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John Bachar: A Stonemaster Remembered
Posted on: October 19, 2009
The spreads on display in this online feature come from "John Bachar: A Stonemaster Remembered," a series of 15 reminiscences by fellow climbers in Alpinist 28. Additional remembrances that we could not fit into Alpinist 28 are below. To read the print article, which features writing by Peter Croft, Kurt Smith, John Long and others, subscribe to Alpinist. [Spread] Alpinist 28
Bachar's First Road Trip
In the summer of 1974, John Bachar and Tobin Sorenson were 17 years old and had already proven themselves to be talented rock climbers at Joshua Tree and Tahquitz, California. Unlike today, teenagers in the 1970s had a lot of freedom. So when the boys announced their intention to climb in Colorado for the summer, Bachar and Sorenson's parents did not discourage them, even though both had just learned to drive.
Bachar's mother had recently purchased a rear-engined Corvair for 50 dollars—the same model made famous by Ralph Nader in Unsafe at Any Speed—and gave the junker to John. The boys set out for Eldorado Canyon. They had no map, just brief written directions on how to get from Los Angeles to Boulder. As night fell and darkness surrounded them on a lonely stretch of I-70 somewhere in Utah, Tobin, baby-faced and eternally innocent, said to Bachar, "Golly, we must be in Colorado by now."
Suddenly a grinding noise erupted from the rear of the Corvair. Bachar pumped the brakes to no avail and the car eventually coasted to a stop. They got out to survey the damage. Only the fender had stopped the right rear wheel from escaping the axle. A few more inches and the wheel would have come off completely. Brake fluid formed a puddle underneath the car, so the Corvair's barely functional brakes now didn't work at all.
Tobin reasoned he could stand on the rear bumper and when it became necessary to brake, step to the side and apply his 150 pounds over the fender and the damaged wheel. This act would grind the fender onto the tire, thus slowing the car. It seemed like a satisfactory plan, and the boys immediately put it into action.
Tobin climbed onto the rear bumper, John gunned the engine, and they started out again. Their plan would have had a slim chance to work had the road stayed level. Instead it pitched down and the Corvair leapt into darkness. Tobin screamed in terror. John realized that the hill could be huge, with the speed increasing until he lost control. That was when he started screaming, too.
The road leveled off eventually and the Corvair rolled to a stop, this time for good. The lads buried the license plates to avoid any official repercussions and commenced hitchhiking with their piles of gear. After a couple days, they reached a campsite in Eldorado Canyon late in the evening.
The next morning, they took their rope and a rack of nuts, and walked up the beautiful, red-walled canyon along the river. Tobin, always polite, asked the first climber they met, "Excuse me, sir, where is the Naked Edge?" The climber turned and pointed out the line towering above.
The Naked Edge was justly famous as one of the longest and hardest free climbs in the U.S. Layton Kor and Bob Culp first climbed it using aid in 1962, and Jim Erickson and Duncan Ferguson made the first free ascent in 1971. Since then it had only been repeated free once or twice.
Unfazed, John and Tobin got on the route. John recalled having no idea that anyone took notice until he fell on the overhanging last pitch. Hanging upside down by his one-inch swami belt, he noticed a crowd gathered on the road watching his every move. Shortly thereafter the boys completed an early free ascent of the great route, their introduction to Eldorado Canyon and Colorado.
Tobin headed back to California. Bachar found a guiding job in Estes Park and stayed on. He returned to Colorado the next few summers, making the first free ascents of two routes on the Diamond, D7 with Richard Harrison in 1977 and D1 with Billy Westbay in 1978, as well as the first free ascent of The Wisdom route in Eldorado Canyon with Jeff Lowe in 1978.
But story of his first road trip remained one of John's favorites.
[Spread] Alpinist 28
John Bachar was like a big brother to me. For nearly three decades we'd been part of a large family of friends bound together by a passion for climbing and by similar life philosophies. We strove to push ourselves on the most demanding climbs imaginable with minimal reliance on equipment. Free soloing was John's way of coming as close as humanly possible to what he thought of as perfection.
