Also in This Area
Also in This Style
Posted on: July 15, 2009
JUNE 1985, YOSEMITE. We knew that the lean, muscular young god with the blond locks and the California tan had onsight soloed The Moratorium a full five years ago. So, as my climbing partner and I stemmed and liebacked its delicate, yet powerful crux (roped up), we could scarcely conceive of the skill, fitness and mind control John Bachar must possess to pull off such a feat. Ditto for New Dimensions, which he soloed in 1976, the first ropeless Yosemite 5.11. Where we flailed, he floated. It was abundantly clear that compared to him, we were Neanderthal mountaineers.
The 1980s were, of course, the time when the Great Debate over ethics and style began to rage. As then-editor of Climbing Magazine, I felt the publication should reflect the different forms of contemporary ascent. John and I sparred over my inclusion of rap-bolted sport routes. He argued that "climbing," by its very definition, meant starting at the bottom of a cliff and continuing to the top. Any method that went against this ground-up approach was simply not a "first ascent." But John's acts spoke even more eloquently than his words. In 1981 his Bachar-Yerian made a statement about traditional boldness and simplicity that still resounds today (see "First Ascent" in Alpinist 26). In 1986 John's one-day linkup of El Cap and Half Dome, with Peter Croft, cemented his superhuman reputation.
It was not until recently, however, that I became more aware of his humanity. In March 2007, he was still recovering from the broken neck he'd sustained in the car crash that took the life of his business partner, Steve Karafa. Yet he drove from Mammoth Lakes to Bishop, California, to climb with my wife Julie, our son Hayden (then a high-school sophomore) and me at the Happy Boulders and Owens River Gorge. Still forthright in his arguments, still littering his speech with F-bombs and still gracefully free soloing (on “easier” routes in deference to his injuries), John had nonetheless mellowed. He even roped up to dispatch a few sport climbs. He was particularly attentive to Hayden, who'd recently undergone knee surgery. Whenever the conversation turned to his own son, Tyrus, John's tanned face would grow even brighter, and he'd gush about Tyrus's skill at math and chess. When we asked John to stay for dinner, he shook his head. "I gotta get home to pick up Tyrus. We've got a lot to do together."
A few months ago, while working with John on the final details of his Issue 26 article, we shared thoughts about the joys and dilemmas of fatherhood. We talked about getting together in Tuolumne later this summer. I don't recall the specifics of what we said; I was too awed by this gentler side of the man whose accomplishments had so intimidated me. For the first time I'd glimpsed the John Bachar his close friends had known for years. I hoped to see more. But on July 5 while soloing at the Dike Wall near his Mammoth home, John fell to his death.
The news has consumed me. It's a given that a deepening awareness of mortality intrudes on your consciousness as you grow older. All deaths, no matter whether they are due to accidents, illness or age, touch individuals, families and communities. John's passing, though, as well as that of Jonny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson (see Page 5), has shaken me in a different way, causing me—like so many others—to feel as though the foundation of my world view has been jolted.
Part of the reason may lie in the nature of climbing itself, and in the primacy of risk as an essential and unavoidable component of our experience. Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we each have faith in the illusion of control, believing that through skill, practice and good judgment we can eliminate the hazards of falling, avalanche, cold and exhaustion. On our best days, climbing seems to give us an escapist realm in which we can all feel like superheroes and achieve our own death-defying feats. We don't want to acknowledge that there is always an element of chance involved, or that we sometimes stray so close to the edge that the slightest misstep is fatal. When our greatest heroes, the people we look up to as pure and powerful and invincible, fall victim to fate, we're sucker-punched with the knowledge that we, too, are vulnerable.
Many icons have passed before John. Inevitably we will read about other heroes' deaths in the future. And we will struggle to articulate similarly unsatisfying conclusions as we try to draw some message from the shock. In the end, it's not the loss of the superman John Bachar, but of Tyrus's father and our all-too-human friend, that hurts the most. And it's the need to engage ourselves fully, joyfully and vehemently as he did, in each moment, each climb, each passion and ideal, that will resonate from the fierce and perfect grace of an uncompromising life.