Also in This Area
Also in This Style
Posted on: April 15, 2009
In 2009, the climbing tribe lost a Stonemaster. John Bachar's passing left behind a legacy of hard-line ethics, loyal friendship, grace and strength. "I know [John] took his passion and honed it to a razor edge. I know he left a slew of formidable and high-quality routes all over the world, especially in California," Jonny Woodward wrote in the Issue 28 tribute to the late climber. "I know he inspired a generation of climbers by demonstrating what was possible with a unique point of view, a fierce talent and hard work. I know for a few years in his prime, the phenomenon of John Bachar was a force unequalled." One of the best examples of that talent was Bachar's ascent of one 500-foot mental testpiece that still defines boldness and traditional climbing 35 years later. The following is Bachar's recollection of that touchstone ascent from Issue 26—Ed.
Medlicott Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California
No shit, there I was, drilling a big 'ole three-eights bolt, at the edge of this huge expanse of tiny bright crystals, light shimmering across black and gold bands. Rope-soloing up some sixty feet of slabs had gotten me to this spot, right where Medlicott Dome swelled into this gigantic, ominous thing, a vertical wall hundreds of feet high. I felt like a bug about to stumble into an ocean of stone.
I was still in a nice easy place with all the time in the world. Past this point, the knobs stuck out in perfect feldspar cubes, jutting at all different angles, a few large enough to wrap one hand around, others as small as a fingertip. Orange swaths of stone seemed to glaze over some of the crystals, bonding them to the wall. But I knew the ones that shone out pale rose and white from the dark water streak could always break without warning. Right where I was thinking of going.
John Bachar leading Pitch 2 on the 1981 first ascent of the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c X, 500'), with Dave Yerian belaying. Like the routes in elbsandstein, Germany, that partly inspired it, the B-Y remains a severe mental testpiece even today. While attempting the second ascent in 1982, the great German climber Wolfang Gullich tumbled thirty-five feet off the tricky lieback that had frightened Bachar. Only a tied-off knob prevented a death fall onto the slabs below. american Steve Schneider made the second ascent in 1983. Last July, British headpointer George Ullrich tried the B-Y using only natural gear. after rehearsing the route with bolts, the nineteen-year-old led the first two pitches without them, but had to clip a bolt on the third, only six feet from the belay: the fall potential had become just too serious. [Photo] John Bachar collection
What if, fifty feet out, a crystal snapped? Would a sling around a knob hold a fall? I didn't think so, but there didn't appear to be any stances from which to drill a bolt. What if the holds simply vanished higher up? What if I came across some desperate move after the steep, sustained-looking line had already exhausted me?
Rap-bolting had just started spreading from Europe to America in 1981. Already some people were claiming that top-down was the only means to open this route. To me, that idea seemed to negate the pioneers who had always ventured, ground up, into whatever unpredictable mysteries the rock presented them, pushing into more and more difficult terrain with each generation.
So many times in Tuolumne, I'd reached the summits of domes to find my hands stained red with crushed bugs. Insects start at the base and continue upward, without falling off; people are animals, too, I thought. This first bolt would leave a mark that would let everyone know I was attempting to climb in the old, natural way. I had to prove that even a wall this enigmatic could have a real first ascent.
For now, however, I could finish drilling and come back down through the blue midsummer haze, with nobody the wiser.
It was the immensity of the rock—and of the dream of the ascent— that drew me. I wanted to find out whether I could expand my climbing paradigms and my soul. I wasn't certain that I could even free climb this wall, but I wanted to get as close to that style as possible. By forcing you to rely on just your body, your mind and your training, free climbing, like martial arts, lets you discover how much power you really have. With each unexpected situation, new hidden potential unveils itself, endlessly pleasing.
Up until then, traditional Yosemite free climbers had always placed bolts from "no-hands stances," where they could drill with two free hands. As a result, many thought that in order to "free" crackless, vertical faces, you had to aid to create a bolt ladder first. I believed in Royal Robbins' leave-no-trace ethic: you only set a bolt where it was absolutely necessary. I tried to picture myself hanging one-handed by some fragile knob—in one of those "absolutely necessary" places—and trying to drill with the other hand. But there was no available technology that would let me do that, except a power drill, which no one was using on lead at the time.
