John Bachar died on July 5, 2009. The climbing world lost a legend that day.
JOHN BACHAR has wanted to smoke in the car for almost an hour, ever since Dario picked us up at the Casa del Sol, but out of politeness he has resisted the urge. Now, however, as we near our destination, nicotine suddenly seems as vital as blood itself. Bachar drags hard on a Marlboro and cracks the window as Dario alternately mashes the gas and brake, working his agave-blue 1994 Cavalier into creases in the bumper-to-bumper wall of steel, rubber and bleating horns that feeds Guadalajara like a never-ending sluice.
Riding shotgun, Bachar twists around in his seat to speak, his neck stiff from being broken in five places just over a year ago. “Hey, can you guys do me a favor?” he asks quietly, as if Quent, my buddy and business partner back in Colorado, and I, in the back seat, might say no.
“Uh, sure, what is it?”
“I need you to get me a mask,” he says, “and a cape, three or four if they got ’em. Different colors.”
I knew that Bachar had free soloed over 1.5 million feet of stone including Father Figure (5.13a) and the Nabisco Wall (5.11c) and untold others so steep and slippery the mere thought of being up there unroped makes old women recite scripture. He’s been a climbing legend since the 1970s, but a mask and a cape? The dude is 50. Perhaps it’s time to move on.
Dario deposits us in a quiet open-air market in the suburb of Tlaquepaque, famous as the birthplace of the mariachi band, and indeed the plaza resounds with the jangle of violins, trumpets and the traditional vihuela and guitarron.
Bachar has carefully sketched us a topo and written “mask” adjacent to a black “X” noting a certain stall where he has spied just what he needs. “Make sure you get the El Mistico mask,” he says as we pile out of the car. We rap fists in solidarity, then Dario and Bachar slam their doors, laugh the laugh that can only come from withholding secret knowledge, and speed off to their appointment with a raw-materials supplier for their shoe company, Acopa.
El Mistico, I would find out four days and a Google search later, is a professional wrestler from Mexico City, a masked crusader of sorts who can deliver scissor kicks, sleeper holds, backflips and open a can of whoop-ass whenever it pleases him. Aside from that, his connection to Bachar would remain uncertain.
I FIRST SAW JOHN Bachar in 1981, blasting through Camp 4’s gravel lot, forearm the size of a power pole resting easily on the doorframe of his 1968 VW bus. “That’s Bachar,” someone whispered, careful not to point although pointing was unnecessary: Bachar’s presence was as intimidating as his climbs.
Hitting the scales at 185 and 5’ 11” tall, though he seemed much taller, he was all business, rarely smiling. Not someone to give you a warm fuzzy—but a crusader of sorts to emulate, as evidenced by the horde of climbers decked out in Bachar-wear: calf-high tube socks and scant running shorts.
1981 was Bachar’s high-water mark. There is the tale of when he posted a note on the Tuolumne Meadow’s message board offering $10,000 to anyone who could follow him free soloing for a day.
But it was all a lark. He had heard that the workout king, Jack La Lanne had a standing offer of $10,000, paid to anyone who could match his feats of strength. La Lanne, who at age 65 could tow 65 boats loaded with 6,500 pounds in open water—while he was handcuffed and shackled—knew that no one was stupid enough to take his dare. Bachar, who had his massive Tuolumne solo circuit as ruthlessly dialed as the shift pattern to his VW van, knew that no one was foolish enough to try and match his moves—his money was as safe as if it had been in Fort Knox.
“It was stupid,” he says. “It was such an easy bet.”
1981 was also the year that he and Dave Yerian bagged the Bachar/Yerian, an audacious 5.11c on Tuolumne’s Mendlicott Dome sporting just 13 bolts—counting six at belays—all drilled on lead, in roughly 500 feet. It took a year before the world’s best could summon the sack to attempt the Bachar/Yerian, then went home empty-handed after logging falls of up to 50 feet. Some went so far as to say the route was unrepeatable.
