Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Bill Denz - the coffee jar and Vern Leader.

Bill Denz - Bold Beyond Belief - the biography.

BILL DENZ (1951-1983)

So here we are twenty eight years after the original hard man of New Zealand climbing was killed in the Himalayas at the age of just 32, the story of this legendary mountaineer has been recorded in a book titled: Bold Beyond Belief: Bill Denz New Zealand’s Mountain Warrior. The book was released in Wellington on 5 December 2011 and is published by Maxim Books.

I was fortunate having tramped and climbed with Bill Denz. The first trip I did with him must have been late 1966 or early 1967 when we were on an Otago Tramping and mountaineering Club trip up the Rees and Dart, and Ketth McIvor took Bill under our wing. But Keith and I were more interested in Bill's sister Abigail and her friend that made up the larger party.

On Boxing Day 1970 when Jim Cowie and I were in Pioneer Hut, we teamed up with Chris Fraser and Bill Denz and climbed Glacier Peak, and then we headed for Douglas with Bill roping up with Jim Cowie, and I with Chris Fraser. I am quoted in the 1991 NZ Alpine Journal and in the book as writing,

" He wasn't a pretty climber but what he lacked in technique he more than compenstaed for with sheer drive and raw guts. We climbed Glacier Peak (3002m( and Mt. Douglas (3007) on Boxing Day, and the next day Bill traversed Mt Tasman with a sixty-pound pack to Plateau Hut, on the east side of the main divide."

I wrote in my climbing diary at that time"that Bill would either kill himself in the next year or go on to be a great climber."

When I lived at Mt Cook from late 71 to mid 1973, I got to know Bill quite well.and was a frequent visitor at the Parks Board House 1 where Kevin Carroll, Dick Whitley, Faye Kerr and I lived. In fact he invited me on some of his outrageous first ascents, but being on standby for mountain rescue I felt guilty taking time off, and sub consciously I wanted to live. I knew Bill was pushing the limits with very basic gear, and I felt his number could come up at any time and I didn't want to go with him. I think that is how many climbers felt about Bill in his first few years.

However on one ocassion he took a large coffee jar from the house which he used as a water bottle on his new route on Mt. Cook. Some weeks later when I did a Grand Traverse with Aat Vervoorn, when we guided 64 year old Vern Leader, we discovered the infamous coffee jar on the ridge. You had to admire Bill for the sheer audacity and guts of this young emerging mountaineer. I enjoyed a number of good evenings with Bill and paying for all the beer, as he loudly told all assembled what he was going to do next.

Vern Leader, 44 years older than Bill at the time, probably identified with Bill Denz better than most, despite the age gap. Vern who did a number of large first ascent solo climbs in the Earnslaw group, had written up his climbs in the NZAJ, and was publicly criticised in NZAC publications for dangerous practices. So when we found Bill Denz's abandoned coffee jar, Vern understood better than most, what solo climbing was about, and the flak you get for being bold.

Aoraki Mt. Cook. The south face, the Hillary ridge, the Caroline face and the east ridge, route well-known to Bill. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Paul Maxim has spent the last three years painstakingly researching and writing this biography. Complete with the full co-operation of Bill’s family, the biography traces Denz’s life from his formative years through to that final expedition to Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain. The book covers, in Denz’s own words and from recollections from friends and associates and climbers throughout the world, his ground breaking years in the Southern Alps, the rock walls of the Darrans and Yosemite and his epic mountain adventures in Alaska, Patagonia, Nepal and Tibet.

At 328 pages, with over 100 pictures (including 16 full colour plates) and a Foreword from renowned international mountaineer Greg Child, BOLD BEYOND BELIEF is the story about a kiwi climber whose attitude, passion, drive and vision is unique in the 150 year history of New Zealand mountaineering. For further information go to:
Bill Denz country: The Balfour. Photo: Bob McKerrow

About Bill Denz

Bill Denz (1951-1983) was a New Zealand mountaineer who enjoyed a short but stellar climbing career that was terminated by an avalanche on Makalu in October 1983. Denz grew up in Dunedin where he displayed a precocious interest in the outdoors. He began rock climbing as a teenager and started climbing big peaks in the Aoraki/Mt Cook area in December 1970. During the next five years Denz completed many new routes, winter firsts and solo ascents in the region, including the first ascent (with Bryan Pooley) of Mt Tasman’s Balfour Face and soloing two extraordinarily bold lines on the South Face and Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The south face of Hicks: Photo: Bob McKerrow

Winter first ascents include the South Face of Douglas, the Sheila Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook and the North and South Faces of Hicks (all via new routes). In 1973 Denz turned his attention to the Darran Mountains where he was involved in the first ascent of the formidable Adelaide Face of Marian, which was the first climb in New Zealand to involve ‘big wall’ climbing techniques. During the next five years Denz put up over 20 new routes in the Darrans. In July 1983 Denz returned to the area to complete (with Kim Logan in epic circumstances) the first winter ascent of the severe South Face of Sabre.

Much of Denz’s final years of climbing were spent abroad. From bases in North America he completed ascents of 15 big walls in Yosemite and Alaska, including early repeats of Tis-sa-ack, Excalibur and Pacific Ocean Wall and the first ascent of Kichatna Spire’s East Face. He also made several first ascents of peaks in the Chugach Range. As a soloist he completed two expeditions to Patagonia (where he came within a whisker of claiming the first solo ascent of Cerro Torre) and in Nepal completed a four day traverse over Kusum Kanguru (6369m), making the first ascent of the high peak along the way. Denz also ventured into Tibet (illegally) to attempt Menlungtse (7181m). His inclusion on Peter Hillary’s Makalu expedition was the first of a series of planned expeditions to attempt 8,000 metre peaks.

