Sunday, 25 December 2016

Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denz

I climbed with Bill Denz on Boxing Day 1970. We climbed Glacier Peak and then Mount Douglas. There were four of us, Bill, Chris Fraser, Jim Cowie and myself. Years before this climb we were in the same club, the Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club, and did other trekking (tramping) trips together. So today, being 46 years since we climbed Douglas, I searched the web to find more about Bill Denz  and found this wonderful article written by David "Zappa Bill Austin.. Thanks " for permission to reproduce this article.
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,  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 Here, Austin tells the rest of the unpublished story.—Ed.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 Lkilled on Makalu.
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

Skiing in Afghanistan

In 1976 when I first worked in Afghanistan, and again from 1993-96, I really got to walk, climb and ski extensively in the Hindu Kush. In 1997 I tried to persuade my good friends Murray and Pat Reedy, to run trips to Afghanistan as I said it contained some of the best skiing, trekking and climbing in the world.

Mette Sofie Eliseussen a Norwegian aid worker accompanied me on one trip. She was on cross country skiis and I used traditional skii's with touring bindings on them.

No foreigners had climbed in Afghanistan since the Soviets arrived in late 1978. I had heard about the passes and valleys strewn with land mines so it was with some trepidation I embarked from Kabul in October 1994 on what was probably the first expedition into the Hindu Kush for at least 17 years. I travelled with two British climbers, Ian Clarke and John Tinker, to the Chamar valley for an attempt Mir Samir, a peak made famous by Eric Newby in his book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Tinker was fresh off an ascent of Everest by a new route on the north side and Clarke was head of a British Mine clearance organisation in Afghanistan and was a necessary companion as the area had received large amounts of small scatterable mines, dropped from Soviet aircrafts to prevent the freedom fighters crossing the mountain passes. Our safety was dependent on his knowledge of mines and where battles had taken place. Tinker and Clarke attempted an unclimbed face on Mir Samir and got surprising high considering the unseasonably soft snow that had fallen. While the others were attempting Mir Samir, I climbed an unnamed peak around 5000 metres and looked over to the enticing mountains of Nuristan, formerly Kafirstan

On Friday, the only day off during the week, it is possible to climb among the various 4000 metres peaks in the Paghman range from where you get spectacular views of the Hindu Kush and Hazarajat area. Climbing 4000 metre peaks in a day makes living in Kabul a joy. Also for the enthusiastic skier, a two hour drive takes you to the Salang Pass at 3,878 metres an excellent ski-mountaineering area. My good friend Ian Clarke the mine clearance expert gives the opinion that when the area is likely to have land-mines, if it is covered with snow, and you are on skis, it is almost impossible to trigger of a mine as the body-weight is evenly distributed. Clarke did a lot of telemark skiing in the area between 1993 and 1995 in the Salang Pass are before taking up a ski-instructors job at Cadrona, near Wanaka, for the New Zealand winter of 1995.

So in 1995, I started skiiing in the Hindu Kush, not far from the Salang Pass, which was an hour and a half from Kabul. Above on skiis with the mighty Hindu Kush behind me.

The three photos above are of Mette Sofie Eliseussen  skiing near the Salang pass.

The Bamiyan valley offers 'challenging skiing' reckons its first ski tourist after some hairy moments involving avalanches. Photograph: Chad Dear

In a classroom just a few hundred metres from the towering niche that once housed a giant Buddha statue, someone has pinned up a poster detailing the attributes of a good ski guide: optimistic, articulate, patient, reliable, active, cheerful, punctual and extroverted.

Sitting around a table in the middle of the room, the 10 young men who hope to become Afghanistan's first ski guides are being taught how to avoid avalanches, and the importance of taking enough food and water on trips up the snow-capped mountains that loom over the town of Bamiyan.

They have all the poster's key attributes in spades. Indeed, it's hard to think of a more agreeable bunch of enthusiastic young men, who chatter in excellent English. The only problem is the one characteristic they all lack: the ability to ski.

Last week, they had their first taste of the rapidly melting spring snow, out on the slopes of the stunning Koh-e-Baba mountain range. Their motley collection of borrowed and secondhand skis had been carted up the lush valley on the back of a donkey. The rookie skiers had ignored the classroom guidance to layer up, and hit the slopes wearing jeans and fake designer tops. Soon they were shivering.

