The first time I met Bill, it was 1968 and I was fifteen. He
was working at the only store in Calgary (Western Canada) that
then carried climbing gear. He sold me on buying the best hiking-climbing
boots available. Bill's enthusiasm and ready smile that day formed
a memory that I've retained for 38 years.
Later, I found out that Bill Davidson was one of the hard-core
climbers in the Calgary Mountain Club, part of a mountain climbing
world to which I aspired. They were pushing climbing past the edge
of the possible into what was only marginally sane. These were
the kinds of guys who, had they not encountered mountains, would
have excelled as Hell's Angels. Many of them died with their climbing
The second time I crossed Bill's path was my first day rock climbing.
On a long rock face, my two high-school buddies and I picked
the easiest route, a diagonal crack system. As we climbed through
the crux, my nervousness abated as I realized that this was not
that hard. Then we heard a shout. Puzzled, we looked over to
a wall of blank limestone the size of a medium office tower.
There was a person, although there was no ledge or crack big
enough for a toenail. As we clambered nearer, we could see he
was standing in two rope slings, leaning back away from the rock,
smoking a cigarette. He yelled, “Hey, you guys. My backup bolt drill broke. I'm
stuck. When you get down, see if you can get somebody to come up
and lower a drill, from the top.” We did as he asked
but nobody had anything useful to lower down.
The next morning Bill improvised his own gear repairs and rappelled
down his climbing ropes. I had never conceived of the possibility
of spending more than an afternoon on one of the steepest rock
faces in the Canadian Rocky Mountains—that was Bill—nonchalant
about spending a night hanging from his hand-drilled, hand-made
bolts, 500 meters above the broad prairie.
Bill wrote an elaborately understated account of a climbing
route on Mt. Gibraltar that he named, Nine Nightmarish Nights
on Nothing, which never has been, and I expect never will be,
repeated. As with many of his routes, he spent weeks going
up and coming down until he wore a route up the rock. While
solo aid climbing a section he took a 35-meter fall, gashing
his head. He hitchhiked back to Calgary covered in blood. With
his partner, Bill’s final
ascent took nine continuous days on rock mostly beyond vertical.
Then I heard a rumor about Bill taking a fifty meter fall on a
solo climb—a fall that should have killed him. After that—nothing.
A dozen years later my mate Heather and I were paddling our double-seater
sea kayak northeast of Vancouver Island toward the village of Echo
Bay. The spring rain and sleet had briefly let up after a week
of gloom. Through a hole in the clouds the sun was gleaming off
the dark water when the biggest kayak that I had ever seen crossed
our path. As the paddler approached, I saw that his kayak was a
meter longer than our six-meter boat. On it were two large downriggers,
one to each side of his front deck, for salmon fishing. We exchanged
only a few words, as a wall of dark cloud was advancing, then we
paddled off in opposite directions. Although I didn't know it then,
I had met Bill Davidson for the third time.
We asked the clerk at the Echo Bay general store about the kayaker, “Oh,
that's Kayak Bill. He has a camp at Eden Island, and a bunch
of other camps around. He does a few odd jobs sometimes, but mostly
he lives off the land. He started off from Vancouver about
ten years ago to paddle to Alaska, but after wintering at Eden Island,
he said he didn't need to go any farther.”
Several years later, while camped on a tiny island near the Ivory
Island lighthouse, we found a camp tucked away in the woods. The
fireplace was unlike any other, three pieces of split wood of chest
height had been driven into the ground forming a triangular column;
two platforms of hand-split wooden slats were lashed together at
navel and chest height. At the base several flat stones contained
a bed of coarse sand and ashes. The fireplace was built for cooking
at the bottom and for smoking food on the slats above.
The hollow of a cedar tree held two milk crates. The crates contained
the tidiest firewood I'd ever seen; each piece was cut to precisely
the same length and split to the exactly same diameter. The camp
was situated so it would take minutes to string up ropes and
throw up a tarp. Usually places where people make camps and fires
are a mess—this was immaculate. Thumb-tacked to the fireplace
was an empty package of Zig-Zag cigarette papers, the signature
of Kayak Bill.