We used to call John the "punk monk" since he lived all by himself in his red Volkswagen van in Joshua Tree. This nickname referred not only to his monk-like existence, but to his punk-like attitude toward mainstream society. He was the first person I knew who decided to become a full-time climber. I was amazed that he was able to piece together a living through occasional commercials or appearances on TV programs such as "That's Incredible," "Ripley's Believe It or Not" and "Survival of the Fittest." I appeared on these same shows, but it was many years before I could even imagine making a living as a professional rock climber.
In 1981, John Bachar and Mike Lechlinski participated in an international climbing meet in the Frankenjura region of Germany. One of the most noteworthy ascents of that trip was John's first free ascent Chasin' the Trane (5.12d), then the hardest route in Europe. John demonstrated not only his fluidity and control on the rock, but his uncompromising style: he refused to hangdog and he climbed nearly every route onsight. His display of mastery had a significant impact on the meet's European participants and was instrumental in raising the standards of free climbing all over the world.
When French climber Patrick Edlinger first visited Yosemite in the early 1980s, he used to lurk in the trees and watch Bachar and Ron Kauk do laps on Midnight Lightning. Edlinger returned to France and started a training regime a la Californien: he jogged, built a Bachar ladder and set up a slackline in his yard, which he modeled after the training apparatus he had seen in Camp 4. In his 1982 film Opera Vertical, Edlinger wore a tiny pair of running shorts (like the ones Bachar wore at the time) and a red bandana (like Kauk), and portrayed his lifestyle as a climber through scenes of running, slacklining and free soloing barefoot in the Verdon Gorge. The film aired on French prime-time TV, and soon thereafter Patrick became a well-known celebrity in Europe.
Approaching Mammoth after several hours of travel to Bachar's memorial, I called my good friend, Mari Gingery. She was nearby, in the company of a motley crew attempting to do all the problems at the Bachar Boulders in honor of John. They needed a ringer to complete the last one.
I arrived about ten minutes before sundown, and Mari escorted me straight up to the start of JB's Seam. Without warming up at all, I immediately attempted it. My fingers were soon burning from the coarse texture of the rock and the shock to my sluggish, travel-weary body. On the second go, when I arrived just below the hardest, most committing moves, I realized that a fall would not be pleasant, even with big, strong spotters like John Sherman reassuring me. I still wasn't warmed up enough to get my foot up to waist level. But I did notice a tiny nubbin way out right that seemed as if it would make the move possible. As the light faded, I gave it a last try. Arriving at the crucial move, I questioned whether it was a good idea to continue.
Then I imagined John saying, "Come on, Lynn, go for it." The next thing I knew I stretched my foot to that tiny nubbin, stepped up high and sank my fingers into a large pocket in celebration of John's enduring inspiration.
[Spread] Alpinist 28
Wings On His Feet
Across the dinner table sat Largo, like a young Dionysus, handsome and muscular with curly locks and a bright smile, saying something witty and confident as he finished a brew. To Largo's right sat a quiet young Hermes, bemused by the chatter that flowed so casually from his fellow Olympian. Long blond hair touched his tanned shoulders. The god of athletes and swift messenger of Zeus's tribe, even during the mid-1970s, Bachar inspired others to "lose themselves within themselves" as they attempted to emulate his graceful and disciplined moves... wings on his feet.
Earlier that day the three of us had driven across the southern Colorado prairie on our way to one of my secret areas, a depression along the Huerfano River known informally as "Lost Canyon." The landscape passed by, dry and brown and undulating slightly to the horizon. Dionysus remarked—from his perspective as a former Claremont College divinity student—that it was a miracle I'd discovered climbing in this barren wasteland.
Both Largo and Bachar had seen Pat Ament's film Silent Climber and were eager to try the Juggernaut and other treats I had prepared, so I parked on the edge of the short canyon and we hiked down to the first prominent boulder. My guests warmed up on Penny Ante Rock, and then we waded through the quicksand of the Huerfano to reach the far shore.
In those days, before crash pads, it was ethically acceptable to put up a toprope on high or otherwise dangerous problems. The Juggernaut could be a back-breaker. Rigged up, the two gods amused themselves (and me) swinging about on the small but well-defined holds on a pure hand traverse beneath its overhanging prow. After a few preparatory attempts—upon which Dionysus found the rope to be his trusty friend—the young Hermes brought both hands onto the hold beneath the tip of the prow, pulled up on one arm, reached high with the other and swiftly moved upward... wings on his feet.