They had just half a dozen pairs of skis, two pairs of which were borrowed from an American couple, Chad Dear and Laurie Ashley, ski consultants who believe central Afghanistan has some of the best "outback skiing" in the world. The shortage of equipment is a problem, and the mix of Telemark and alpine skis had been partly supplemented by a few pairs of "bazaar skis", lethal wooden planks knocked up by enthusiastic local carpenters. With the bindings little more than a few leather straps and the undersurface wrapped with metal, the overall effect is terrifying, as I discovered when I tried them.

"Jon, you've never done this either!" was the crushing verdict of Abdullah Mahmood, a 25-year-old novice skier, after he had watched me flounder around for a traumatic 10 minutes during which I wondered whether, despite decades of skiing experience, the sport was finally about to claim a broken leg from me.

These are the deeply humble beginnings out of which Bamiyan, an impoverished but heart-stoppingly beautiful province, hopes to develop a robust ski industry. There is serious weight behind the plan to encourage winter "ecotourism" here, including the province's governor, the Aga Khan Development Network and the New Zealand government (the country has troops in the province).

Dear, a development worker from Montana, says that in a few years' time Bamiyan could boast ski-rental businesses (which will probably rely, at least to start with, on the charity of the big ski manufacturers), a nursery slope with a simple tow-lift to drag beginners to the top, and maybe even some heliskiing. To start with, it is hoped that a mix of Afghans and foreigners working in Kabul will help pump-prime a ski industry, after which Bamiyan will be ready for the world. "We hope that people in Europe and the US will put it on their five-year wish list," Dear says.

He and Ashley are currently spending several days a week exploring Bamiyan's unskied peaks, with the aim of publishing a guidebook later in the year giving adventure skiers some basic information on what the Koh-e-Baba range has to offer. And while it would be easy to be cynical about trying to establish skiing in a war zone, after spending a few days with Dear, Ashley and the would-be ski guides, I am soon swept up in their enthusiasm.

For a particular type of tourist, Bamiyan is quite a draw. But it will never appeal to those who like the chairlifts, restaurants and creature comforts of a European or American mega-resort. In Bamiyan, if you want to get to the top of slope you have to propel yourself, using Telemark skis where the ankle is free to move up and down and synthetic skins are attached to the bottom. It's the sort of old-school skiing that would have been familiar to skiers in the Alps in the 1950s: a day of gruelling ascent for perhaps just one or two runs back down to the bottom. But it's worth it, says Dear: "The terrain here is just fantastic in so many ways, and we have only been exploring the eight valleys that are closest to Bamiyan centre. There are literally thousands of opportunities for beginners and experts."

Dear thinks many tourists will elect to stay above the snowline for days, skiing over huge areas, overnighting in shelters used by farmers in the summer that could be converted into winter refuges. And it's a fair bet that Bamiyan's apres-ski scene will never boast beery Brits, downing gl├╝hwein at the bottom of the chairlifts as the sun sets over the mountains. Instead it's chai, and maybe some rice, naan and greasy meat on the roof of a farmer's house.

What Dear calls the "apres-tea" experience would be worth a holiday in itself. First of all, the scenery is extraordinary. Below the snowy peaks, farmers living in mud houses busily plough their fields with ox teams. The sense of time travel is only broken with the occasional sighting of a satellite dish, a sign that, after years of neglect, things are starting to pick up here. And that is the other benefit of skiing in Bamiyan – contributing much-needed cash to subsistence farmers in the high, isolated valleys of a poor and neglected province that could use all the help it can get. Not only were the famous giant Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in 2001; the fundamentalist militia was also responsible for massacres of the largely Hazara population (Afghanistan's most put-upon ethnic group).

Today Bamiyan is an island of security in a country where insurgency has spread like a virus, and the valley is Afghanistan's main (or rather, only) tourist attraction. Visitors don't come simply for the World Heritage site where the Buddhas used to stand, but also the lakes and extraordinary natural dams of Band-e-Amir. The young men who aspire to be ski guides already try to make ends meet by showing tourists the main sites in the summer.

But despite Bamiyan's considerable charms, the summer tourism market does not add up to much: last year its historic sites were visited by 1,560 Afghans and 756 foreigners (slightly down on 2008, probably because of disruption caused by last year's presidential election). Even those low numbers generates around $250,000 a year in the three hotels the tourist authorities have information on.

But Amir Foladi, manager of the Bamiyan ecotourism programme, wants to see that increase. He hopes that by 2015 the 116 hotel beds currently available will have increased to 1,000, creating at least 1,000 jobs. He expects 10,000 foreign visitors and 100,000 Afghans to come each year, generating around $5m for the valley, excluding income from drivers, restaurants and handicraft shops.