During a recent trip to Germany, however, I'd heard about how the Dresden guys put up bold face climbs with protection only good enough for bodyweight, not for a lead fall. They'd hang from knotted slings stuffed in cracks or from drill bits hand-twisted into the sandstone to set a few, widely spaced bolts. If you depended on too many bolts placed from slings, then it would be more of an aid route, but if you kept the number of bolts down it would be more of a free route (although never entirely so).
It was a compromise, but one that would allow me leave the rock as unmarked as I could and still make the first ascent ground up. The farther apart the bolts were, the more of an artistic statement I could make about the value of skill over technology.
As if by magic, I found a bouldering area in front of Medlicott that had the same knobs as my dream wall. I spent over a week there, experimenting with hanging from slings. Most knobs, I found, weren't incut on all sides, and the slings easily slipped off. It soon became apparent that hooks stayed on better. I then tested my methods on a small climb I later called Cheatstone, with a thirty-foot knob-wall finish. I hooked a big crystal and began hand-drilling a quarter-incher. In it went and up I went. I felt ready to venture out into nowhere.
A week later Dave Yerian was sipping coffee in the Tuolumne Store parking lot, his fit, skinny body twitching a little like that of a hound wagging its tail, eager as always for something fun to happen.
Fun? I was looking for someone who could catch the fifty-foot whippers I might be about to take. We were still using Swami belts and waist belays, and the amount of difficulty—and pain—involved in holding a big leader fall could be considerable, guaranteeing, at the least, a big red scab line across the belayer's back.
Dave's like a friendly Doberman. He'd guard me with his life if he thought I was in danger. "Hey Dave," I said, in the most casual tone I could manage. "Wanna go do a new route?"
Dave's blue eyes brightened. "Sure, John," he said. I could picture the tail wagging faster. "Where is it?"
"You'll see soon enough," I replied, and off we went.
On the hike in, my thoughts distilled into simple perceptions: the lone cry of a chickadee, a shaft of sunlight through immense pine trees. The density of my fear mutated with each step into the force of commitment. My mind still couldn't contain the vastness of the wall.
Dave was silent, too. We were heading into no-man's-land, away from the lower-angled and more accessible domes nearby. The only other climb on this aspect of Medlicott, Shambles, followed a crack line. Beyond it gaped a wide, steep, crackless, routeless void.
At the base, Dave asked me where the route was. I pointed straight up at this 500-foot vertical black streak. His jaw dropped a little and his face turned as blank as the wall.
"We're going up that thing?" he asked.
"Yep," was all I could muster. I felt a little guilty. As Dave looked at the rock and back at me in confused but loyal silence, I could almost hear him trying to reassure himself. I'm with Bachar; it must be OK.
After I'd soloed up the first sixty feet of knobs and clipped the bolt I'd placed earlier, I asked him if he was ready.
His voice trembled a little. "Yes." I launched into unknown ground, and about ten feet later found a hook placement. Dave had never seen the leg loops I'd started wearing in imitation of the German climbers (I couldn't hang and drill for long straight off a Swami belt without it rising up to my armpits) and he had no idea what I was doing as I hung there, but I knew he trusted me so much he didn't care.
The second bolt went in as smoothly as the practice one had. I was getting somewhere! I lowered off to the stance at the first bolt. Resting on the hook could give me an advantage and lead to unfair runouts for future onsight climbers. Thus each time I placed a bolt off a hook I'd lower back down to a no-hands rest, keeping the rope at the highpoint and freeing back up yo-yo style.
Twenty feet past the second bolt, however, I still hadn't found another hook placement, just more of those endless crystals, relentlessly luring my hands and feet to skim across them farther and farther from safety.
Then a sharp little knob stuck straight out. I slip-knotted a small sling over it. No way that would hold a fall. Next, an expanding flake. Not much better. I got a funky piece in and looked up at the insecure lieback move between me and the first ledge. A fall could easily rip out both pieces. I could hit the lower slabs, fifty feet below.
When a cat gets thrown off a roof, it doesn't think about how it's going to twist around and land on its feet. Focus is a state of grace...too bad you gotta scare yourself half to death to achieve it! I let myself trust my body. I made the ledge. There, I drilled a three-bolt anchor: the third bolt would keep the leader from falling directly onto the belay on the next pitch. Still thinking ahead, see....
Dave put out a great effort to follow the moves smoothly. We stared up at the next pitch in silence: a solid 100-foot vertical maze of knobs fading into vanishing points.
"Maybe you've had enough for one day?" Dave said, trying to keep his voice bland.