After such preliminary muscular gymnastics, I led my two companions into a small side canyon deliberately left unexplored: my gift to these emissaries from the sacred heights of Camp 4. Here aerial dynamics were the challenge, and once more, Hermes was up to the task, floating in space for an instant before locking on to a high handhold. Dionysus, though heavier, performed admirably as well. (On a subsequent trip, Bachar returned to Lost Canyon and was the first to climb the Juggernaut without a toprope—demonstrating the talent, focus and perspective that illuminated paths once thought improbable by the mainstream.) As we finished dinner, I thought what an honor it had been to host these extraordinary young men—links to the future, and, as time would tell, to a climbing world graced by the athletic achievements and writings of Dionysus, and shocked into re-alignment by the swift ascension of Hermes... wings on his feet.
[Spread] Alpinist 28
Every day in Yosemite we feared the moment when Bachar would wake up and find us. He always had some plan to make us laugh, and as soon as we heard his Volkswagen start up with a broken muffler, we knew it wouldn't be long before we had to deal with his powerful character.
John was the alpha Stonemaster. In the evenings we'd get bored and try to think of things to do. John would crank on some Frank Zappa for a tribal dance in the parking lot. Or else he'd organize tournaments of speed chess, and people would come from all over to play. John always won.
One time John lent his bike to Daryl Hatten, and Daryl rode it through the Four Seasons restaurant. After Daryl gave the bike back, the rangers chased John around, thinking he was the one responsible, until they caught up with him and realized it wasn't the same guy.
John and I would go up under the full moon to the El Cap amphitheater by Dawn Wall, where he'd pull out his saxophone and torture all of our friends on El Cap routes. Other nights when we were in the Mountain Room Bar, John would walk in with his derby hat on and electric glasses that would light up when he pushed a button. All we could do was laugh.
Another time, John pantsed me in front of a beautiful girl, and when I pulled my pants back up, she asked, "What are you doing, Dave?" "Nothing," I answered, with a totally red face.
In those days most of us were poor, wondering how we were going to survive. John's pranks kept the morale up for us all.
[Spread] Alpinist 28
When I first met John in Joshua Tree in 1977, right from the start he took a genuine interest in me, rather than in my climbing abilities. He was light-years ahead in talent, but he was always there to help me get better. John cared about me for who I was, not for what I was.
We spent a lot of time discussing training techniques, conditioning and injuries. Climbing was a "new" sport, and there wasn't much printed information on it. When we saw each other at Josh or in Yosemite, we wouldn't talk about routes, but about what recently discovered methods might be helpful in our routines. John had an intense drive to study until he mastered a subject, and an equally intense impulse to share that information.
After we'd both gotten married, our conversations would center on how to juggle the ups and downs of our relationships. John loved climbing—it was his job, his passion, and his first love. Climbing wasn't my first priority. "I wish I had focused more on climbing and gotten to my full potential," I told John once. He laughed and said, "The grass ain't no greener on this side of the fence! I wish I would have done what you did—you have a wife, a family and a career!"
In his youth, John was high-strung and edgy, hard to get to know, opinionated and strong-willed. As he got older, he mellowed and became more approachable. I'd often drive up the east side of the Sierra, and as I neared his home I'd dial his number and get the familiar answer: "Yo, Gomez, what's up, you comin' by bro?" We'd start by taking turns listening to each other brag about his kid. These were some of our best talks. John would light up as he spoke about Tyrus, who had become his priority, his focus and his life. Once, after a slide show in San Diego, my wife, my daughter and I followed John out to his car. The sight of John walking arm-in-arm with his son was one of those memories you never forget.
On one visit with John about a year ago, I noticed a big change. I couldn't put my finger on it, but knew something was different. John told me he met this girl and he was really enjoying her. Everything felt "right." I knew he and I had finally reached the same level at something in life.
Read 15 more tributes to John Bachar in Alpinist 28. Subscribe today and never miss another issue.
[Spread] Alpinist 28
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