard no response from Bill. The bulge shielded him from all sight and sound at the base of the route. "Bill", I shouted up, "I think Christine is at the base shouting up to you."

"Where is she, Zappa? I can't see or hear anything," he shouted back anxiously. "Shout down to her, maybe she will hear."


Bill bellowed out, "Christine, Christine." No reply. Silence.

Then "Bill, Bill, Bill."

"Bill, she can't hear you. I think the bulge is deflecting the sound."

"Give her a shout, Zappa."


"Just give her shout. See if she can hear you."

"CHRISTINE," I shouted down. "Bill, Bill, is that you, Bill?"

"NO, I AM DAVE, BILL CAN'T HEAR YOU. Bill, she can hear me."

"Bill, Bill, is that you, Bill?"


"Tell her I love her, Zappa. Just tell her." No more tough guy here, just raw emotion.

Taking a huge breath of air, and thinking that things had just got weird, I bellowed out from of my gut, carefully enunciating each word "BILL-SAYS-HE-LOVES-YOU."

"Bill, Bill, is that you, Bill?"


"Tell her I love her, Zappa."


"Bill, I love you!"

"Bill, she says she loves you," I shouted up.

"Tell her I love her again, Zappa."


"Bill, I love you!"

"Bill, she says she loves you, again" I shouted up. This was getting weird. "Zappa, tell her everything will be alright," he shouted down.


"Bill, I love you!"

And on it went for a while, a distant reunion between the two with me the bellowing messenger. Were such things recorded in the annals of climbing, this exchange would surely have been regarded as the strangest conversation ever held on The Captain.

And it changed everything.

Bill's emotions grabbed him. Before, we toughed it out. After Christine's "visit" nothing went fast enough. Nothing. He began to yell at me. I began to yell back.

Denz high up on Dawn Wall. [Photo] David Austin

I should have had the maturity to have a heart-to-heart with him. "Hell, man, let's go down. See your wife. Climb another day." But I was 21 and stubborn. He was 27 and even more stubborn, if that was possible. We were ruled by a code of honor that did not permit blowing off a major climb just for some woman. We were in the grips of ruthless climbing ambition that that did not admit to the reality of human emotion, of the demands of love, of the need to assuage grief and loss. So we continued, in conflict, baked into stupidity every day, slowing to a crawl in Sahara Desert conditions with no shelter from the sun until the heat of day had passed.

The bolt ladders terrified me. I had done A5 before. But this was far worse. I didn't make the placements, just had to trust them. Every now and then there was a rivet with a mangled, badly corroding wire loop choking it. Later Robbins told me that he and Lauria and found those things on their second ascent. At the time I thought that they had placed them and cursed them savagely. Each one was a Russian roulette experience. I moved slowly, testing each shaky rivet, dreading the occasional corroded wires. Bill bellowed at me to move faster, but he didn't fare much better on his leads.

There was no safe harbor at the end of each rivet pitch, just the shitty anchors left by Harding and Caldwell: two shorty, quarter-inch, split Rawl drives. I had seen those damn things come off in a hand when clipping them. A few months earlier, three of my friends had been killed on the Nose when their shitty Rawl-drive anchors failed.

I took the bolt kit with me on the lead. I didn't dare back up the rivet ladders because we had just a handful of three-eighths-inch bolts to back up the stations.

Bill was violently opposed to backing up the stations. "Too much time, Zappa, don't do it," he would bellow at me. The argument raged. Finally, I shouted back, "I am on lead. I have the bolt kit, and I am not fucking tying you off until I back up this station, so shut the fuck up," followed by other curses that I don't care to repeat.

One worry that many Yosemite climbers shared when climbing with foreign climbers was that they did not understand bolt safety. How I survived climbing with Scottish climber Gordon Smith was a wonder to me the way he trusted old single bolts far off the deck. The alpinist sorts like Bill and Gordon just took their chances on marginal gear. Lots of us in the Valley made a point of backing up bad anchors, especially those of us who had lost friends.

This point was lost on Bill in his drive to finish and see Christine. When I led, I backed up the anchors. When he led, we were on unequalized two-bolt stations. Remember, we had about a bunch of A5 rivet ladders. A fall on those anchors would have pulled them for sure. I recollect that once Bill relented and let me drill a back-up bolt before I headed off on my lead. Even he could see that we were in trouble.

Another source of conflict was our third rope. We had to do two hauls at first because of the huge load of water that both slowed us down and let us continue. Then we were able to consolidate the bags, leaving the third rope as a spare.

Bill insisted that we toss the rope to save weight. I was aghast. I always had a third line on walls to lower if necessary or replace a buggered rope. The practice came from hard-earned experience. I thought that we would need the rope up high at the summit overhangs. The argument raged and raged for a day. Then I snapped. "OK, you motherfucker, have it your way," I shouted in the middle of the argument as I grabbed and tossed the rope into the abyss. "We are going to really need that fucking thing near the end and now we won't have it, and it will be your goddamn, fucking fault." Bill was forceful, but I could usually out-curse him.

The blank dihedral was the major feature of interest on the climb. When we got to it, it was clear that most of it could have been nailed at a high standard; certainly in 1978 it could have been nailed with the gear available with an occasional rivet. But it would have been trashed, full of fixed copperheads, and shallow piton holes. The rivets preserved it. Once, at the start of the blank dihedrals, I was busy nailing it with tipped-off stacks, when Bill shouted at me to stop wasting time. I had bypassed a few rivets without knowing it. It had not occurred to me to even look for a rivet when there was A3+ nailing. So, I stopped nailing and started on the rivets.

I am not sure what Harding and Caldwell were thinking. Clearly, they were tough to have spent 28 days on it, and had picked a gorgeous line, but they were in no way equal to it, technically. Sorry to say it. Even the greats screw up.

It is hard for me to remember what we did on a given day. They blur into each other. Some incidents stand out before our rendezvous with John Bachar and Ron Kauk, and the final push to the top.

We were past the blank dihedrals, off the rivets, and back into nailing. Bill was leading. PING! The sound of a pin popping out, a loud squawk of pain from Bill, and the sound of crabs rattling as he fell. I braced for a big one, but it was just a wee hop.

"Zappa, I can't see. What's the matter with me?"

I looked up to see that his glasses were smashed and that there was a gash above an eyebrow. The blood flowing from it filled his eyes, blinding him. The pin had popped into his face as he was testing it.

"Bill, there is a cut above your eye. Just keep wiping the blood from your eyes and you will be OK."

"Me glasses are smashed. Send me up a spare pair on the haul line."

While he bled and finally clotted, I rummaged around in the haul bag until I found his glasses. Then I sent them up. He continued climbing. I settled into an awed contemplation of how tough he was. In days of yore, he would have been the guy climbing up on the enemy castle battlements, stuck with many arrows, hewing and slaying all those before him. Despite our conflict I never lost my respect for him. It went up a few notches higher as he continued the lead.

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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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