[Also Read John Bachar: What I’ve Learned]
When I arrived in the Valley that year, I was thunderstruck by Camp 4’s greasy, fingery and super-technical boulder problems, many of which were Bachar’s. I couldn’t touch the centerpiece, Midnight Lightning, but the much easier Bachar Cracker (V4), a mini Separate Reality with a splitter out a roof that ran from hands to fingers, seemed doable—you could ogle all the holds from ground level. I was able to tick it after Dick Cilley gave up the beta when I bet him a beer he couldn’t do it. I was so pleased at having finally succeeded on a trademark Bachar problem I did it every morning before coffee for almost three months. As it was for almost everyone, though, any connection I had with Bachar ended at the lip of that problem.
BACHAR GREW UP IN Westchester, California, best known as the home of LAX. He read Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna and The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer and was instantly sold on climbing despite knowing virtually nothing about the sport. A high-school buddy, Mike Ransom, who pole vaulted on the track team with Bachar, had a sister who was dating a guy who had climbed Everest, elevating him to hero status for Bachar and Ransom.
“We asked to see his gear,” says Bachar, “but he wouldn’t even talk to us.”
Bachar and Ransom bouldered at L.A.’s Stoney Point, then hit Joshua Tree or Tahquitz on weekends. “We did Mike’s Books (5.6) with helmets and everything,” says Bachar. “Total newbies.” At Josh, Bachar met Mike Graham, Tobin Sorenson and Dean “Bullwinkle” Fidelman.
“Those guys were way serious about climbing,” Bachar recalls, “going to Yosemite during spring break and hanging there all summer.” Following their lead, Bachar soon began hitting the Valley himself during summers and met a teenage Ron Kauk, a natural on rock who had “transferred” out of high school to attend the university of real life in Yosemite. The two quickly became “like brothers,” says Bachar, and worked together to crack Yosemite’s rigid caste system, strengthening themselves on a regimen of 100 pushups and pull-ups a day.
Lording over the Valley was Jim “The Bird” Bridwell, who, just cresting 30, was tribal elder, one of the few holdovers from the 1960s who still climbed as if his pants were on fire. For Bachar, being recognized by peers such as Bridwell and John Long (who intimidated Bachar with his massive physique and bodacious bullshitting) was everything.
“It wasn’t about getting sponsors, because there weren’t any back then. It was about becoming a legend,” says Bachar.
By 1974, Bridwell was especially stoked on a new, thousand-foot free line he’d spied on Geek Tower. He recruited the best talent that included Kauk, Bachar and Dale Bard, and they laid siege. After freeing that route’s initial pitches, Bachar, now out of high school, had to split for UCLA, which he was attending to “theoretically become a professor of math.”
“Kauk tried to talk me out of leaving,” says Bachar, “telling me that ‘College is for people who don’t know anything.’”
Not swayed, Bachar left for school, where he says he didn’t have a lot of friends. “I was a nerd in school, but in Camp 4 we were all bros.” He was crestfallen to learn that while he was hitting the books, his buddies had completed the route Freestone (5.11b), an eight-pitch line up the left side of Geek Tower.
“I started school as an A+ student,” says Bachar, “then I got a C because I was bouldering too much.”
In the summer of 1975, Bachar and fellow Stonemasters including Bridwell, Long, Graham and Kevin Worrall, freed the first 10 pitches of El Cap’s Salathe to produce Free Blast (5.11+).
After that, Bachar told himself that he was going to be the best climber in the world, and do whatever it took to do it. He dropped out of school in 1976 and set up shop in Yosemite where he vowed to “Put the same effort into climbing as I was going to put into being a professor.” His father, John Bachar Jr., a professor of math at UCLA was so pissed he “disavowed my existence because I threw it all away,” says Bachar. “He didn’t speak to me for 10 years, until a student of his showed him an article about this great climber John Bachar and wanted to know if we were related. My dad thought that was great.”
Fortunately, Bachar’s mother, who had split up with his father, was totally cool with his climbing, even secretly sending him the $50 a month child-support paid by his father. “Her approval and support meant a lot to me,” says Bachar.
A full-time Yosemite denizen, Bachar roped up with Kauk and Long and established Astroman (V 5.11c) on Washington Column, the hardest long free climb in the world at the time. Not satisfied with their mild siege tactic of fixing ropes to their high point at the end of the first day, and jugging back up on the second day, Bachar returned to improve on the style. He led every pitch, his partner following on jumars. Also that year, with Kauk, he put up Yosemite’s first 5.12, Hotline, on Elephant Rock.