Never a top free climber, Denz’s forte was climbing bold ice routes (often solo), difficult big walls and severe mixed alpine climbs. Early in his career Denz was quick to associate himself with climbers such as Bryan Pooley and Murray Judge whose alpine and rock skills were superior to his and from whom he could build his skills. Once considered brash and aggressive, Denz, by the time of his death, had matured into an immensely experienced and extremely capable mountaineer. His death at the age of 32 robbed New Zealand mountaineering of one of its greatest ever climbers.

Each person remembers Bill in his or her own way. Over the Christmas - New year in NZ 2011-12, we had a BBQ with Kim Logan and his charming wife Glennys, and 13 year old boy Inia. While our boys played cricket on the golf course in front of Kim's house, we talked about climbing and especially Bill Denz. Bill and Kim did some great climbs together and the more Kim talked about Bill, I could see his eyes misting a little and the emotion coming through. Kim fetched a small memorial to Bill, a photo of a mountain, a photo of Bill, and Bill's favourite poem alongside written by Thomas Babington which I quote below. I took a quick picture on my mobile and whilst a little blurred and only snaps part of the poem, it says something powerful.

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
`To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?'”

Thomas Babington

Glacier Peak, Mt. Douglas, Haidinger and Haast was where I first climbed with bill and his partner Chris Fraser in December 1970. Photo: Bob McKerrow

This is the best biography I have read on a NZ mountaineer and the world of mountaineering is more richer, more colourful for the outstanding writing of Paul Maxim.


Gollum said...


I am excited by this book. So much so that I have ordered a copy from Wheelers. The postage and bank charges have cost me more than the actual book did.

I never knew Bill Denz, although our paths crossed twice on the Tasman moraine in 1981 when he was guiding.

But the attitude was the thing - he really pushed the limits as you say. I read in 1982 something Denz wrote about not wanting to die in the mountains and I interpreted that to mean that he would be cutting down the kamikaze stuff. But then came the South Face of Sabre in winter with Kim Logan and then Makalu and the rest is history.

Guys like Denz just lived in a different world than the rest of us and it doesn't matter how many biographies you read of extreme climbers, you always end up with an empty feeling at the end when you think of how young they died.



Unknown said...

Hey Bob

Nice write up. Especially enjoyed the poem.

I will have to get my hands on the book.

Take care


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Gollum

You won't regret breaking you bank to get a copy of the Denz book for it will have you spellbound and captivated and I bet you are likely to read it in one session.Bill tried to live in our world but in his first few years of Kamikaze mountaineering, most climbers rejected him, so he created his own world, and of course it was a different world. I remember Jim cowie and I climbing with him on his first two 3000 m peaks, Glacier peak and Douglas, and he was scambling and was quite awkward, but the style came and the results are there. Spending time with Kim Logan over christmas and quizzing him anout Bill, was an eye openiner. In my view, Kim may have been a better climber, but enjoyed other things in life too much. He warned Bruce Grant not to go to the summit when they were at the high camp on K2, Kim came back but neither did Bruce and a large group of other that took the risk in worsening weather. I would love to write Kim Logan's story.

Cheers mate

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Jamie

Yes the poem Bill Denz adored is a classic and I believe that is how he wished to be remembered. You gotta read the book.

Ruahines said...

Kia Ora Bob,
Shall be picking this book up and adding it to my growing collection. Sad he went so young.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb, Yes sad he went so young, but he left a mark in world mountaineering. You must read the book Robb, absolutely gripping.

Take care...

Marja said...

Oh isn't Mount Cook gracious and beautiful on every photo. I love the mountains but as you now I don't like to climb them, me being clumsy and a wuz, so others do the big stuff I am happy with the small

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Mountains are wonderful and inspiring to look at Marja, especialli our big bigs in NZ. Admiring them is a superb pastime so let us leave it to the younger generation to leave their new imprints.

BD said...

Hi Bob...I spent a lot of time with fatboy in his house in Broad Bay, climbing in Yosemite,in Santa Cruz and on the road to Alaska.Rest assured his old mates are still out there living life to the full,having adventures that would bring a glint to his eye.Currently I am in Komo PNG building Telco towers on the tops of Mountains for the Exxon LNG Mega Project. Still getting stoned on a regular basis by the locals but have hardened up since Bill's day,they throw bigger rocks these days. Enjoyed your Blog cheers Brian Dyson

John Hawson said...

I met Bill Denz in 1979 and together we climbed the East Ridge of Mt Cook with him leading as guide. I packed plenty of food for the climb but Bill went through my gear throwing stuff away and replacing it with his own preferences. Thus we took one cabbage, a thick slice of bread, and an onion! We had a bivouac at the foot of the ridge and a second in a tiny snow hole 3/4 of the way up. The brief time we spent on the summit was spent crouched down on the ice because of the colossal wind which made it impossible to stand. Then we dropped over the other side and spent next night in the Victoria Hut which was full. I squeezed in and Bill, to my sheer amazement, spent the night outside in his sleeping bag where he seemed content despite the ferocious wind! He then pointed at the South face of Hicks and said "You and I could go and climb that" which pleased me enormously to hear him say, but it did look terrifyingly steep from where we stood so I declined! I have a couple of photos taken at the time. I also met Gary Ball around the same time 1979-80. John Hawson

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Unknown said...

It must have been in 1973 that Bill was in my China paper (course, and I got know him and his mother Cicely. We stayed in contact for a few years. He told me some unhappy experiences for him and his kid sister Abbie. There is a vague reference to this in Maxim's excellent book.

I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knew him from 1968 to 1970 to contact me:

Stuart Greif

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