Skip to content
Home » Features » Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denz

Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denz

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 Here, Austin tells the rest of the unpublished story.–Ed.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.

“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.

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.