In winter, the clan would pack up and relocate south to Joshua Tree, where warmer temps and an abundance of climbable rock.
It was at JT that Bachar was introduced to soloing by John Long. “I was about to solo Double Cross, a 5.8 crack,” says Long, “and Bachar comes along. I said, ‘Ho man, let’s solo this,’ but he was kinda sketched about the idea.”
According to Bachar, Long then asked: “If you toprope this route a hundred times, how many times will you fall?”
“I said zero,” recalls Bachar. “Being a math guy, that totally clicked with me. That was it, I was hooked.”
Bachar soloed the route and, “was on cloud nine” afterwards, according to Long, who says that was the first and last time he ever had to convince Bachar to solo. “Within a year we were like, ‘Oh my God, look where he’s taken it.’”
To Bachar, soloing was like being the quarterback in the last 30 seconds of the Superbowl. Difference was, when you climbed you could put yourself in that position whenever you wanted.
Long also recalls that, years later, after Bachar had gotten a van and was a household name among climbers worldwide, he would stay out at Josh even when it was practically deserted. Bachar would solo and work his bouldering circuit. “It was a lonely existence,” says Long “Existentially, that’s pretty out there. I would have gone nuts.”
By now, Bachar had a rep for being standoffish, a loner, even arrogant. He didn’t shoot the breeze at the nightly Camp 4 bull sessions. I waved once. He nodded back.
“I walked around like I had a big chip on my shoulder, had something to prove,” he says. “I was so caught up in the game, I can see how I came off badly. If someone gave me a little bit of a bad vibe or attitude, I’d be right back in their face, but if people were a little bit nice I’d be nice right back. Really, I just wanted to have friends.”
EVEN WITH THE constant, albeit slim influx of cash from odd jobs and rescues—Bachar was now on YOSAR— being an itinerant climber was a dirtbag existence. Bachar, like the close-knit crew around him that included Sorenson, Bard, Kauk and Graham, scraped by. “We’d buy a giant communal jar of peanut butter and a bunch of Krusteaz pancake mix and live on that. We ate so much of that stuff that to this day I don’t think I could get a peanut-butter sandwich down.”
Other survival tricks included stopping by the hamburger stand at closing and asking if they were throwing any leftover burgers away.
To augment their meager income, the climbers helped themselves to the five-finger discount at the Yosemite grocery store. “We’d go in and steal food,” says Bachar, “and were pretty good at it, but the English guys were the real masters. Al Harris [of the now-defunct Mountain magazine] would come up [after one of our grocery raids] and say, ‘What’d you get, mates?’ We’d show him a can of sardines. Then he’d open his jacket and have filet mignon, wine, steaks!”
Eventually, Bachar’s sticky fingers caught up with him. He was busted lifting a toothbrush and sentenced to two weeks in a halfway house in Riverside. “They tricked me,” says Bachar. “When I showed up at court this guy said if I pleaded guilty I’d get a $50 fine. So I pled guilty and Judge Pitts gave me two weeks!”
[Also Read John Bachar Remembered by Duane Raleigh]
The good news was that Bachar had days free. As long as he checked into the halfway house at night, he was golden. Still, “I was so pissed off,” says Bachar, “That I went to Joshua Tree and soloed Baby Apes,” a 60-foot 5.12b/c he’d previously toproped but never led, thereby making the first “lead” of the now-classic line.
Climbing full time, Bachar wondered if his regular, unscientific flogging of pull-ups and dips at Camp 4’s open-air gymnasium was really making him stronger. He began to study sports kinesiology and look for programs in other sports such as track and field and power lifting where training was already a refined science. He concluded that bodyweight training wasn’t effective for building power, and started strapping iron weights to his swami belt. He got to where he could do a two-arm pull-up with nearly 140 added pounds, and a one-arm with 12.5 pounds. Bachar’s strength, though overkill for actually executing moves on rock, gave him the physical reserves to downclimb out of trouble, and the psychological edge needed to solo increasingly harder routes. In a way, training became his rope. He also adhered to a strict schedule, climbing and training one day, then resting the next, and became so obsessed with the routine he wouldn’t even go for a hike with friends on his day off because it would mess with his resting.
