My friend Bill R.I.P, The Darrans, Mt Cook and Tasman

A few weeks ago via a link from a friend I discovered a blog posting about an old friend and mountaineer Bill Denz and reading it bought back many feelings and I found myself becoming quite emotional. So maybe this is a closure style post, or a story I feel needs telling, or an airing of long forgotten images. Whatever…

Bill took New Zealand mountaineering to levels unimaginable back when I was becoming quite wrapped up in it myself. I’d taken a summer off to just climb mountains – a narrow pursuit, and as such the learning curve was steep and constant.

By January I’d worked myself south to the Darran Mountains in Fiordland – you drive through them literally via the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound, [my dad helped build the tunnel too].

The late Arthur Humphries above the tunnel portal at the Hollyford end. I love the contrast of fragile sensitive hands against the granite landscape…
Arthur Humphries - Darran Mts Fiordland NZ

I arrived at the NZ Alpine Clubs Homer Hut alone, a few days before I was to be one of a few instructors for an alpine skills course for a week.

As is quite normal for Fiordland I was hut bound for a day or two of rain so got to know a few people including Bill and his young friend Phil Herron – already they were known as a very potent climbing pair and were doing things out of reach of my frame of reference. However I enjoyed their company immensely, little knowing I’d meet Bill coincidentally a few more times over a few more years – always in huts, and later on Phil’s mother when I came to living in Wanaka. Bill and Phil were very different personalities with a great energy, and I still recall Phil’s smile and a spirituality beyond his young age of 18.

When the weather cleared I found myself in Arthur’s company on one of the classic routes, and this led to a chance meeting of two others and by combining we dealt to the last pitch to the summit of Mt Talbot. via a rather rotten gully [I found better alternatives over the next three days].

Arthur Humphries, Gerald Shanks, Bob Cresswell [Gisborne] and myself on Mt Talbot
Darran Mts Fiordland NZ

While I was happy to do the classics such as the easy ridge on the left on Barrier, Bill and Co. were to be found doing new routes on the likes of this face across from myself and Arthur…
Barrier Face, Darrans Mts. NZ

This sort of terrain was more my level…
Donald Lously on Mt Talbot, The Darrans, Fiordland NZ

Mt Talbot, The Darrans

And this was Bill and Phil’s terrain…
Moirs Mate, The Darrans, Fiordland national Park NZ

And we all enjoyed descents like this in the sun, and sometimes on certain routes there’d be a little tarn to have a swim in…
Darran Mts Fiordland NZ

As Bill said “it’s not as serious down here compared to Cook – here if you get caught out for a night, you don’t risk getting frostbite and the crevasses are smaller”

Brocken Spectre, The Darrans, NZ

Instruction course over and a few new friends later I headed north for a spell with my parents before going to Cook with some ambitious plans.

But life takes strange turns – word came that Gerald Shanks had just fallen on Mt Sabre not far from the route I’d completed with him and Arthur and Bob. I was a bit stunned and frankly frightened at how suddenly sunny adventures and raw finger tips [from the granite] could turn to death. The rope safeguarding Gerald dislodged a rock above which hit him and caused him to fall.

It turned out he and Bill were old mates, and prior to Bill writing this poem below, he and I corresponded with each other and Gerald’s parents.

Your coffin lies heavy in our hands
We turn and with manly paces move
Past parental friends
And climbers in their shabby suits,
To the concrete block wall
With it’s aluminium cross
Where you are to stay,
While a sermon is read
About God and stuff

You died on Sabre,
Falling oh so fast
Like one of those turfs,
Gardened from a pegging crack,
Which tumbles, thumping and disintegrating
In a few seconds,
Down a day’s hard climbing.

Recall, when we first met,
How you came off that pass,
Eyes red from the snow,
Or again, the bivy in the rain,
Trapped by dark on the cliffs of Belle,
Huddled, with chattering teeth,
Above the Homer Road.

But now you are dead,
And it’s so final I feel,
For only your body is here.

I headed to Mt Tasman in Mt Cook National Park, but did little – my heart was not in it… fearful even, since I’d had time to think… needed time…
Mt Tasman from Mt Johnson

A couple of years later and I’d migrated away from summer mountain pursuits to follow the dream of ski mountaineering…
Grand Plateau and Hochstetter Icefall, Mt Cook

But life takes those funny turns, and suddenly one weekend I found myself skiing up under Mt Tasman.

Skiing the “Mad Mile” is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done – another steep learning curve under threatening ice cliffs, by the hundreds…
Skiing mad mile, Grand Plateau

I just missed Bill by a few days – he and Phil climbed up to and crossed the Grand Plateau, and climbed up to the Main Divide then descended a little to do the first? winter ascent of the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman. And returned, all on foot!

Knowing the conditions I was and still am just in awe of their labours, achievement and abilities!

It made our fly in, stay in the hut and descent and joyful ski down seem like a tourist’s picnic…
Tasman Glacier, NZ

My constant companion for many years of wonderful mountain adventures, Chris Jackson down-climbs, prior to putting on skis, to the Freshfield Glacier…
Downclimb to Freshfield Glacier, Mt Cook

Chris in good form… We all were… three tracks of us, myself, Chris and Roger Thompson, and Bill and Phil in the same context offset slightly by time, of this amazing place. Were we warriors I wonder, and never knew it? For me the whole experience was simply humbling, and I was so glad it went smoothly, because there’s lots of potential to know the edge that lurks…
Skiing Freshfield Glacier, Mt Cook

Within a short time Phil had fallen in a crevasse in Patagonia, and died. Bill nearby – it changed him I reckon. His climbs took on a new quest – they’re legends typified over the following years by his decision to try the climb again. Bill ended up alone in a vertical ice filled crack tied on for several days with virtually no food, riding out a storm. Few can survive these events, so in my mind Bill had learnt to transcend life itself many times!

We never talked of this though on a chance night I spent with Bill in the old Malte Brun Hut. I don’t think either of us wanted to be guiding at Mt Cook in the totally opposite experiences life had dealt us, but we yarned the night away over many brews quietly removed from our care, our clients. In Bills’ words we were bonded, we were “winter men”! Writing this brings tears…

A few months later he perished descending one of the worlds most vast mountain massifs Makalu, in an avalanche. He’d told me the odds – he knew the possible outcomes.

My mate Chris died soon after too of melanoma, and ditto Arthur who lived in Wellington and had become a friend, succumbed to a tragic situation – but these are other stories.

Some years later I realised Phil’s mum lived around the corner from me! She had a memorial seat built by the lake, and her ashes are there now too as of last year. She too was a legend…

Phil Herron Memorial


Mesca-Dawn: A Remembrance of Bill Denzhave a read of the article that triggered my story above >>