So this climber pulls into a gas station. Tuolumne, 1987. A cut, blond surfer kind of a guy is filling his 4×4 over there. Running shorts, track singlet. Knee socks with bold soccer stripes—is this cool or goofball? He looks strong and self- … Wait, that’s John Bachar!
Another dude rolls over, throwing his best insolent strut, but when he comes face-to-face with Bachar all he can croak out is, “How can you solo all that crazy stuff?”
John meets his gaze, level and cool: “You’re soloing right now.”
I wasn’t even part of the conversation, but it has stuck with me.
This afternoon, for instance, balancing on a redwood log across a ravine. Classic third class, the moves aren’t bad but below is a 20-foot drop into a leg-breaking tangle of trunks. That’s barely beyond bouldering on John’s soloing scale, yet his goofball-obvious, zen-quick, tossed-off line flashed into my mind. If conversation were chess, that was a knight’s move.
To see him in action was a treat. A couple of years before the gas-station encounter, in Joshua Tree, he swung onto the Gunsmoke Traverse (V3) before there was such a thing. It runs horizontally a hundred feet or more and the moves often overhang. John had finished his soloing circuit for the day, including a beyond-highball ascent of Leave It to Beaver (5.12a) and Gunsmoke was just finishing it off with a workout.
After a couple of laps, his well-oiled, seemingly effortless moves lulled me into thinking it was easy. He even climbed over a guy going the other way. I struggled maybe halfway along the traverse in his wake before I couldn’t hold on any longer. John did six laps.
Leave It to Beaver had looked not only casual but nearly effortless, his footwork precise with an almost ballet-like lightness. He paused way up there, nothing but an open-palm sloper holding him to the overhanging wall, and chalked up. Looking closer, you could clearly see that this was not dance. There is a slight pause over each hold, affirming his grip. Positive press on the rubber, and each handhold locked on. John was building up his ascent with great care.
He had done it the day before, and probably would again the next. There was a quality of performance in repeating it, but not so much because of audience as for the sake of practice. In his essays John Gill has compared climbing to a gymnastic routine, an ideal of movement, repeated for its own sake even to an empty gym. During other stretches of Bachar’s life that routine played out in the Valley, Tuolumne, the Owens River Gorge. You might get lucky and stumble on a performance.
I once saw his foot, not yet weighted, skate off a slick Tuolumne knob. His body hung with certainty over the remaining holds as he pulled the leg back, unfazed.
Good? Well, I guess! How good was he? Comparisons feel clumsy, but I’m driven to try. Coming out of the Valley in the 1960s, several generations before John as climbing goes, it was hard for me to tell. I had held the rope for the likes of Chuck Pratt, and struggled up his pitches. Going into the 1970s, Jim Bridwell’s climbs still felt within reach, maybe, by training hard. But the Stonemasters left us in the dust. And by the end of the 1970s Ron Kauk and Bachar were way out in front of the rest. They were pumping irrational numbers, and John was often unroped. The stuff they climbed had fully broken contact with my ability to understand it. As Royal Robbins once said about John Gill, “I could grasp the holds but not the problem.”
Bachar was very careful. Far from the abandon of, say, a balls-out Yabo or the desperation of many a guy’s breakup solos, John thoroughly worked it. That was a little hard to see against the backdrop of a Stonemaster culture that was so Californian in projecting casual, offhanded, ain’t-no-big-thing. He could be crazy, sure, like the story of riding a skateboard down the centerline of a Valley tunnel, playing his sax. But his approach to soloing had a huge conservative streak.
Maybe careful is an odd quality to attribute to a soloist, but John took training and preparation to new levels, even to the point of wrecking his elbow tendons on the Bachar Ladder. Some of what we know now about how not to overtrain comes from John’s eagerness for preparation, probing the outer limits of fitness. When he took off the rope, he was way ready.
Even when he put on a rope to walk among the rest of us, legends were born. Like the Bachar-Yerian. Yet there was a lot of care in that innovation too. When he began flirting with the idea of placing bolts on lead on walls so steep he’d need to hang from a hook, John practiced for a week drilling from hook placements to be sure he could work it. That part wasn’t so obvious when you just caught a photo of him poised up there, locked onto shockingly steep tiny knobs.
Maybe one thing that attracted him to blowing crazy sax was the chance to step out more freely, to let it all go into spontaneous improv. The lure of jazz was so strong he even tried to turn his back on climbing. “I gave it 20 good years,” he said once. Of course that didn’t last. From then on he juggled both lovers.
His shoe designs were as innovative as his climbing; you could see how much thought went into how best to make feet work on rock. It’s a revolutionary idea, but you really can climb better when your feet are comfortable. And John’s ability to hop lightly out of the rut of tradition is what got him into the shoe game in the first place. His willingness to simply try some guy’s strange Spanish shoes one day in Camp 4 ended up bringing us all the gift of gomme cocida, sticky rubber. That moment has always been one of my favorite examples of the potent innocence of the beginner’s mind.
I go back to my notes from that 1985 day in Joshua Tree. “Surfer-blond with a nearly shy smile, he jumped out of a new 4×4 riding a jazz riff from the Last Poets.” That smile holds a key. He was shy underneath it all, especially at first, an L.A. surfer boy washed inland, gone vertical onto waves of stone. There he found his true vocation, and it began slowly to erase the shyness. A touch of arrogance showed before it was fully gone.
John’s son, Tyrus, performed two minutes of silence to transfix the memorial, then said, “He was 27 percent badass.” But like any teenager he underestimated the old man just a tad.
And you know, beneath it all John was just flat cool.
John loved to climb. Whatever the mysterious joy really is, he squeezed more out of it. More mileage, more laps, more moments of rapt attention, leading to the state of flow. Holding open the sustain key of those moments got him into that zone where moves become effortless and the climbing seems to happen by itself-—that’s the real deal. That’s the gift John gave himself, damn near every day. It’s easy to call that selfish, and he seemed to have no illusions about the absolute nature of soloing. But in the always questionable way that climbing builds character, we could see him transforming. Less arrogant. More going out of his way to turn his attention and kindness onto strangers, geeks and nOObs. One of the best things to arise since his death is the countless small tales of his pausing to give full focus to the query of a stranger. Gone in those moments was the guy on the cover of Life magazine, out there alone in the stratosphere of his achievement. Lately, approaching him sincerely seemed to be the only gateway to John’s kind attention.
That transformation was the gift to the world that flowed out of John’s gift to himself. It was coming into full flower. For us still here in the world, his budding gift was cut short.