Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denz


Austin making progress on Mesca-Dawn. Just above, in the obvious off-finger-sized crack, he would disturb a colony of bats. [Photo] Bill Denz

For me the pitch that exemplified conflict and blasting heat was an A1 crack above the Wino Tower. It was my lead. It was late in the day. We had just had a good laugh together over the wine bottles that Harding had left at the tower.

As I got started, I saw a bat poking its head out the crack, teeth bared and very angry at my intrusion. Then another bat appeared above him and another until there was a line of bat heads, one stacked on top of another for as far as I could see up the crack. All of them were squeaking at me and baring their teeth. Every last one of them had to be tickled back into the crack, nipping fiercely at the tip of the piton with their needle teeth.


"Just smash in a pin and kill them Zappa. Get going, you're wasting time."

"I am not going to kill a bat. It will bring bad luck." The argument raged. I tickled them back, killing none.

By the time I tickled all those bats back into the crack, the heat had baked me into perfect stupidity. I half-fainted a couple of times and had to hang for a bit to get going again. As I finished the crack, I couldn't figure out what size pin would fit. All I could understand was that there were small pins on the front of the rack and bigger pins going to the rear. So, I would pick one from the front, "Oh, too small," and then pick another farther back, and so on until one fit. Pure deranged stupidity. I should have been in a hospital for heat exhaustion, but was leading on The Captain instead. Bill stopped bellowing after awhile, silenced by the heat.

I think that we stopped at the top of the bat crack to bivy. By then we had been painfully crawling up the wall for five or six days since we blasted off with the extra water. The nights were not cool and refreshing because the rock radiated heat from the day.

The next day, Bill charged out of his hammock before sunrise, as soon as there was light to see. In the cool of the morning he nailed quickly. When his finished the pitch, he took his morning piss. The top of the pitch was good 30 feet to the left, if not more. But the most subtle of breezes bent the shaft of gold gently toward me with little scatter and a perfection of aim that might be good evidence that God has a sense of humor or that there are mischievous spirits loose on high walls.

As the piss hit me, a bellow of indignation began a titanic eruption from my gut, but was stopped cold by another sensation. I bent my head and thought, "I know what this is, but it is the first time on this wall that I have felt cool and refreshed."

Denz leads "somewhere in the middle of the rivet ladders" on Mesca-Dawn. [Photo] David Austin

It was a long piss. When he was done, I shouted up, "Oh Bill, that was so cool and refreshing," in the most theatrical, exaggerated voice I could manage. He howled with laughter.

I think it was later that day that Bachar and Kauk caught up to us, so that must have been Day 7. We had watched them climbing on New Dawn, and then watched them follow the route we had taken, except that New Dawn misses the bottom of the blank dihedral.

By then we were in a bit of trouble. We had originally packed six days of food. Then we ate a couple days of food on our first attempt. In the Christine excitement on the valley floor we both forgot to replace the food. Then our final attempt took eight days, not six. So, we were badly short of food. We went on half rations about halfway through the climb. It made us weak.

We had one purple cabbage with us for nutrition that we had saved. We saved it some more. Then it rotted. We wiped off the ooze on the outside and ate it. Delicious.

Austin realizes how little food they have left in their haul bags. The climbers had forgotten to restock their rations after their first attempt on Mesca-Dawn. [Photo] Bill Denz

When Bachar and Kauk caught up to us, we bivied at the same spot. It was a good party. I even got some sardine can juice that Ron didn't want. Incomparably delicious.

Bill had a pitch fixed above us that we didn't have time to clean. Bachar and Kauk asked if they could jug our line to save time. We said OK. Bill asked if they would fix a line above us to make up for our lost time. They agreed.

It was my turn to clean. Bill hauled. When I got to the top of the pitch, the line was fixed above. There was no extra line for hauling. I had to jug the haul line, unweighting the bags. OK, that was kind of fucked, but necessary to get going.

Then I got to the next station. No Bill, just another line. He shouted down to me to pass up the haul line. We argued, but there was nothing to be done except comply. I was at his mercy. I passed the line. On it went for four pitches.

The last one was a heart-stopper. The line passed over the great roof edge at an angle, not hanging free. The wall hangs out a good 50 feet from the station above to my station. We had no lowering line thanks to earlier events. Taking that station down, while lowering out as slowly as possible and making sure that I did not shock-load the anchors took some careful thought. I could only lower myself out about 10 feet of the 50. I knew by the way the line tended over the lip of the overhand that there was a good chance the rope would cut. There was nothing to be done.

Well, I did one thing. Rage. I have never in my life as savagely cursed anyone as I cursed Bill that moment. I am not proud of it and, before God, pray never to curse anyone so again. He heard every word.

When I cut loose to take a huge swing over 3,000 feet of air, I thought that I would just go the distance. I watched the rope with my heart in my mouth as it sawed across the lip, back and forth as I swung around.

Then I jugged up. I could finally see Bill. I looked at him and said in cold fury, "And furthermore, the bags will jam in the overhang and you are going down to get them." He was silent. He understood the peril I had just passed through and was gentle with me, showing a kindness I had not seen before.

