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Bold Beyond Belief: Bill Denz, New Zealand's Mountain Warrior

Bold Beyond Belief: Bill Denz, New Zealand’s Mountain Warrior. Paul Maxim. Maxim Books, 2011. 303 pages. Paperback. $49.95.

Paul Maxim has written the only biography of Bill Denz, New Zealand’s luminary climber during two decades centered on the seventies. Bold Beyond Belief seems exhaustively researched, even though Denz died 29 years ago. It is very well written.

From a short, pudgy, fatherless beginner bonded to his mom, Denz underwent a deep transformation through 60 to 70 significant ascents worldwide, many of them firsts or early repeats. Some of the ice routes were incredibly dangerous; a few are still unrepeated. A Yosemite outsider, Denz climbed 10 grade VIs there in two seasons, including early ascents of desperate lines such as Pacific Ocean Wall, Excalibur, Tangerine Trip, Tis-sa-ack, and North America Wall. Early in his Yosemite days he was seriously injured by rockfall, of all things. Rescued, he went through a long, crutchbound recovery in Santa Cruz. Then he sprung back. From the midseventies to 1980 he made four trips to Patagonia, becoming increasingly ambitious. When his intended partner, Charlie Porter, was delayed by Chilean authorities, Denz set out to solo Cerro Torre. But on the approach he lost perhaps his best friend at the time, young Phil Herron, in a crevasse, sending Denz into a funk for months.

Maxim's writing is often so detailed that it seems to exhaust its subject, but he maintains an engaging, sympathetic storyline, told chronologically. He describes personal aspects of Denz’s lifestyle, including his several women companions, his flirtation with the era’s drugs, and his extraordinarily dogged yet repellent charisma. Maxim acknowledges that Denz was not universally liked in his march to the top of New Zealand’s climbing community. His detractors refused to be impressed, finding him rank, peculiar, and excessively competitive. But Denz worked hard to sustain his climbing and feed himself. He toiled endless frigid shifts on an Alaskan salmon boat several years running; he attempted to solo Cerro Torre 13 times, getting within 80 meters of the summit.

This is a terrific book, an important tale of an iconic climber little known outside his home country. Denz died in an avalanche on Makalu in 1983.

Peter Haan