That's big money for Bamiyan, and it would make tourism its third major source of income, behind agriculture and mining. "It's all about getting Bamiyan ready, helping hotel owners improve their facilities, so that when we are ready to receive more tourists it will be the people of Bamiyan who benefit and not outsiders," says Foladi.

And the wind is in Bamiyan's sails, with various plans to make the valley more accessible. Currently there are two main land routes from Kabul: the slow but safe road via the Sibher Pass, which despite being only 200km [124 miles] takes a gruelling eight hours, or the relatively fast but potentially lethal four-hour road trip through Taliban territory to the south.

The Sibher Pass route, which takes travellers through some unforgettable landscapes, is currently being flattened and widened by hundreds of workers, most of whom were last week inexplicably wearing fluorescent orange Royal Mail jackets. When the road is finished and covered with asphalt, the whole journey should take less than four hours – a much more attractive proposition for weekenders from Kabul who want a few days' skiing.

The country's airlines are being lobbied to start commercial flights, which may one day land at a new airport out of town. That will replace the current dirt airstrip – among the hazards of flying into Bamiyan is livestock wandering on to the runway.

And it's just possible that Bamiyan may get its Buddhas back – although this is currently the subject of a debate among conservationists, over whether the statues should be pieced back together from recovered fragments, or rebuilt afresh. Foladi says he favours the reconstruction of one Buddha, leaving one empty niche as a permanent reminder of unhappier times.

But will Bamiyan ever become more than a summer destination, even with these improvements? Ken Adams, Bamiyan's first ever ski tourist, thinks so. A former ski industry worker in the French Alps, he is now a project manager for an NGO in Kabul. Paying just $30 a night for a hotel room, he skied for seven days in Bamiyan this spring. Despite some hairy moments involving avalanches, he reckons Bamiyan is the place for anyone who wants "some pretty challenging skiing".

"For everyone else, there is just the sheer amount of snow and a season that in a normal year should continue until late May or early June," he says.

The big unknown is whether Afghans will take up skiing in any numbers. Dear and Ashley say the locals, who are already fond of sledding on homemade yakhmolaks and other winter games, have been enthusiastic. With everything under snow for five months of the year, they could certainly do with more winter distractions, says Foladi.

And skiing is not totally unknown in Afghanistan. Afghans got involved in the sport back in the 1960s and 70s, when it was last popularised by foreigners. In those days Kabul's diplomatic classes headed for the slopes at weekends at a mini-resort close to the capital. The piste even had its own basic rope-tow and was serviced by restaurants, tea shops and even a sunbathing area for the foreigners. Various ski clubs, including one run by the ministry of education and another by Kabul University, raced against each other. With the Soviet invasion of 1979, and the national resistance that rose up to fight it, the area was soon seeded with landmines and became unusable.

Mohammad Yousuf Kargar first encountered skiing as a young boy when he saw a German employee of Siemens throwing himself down a hill in Kabul. He has kept the sport going, at least within his own family. Now the national football team coach, Kargar tested the slopes of Bamiyan for the first time this winter. But he believes Bamiyan is still too far away from Kabul to be the focus of a skiing rebirth. Instead he takes his family to the Salang, a mountain pass north of Kabul. "The government really needs to take a strong decision to redevelop the old piste outside Kabul," he says. "In the meantime I am taking my family in the Salang because I don't want this sport to die in Afghanistan."

Even though Bamiyan is so untouched by violence that it feels like another country, Dear's hope that it might be ready for foreign visitors in five years seems optimistic at a time when the Taliban insurgency continues to strengthen.

Around the time I was embarrassing myself on the wooden skis, Kandahar city was rocked by a massive vehicle bomb parked outside a hotel. I was blissfully unaware of another terrible day in Afghanistan's second city as we trudged down muddy fields towards our apres-ski lunch. Later that day, a compound housing foreign contractors was attacked by an even bigger bomb.

Adams wonders whether it might be possible to fly into Kabul airport and then transfer directly on to a Bamiyan flight – essentially isolating the province from the rest of the country as far as foreign tourists are concerned. But, as Dear says, Bamiyan can only remain a bubble for so long. "You've just got to have hope that things are going to get better in Afghanistan. If the country goes down, Bamiyan will go with it."

Tom Ricks: Hey Kabul! Wow! I used to live there--from 1969 to 1971. I actually wrote an article about that for the paper--maybe the folks can link to it.

No, I have no plans at this time to write a book about Afghanistan. I'd like to, because I love the country--I used to go skiing in the Salang Pass and also at a little hill west of Kabul, near Paghman, where we had a rope tow.