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John Bachar and the Cosmic Surfboard

Someone once told me a story about an old-school surfer, a Hawaiian guy who rode the giant waves on a heavy longboard back in the days before jet skis and spotters, when a bad wipeout could render you unconscious, roll you under the sea and kill you deader than a hammer.

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Someone once told me a story about an old-school surfer, a Hawaiian guy who rode the giant waves on a heavy longboard back in the days before jet skis and spotters, when a bad wipeout could render you unconscious, roll you under the sea and kill you deader than a hammer.

One day this guy caught a titanic wave. He rushed across that blue face at an outrageous speed, totally concentrated and in love with the buoyant power of the water. He carved and the board skittered like a water bead on a hot skillet. He tried to turn, but gravity pulled him down. He closed his eyes, sucked in a breath and plunged deep.

After a rough tumble he surfaced and swam back to shore. It had been a close shave, but only later would he discover how close. A photographer with a telephoto lens had captured his fall. The shot showed the surfer, tucked in a fetal pose, eyes shut, as peaceful as a sleeping baby. In a miraculous juxtaposition, the heavy surfboard showed up as a coffin-shaped blur a few inches to one side of his head. It had been kicked back by the wave, narrowly missing him. If the board had connected, he surely would have died. Yet in that moment he was blissfully unaware.

The first e-mail popped up a couple of hours after I heard about John Bachar’s accident. The famous free-soloist had fallen while climbing ropeless near Mammoth, California, and the e-mail read, “Now is the time. As editor of Rock and Ice, please, please, please condemn soloing!”

As word of Bachar’s death spread, other e-mails arived, all of them urging me to take a stand against free-soloing. The rhetoric was similar. The writers expressed their contempt for “foolhardy risk,” and the “needless suffering of those left behind.”

While I understand the grief and heartache occasioned by untimely death, I can’t publicly condemn soloing any more than I can condemn mountaineering because climbers die in avalanches, or ice climbing because waterfalls crash down, or trad climbing because sometimes pro pulls.

Being alive is mortally dangerous. Surfboards are flying past our heads like clumsy spears of the gods. As climbers we regularly put ourselves at risk. Rocks fall, but miss. We run it out, but make it to the anchor. The avalanche sweeps camp right after we pack up.

And hazards are not always occasioned by putting ourselves in harm’s way. Cars narrowly avoid colliding. Cancer cells get gobbled by leukocytes instead of taking root. Someone else gets the rare brain disease, the infected tick bite, the mugging that devolves to murder.

These random, bad things happen to people all the time. The pervasive hunch that we have control is a hilarious illusion. You live in delightful ingenuousness until the moment the surfboard slams into your head.

John Bachar soloed (by his own estimate) 1,500,000 feet before falling. That’s a pretty good safety record. Many people, climbing with ropes and gear, have fallen to their deaths long before they logged that kind of mileage.

For Bachar, soloing was an “art form.” When I asked him about it once, he used words like “mastery” and “perfection,” which hint at the idea that he was, perhaps, as deluded as the rest of us—drunk on our own infallibility.

He was human. He fell, and I can’t condemn him for that.