Bachar and Kauk continued. We resumed climbing and bivied close to the top. I remember that we were both happy on the ledge. Starving, yes, but happy with easy climbing to finish up. I think that is were we had our last can of sardines, a big one in tomato sauce, reserved as our last tiny bit of food. Yum. Breakfast and lunch had been a couple of lemon drops for three days.

John Bachar and Ron Kauk catching up with Austin and Denz on Day 6 of Mesca-Dawn. "Of the four of us who partied that night in hammocks and portaledges, two were later killed climbing," Austin said. [Photo] David Austin

When we topped out the next morning we finally realized how weak we had become. We had to rest and catch our breath as we coiled up our ropes. It took over an hour to just gather up our gear and pack it. We had both agreed emphatically to walk down, but as we shouldered our loads, I wondered how the hell I could walk for the next 10 minutes, let alone the next eight miles.

Christine was not there. I know it hurt Bill, but he kept it to himself.

A few minutes into our uncertain staggering toward the summit and trail, we both had the same astonishing hallucination. There was a massive cairn of a couple dozen pop and beer cans. But, wait a second, it was real, wasn't it? They had to be full to be there. Otherwise the wind would blow them down.

"Bill, Bill, I think they're full!"

"I am not going there Zappa, I can't stand the disappointment."

"No, Bill, they are real and full of pop and beer! I know it!"

"You go touch it then."

I dropped my haul bag, and warily approached the cans, half expecting them to disappear. I reached out and touched the cairn.

"Bill, they are real and full!"

He let out a shriek of delight. We divvied them up, each of us with our own pile of beer and pop, guzzling like hungry babies on the breast, in ecstasy. We laughed and were giddy with pleasure. The jolt of sugar and alcohol revived us.

Before long we found the trail. Bill turned to me and said, "I have got to see Christine, I am going to run down." I bade him goodbye, happy to putter my way down alone on the trail. Yes, he could still run after that climb with a huge pack on. And he did, a steady trot down the trail.

As I got closer to Yosemite Falls, I began to see people who looked at me strangely. All the way down the Falls trail I got the same look.

When I finally got back to Camp 4, all of my friends burst out laughing while they congratulated me on the climb. I was exhausted, not feeling very humorous. I finally asked what the hell they found so funny. "Go look in the mirror," was the response. So I went to the bathroom to see a total stranger staring back at me from the mirror. I burst into hysterical laughter. The ordeal was over. Time for a shower and food.

I ran into Christine the day I came down. I don't know why, but Bill was not with her. I have a vague recollection that she was trying to find him, but that may be rubbish. "You must have heard a lot about me," she said. That I can remember, but can't remember what I mumbled in reply. She smiled kindly at me. I liked her.

Frankly, it is hard to imagine any woman putting up with Bill for long. What hardcore climber doesn't have serious woman troubles? Women like to be loved, not relegated to a pastime between climbs.

Bill disappeared with Christine for a couple of weeks. But then he came back to the Valley without her. He came to me and apologized for the conflict. Christine and the heat were the problem, he said. I told him it was OK and thanked him for the apology. I told him I was sorry for the things I said to him. He was an honorable man. There was no grudge between us.

I asked him about Christine. "Oh, she is bit of a flake. It wouldn't work out."

So, how to I wrap up this tale? Leaving it at Bill's quip wouldn't be fair.

The story of the climb is now told as best as I can remember. Memory is an imperfect thing, subject to warping across the decades. I have done the best I can. If I have got it wrong, the mistake is an honest one.

I am permanently retired from climbing. Why? Because I am a father. My life is not my own to risk for pleasure. Was it ever?

George Leigh Mallory's son was interviewed as an old, old man. Mallory was lost on Everest when he was a wee lad. When asked about what it was like to have been the son of a hero, he replied that he would just rather have had his father.

Over a dozen of my friends have been killed in the mountains and cliffs. The toll is heartbreaking. Was it worth it?

The answer to these questions is beyond my wisdom. For the committed climbers, it seems to me that Bill put his finger on it. When we were young, our hearts were touched with fire, to borrow a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes. There's no denying such desire. We need to go to war—an old fashioned, tribal thing where heroes matter—for reasons we cannot comprehend. We risk our lives, but escape the moral hazard of killing. Our code demands heroic struggle to guard the lives of our companions. That is noble. But we don't consider the devastation of those we leave behind when we die young and strong.

Bill Denz in Camp 4, making plans for his link-up of Mescalito and the Dawn Wall on El Cap with David Austin. "This picture captures the kind of self assurance with which he could hold everyone spellbound in a conversation," Austin wrote. [Photo] David Austin

Is that good or bad? I don't know. I guess that I have to give both their due. There is something undeniably magnificent about the beauty, the camaraderie, the struggle of it all. The terror and violent death of fiends is undeniably dark. These truths belong to each other.

I am grateful to Bill for sharing his struggle with me. He was magnificent. He deserved to live, but didn't, like so many of my friends. I will leave contemplation of the deeper meaning of it all to others. And I mourn him.

Previous Page     [   1 2 3   ]
Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.


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
Post a Comment

Login with your username and password below.
New User? Here's what to do.

Forgot your username or password?