"Yep," I said, just as bland. Needless to say my mind was frizzled. For the next two days, I dreamed about the route. Knobs would pop up like mushrooms, then wilt and shrink, and I'd be grasping for life as one by one they fell off. How bad could it get?
[Illustration] Jeremy Collins
"Hey John, how ya feel? Are you OK?"
"Yes, I'm OK."
"Hey John, are you OK? What's it look like?"
"Shut up, Dave."
Every few minutes another question bubbled up from the belay. Despite myself, I felt giggles rise up from my insides. I was so runout that, if I fell, I'd be taking a giant whipper. Dave's hips were probably already hurting in anticipation.
I'd re-led the first pitch with no falls. Now on the second pitch I was climbing slowly, pre-visualizing where I would go and what would happen if the knobs ran out. The small circle of rock around me kept moving forward, sight sliding into movement, reality back into imagination, guesswork once more into touch.
Even hook placements became hard to find. A little farther out. I could still down climb. Just a little farther. This is getting kind of freaky now. I'd managed to place only two bolts in fifty feet. Dave had managed to ask me fifty times if I was OK.
"You need to let me concentrate," I said, when I lowered back to the belay for the second time.
Dave shut up. I had a feeling the drowned look in his eyes mirrored my own. As the light passed over us, and the heat rose, the stone had turned into a watery-looking, eerie otherworld. We didn't belong here. I wasn't sure I wanted to go back up.
But without really believing what I was doing, I found myself re-racking the gear and re-settling my mind, then tiptoeing my way higher. And there I was again: far above Dave and stuck between two possible directions that seemed to lead to a ledge. Left or right? I could have gone either way. I chose left.
All went well until I came to this little crystal with a crack in it. I'd have to side-pull on it to get past. Dave kept dutifully quiet. Now I was the one the yelling, "Watch me close! Watch me!"
The knob snapped. I rotated 180 degrees, facing away from the cliff. My mind clicked an instant snapshot of a small black road, pine treetops and bright domes. And then I was running in the air for forty feet, fifty feet, until the rope caught me.
"Good catch," I told Dave.
He was bending over a little, as though the Swami belt had knocked the wind out of him. "No problem," Dave said. "Are you OK? You look a little pale."
I think he was trying to be polite. I probably looked a little petrified. Up until my fall the rock had seemed to part for me, allowing just enough holds and hooks. But right now the rock appeared to be saying, Dude, you ain't going through.
So, there I was, shaken and brooding. Eventually, one gets tired of the brooding and one moves, up or down, right or left. This time, I went up and right.... Why not? Hadn't been there yet. I found a hook and got a third bolt in. Relax, breathe, concentrate, I repeated. It's the only mantra I've found that works for me.
Climbing is a journey of devotion. The environment, by its severity, dictates movements of the spirit. At last I entered a kind of trance state, taking each set of knobs and choices at a time, looking ahead three or four moves for some good crystal that I could aim for, solid enough for me to stop and gaze about some more or even hang a hook. I imagined playing a chess game in which the pieces kept shifting with me.
By the time I brought Dave up to the next belay ledge, all we could do was look at each other, bewildered and mind-numbed, as if we'd suddenly landed on the Moon.
A few days later we'd either recovered or lost our senses enough to return. After I re-led the first and second pitches without falling, the angle on the third pitch eased back and I no longer needed the hooks. Past one last scary spot—a little edging move where I could have whipped forty feet (and mercifully didn't)—remained only cracks and a final easy slab to the summit.
Reaching the top was like waking out of a big dream in the middle of the afternoon, blinking in the unexpectedness of continued daylight. Dave looked as disoriented as I felt. In a self-deprecating way, we decided to call our line the Bachar-Yerian, an echo of grander routes such as the Chouinard-Herbert or the Steck-Salathé. We'd tried, in our own fashion, to be true to their spirit. In the end, I'd only placed thirteen bolts on the whole route: four from hooks, and the rest from no-hands stances including six for belays. Some people might criticize my use of aid, but I'd never intended to call it a free route—just to keep it as free as I could. Over and over I'd felt my whole life come down to one small move, one crystal—and within those tiny spaces and moments, I'd tried to get a measure of myself. Dave, meanwhile, watching me struggle, had stayed poised at each moment to protect me, despite the exposure that whirled about him and the weariness of his long-sustained fear.
Somehow, we'd both gone through something bigger than either of us could understand. From the ground, the line seemed just as invisible; only the lower bolts flickered as reminders, rising higher, fading out. The chickadee was still singing its praise. As were we.
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