LAST FALL, I RECEIVED an e-mail from Bachar, whom I’d come to know well over the some 20 years of attending climbing tradeshows. He was headed down to Guadalajara for some pulling, and reported that the rock was tremendous, “sledgehammer-proof too!” he said. “Come on down.”
A week later he sent a photo showing a sea of agave that he had captioned “future tequila shots.” I booked the ticket. Oddly, Quent the production director here at the magazine had been simultaneously planning a trip to Guadalajara. “I’m in,” he said.
Our first day in the Mexican megalopolis is supposed to mix a little business (tour the Acopa shoe factory) with pleasure (tour a local crag.) After whisking us away from the airport, Dario punches it onto the highway, whipping the car into and out of a roundabout, then loopy loops through another without slowing, then it was to the left, to the right and we were on the shoulder and passing everyone. We change directions so many times I swear we were headed back to the airport. It is as if Dario is Batman taking us to the secret Batcave, intentionally misdirecting us so we would have no chance of ever locating it on our own.
Turns out, that is mostly true. To my surprise, rock-shoe manufacturing is top-secret. Rubber formulas, shoe patterns and even the way the soles are ground to their fine edge are, like the recipe for Coke, trade secrets never to be revealed. Photos are not allowed Bachar says, apologetically.
Somewhere in Guadalajara, Dario parks the car. As we enter the Acopa plant, a heavy steel door automatically locks behind us.
Dario introduces us to Ernisto, who pumps my hand as if I’m long-lost family. Ernisto Vasquez is robust, about 5 feet 5 inches, with a curly shock of thinning black hair. Although 44, he, like most people I meet in Mexico, hardly has a crease on his face, the result, I think, of the country’s way laid-back lifestyle and tight-knit family and social groups. Ernisto is Dario’s partner for Acopa Mexico and is an expert cobbler and longtime local climber.
Today, Acopa has a line of 13 shoes, most designed by Bachar, who has been crafting rock shoes since his early days with Fire. All I can tell you is that the shoes are shod in a natural rubber derived from the guayule (why-you-lee), a tough, sage-brush-like plant that thrives in the arid climate of north-central Mexico. In ancient times Native Americans used it to make the first rubber balls. The Incas concocted a similar compound for the five-pound balls of their tlachtli, the world’s original hoop-and-ball game that became popular despite the fact that the losers were all ritualistically decapitated. Around 1500 A.D. the capitol city of Tenochtitlan alone required 160,000 balls annually to keep the game going.
By 2 p.m. Quent and I are antsy. We’re supposed to be out photographing at the crag by 4. “Don’t worry,” says Bachar, “climbers here party every night. No one will even be climbing until 5.”
THE TIPPING POINT FOR Bachar, the one that took him from being one of Yosemite’s top climbers to the person everyone whispered about, was his 1976 solo of New Dimensions (5.11a), on Arch Rock. He had the route wired, having toproped the crux pitch, a stretch of thin hands to very insecure fingers about 300 feet off the deck. Regardless, the solo was mind blowing. 5.11 was a top-end grade. No one had yet soloed one, let alone soloed a 5.11 as lengthy, sustained and slippery as New Dimensions. Bachar only says, “It was kinda mellow.”
Next up was his solo of the Nabisco Wall, a three-pitch link-up of Waverly Wafer (5.10c) and Wheat Thin (5.10c) culminating with Butterfingers (5.11a) and its thin, balancy crux. Unlike New Dimensions, the Nabisco Wall really pushed Bachar. Afterwards he, “Thought maybe my judgment wasn’t working quite right.”
Nevertheless, he soon returned and again soloed the Nabisco Wall, finishing this time on the even trickier Butterballs (5.11c).
The finger was out of the dike for Bachar, and countless free solos followed, but it was a problem on Camp 4’s enormous Columbia boulder that would become his world stage. Here, in 1978, Bachar and Kauk began working on a super-steep and very unlikely looking problem imagined by a hallucinating John Yablonski. Always competitive, Bachar and Kauk took turns deciphering the moves to a footless hand match on a distinctive, one-pad-wide lightning-bolt-shaped hold. Kauk was the first to make the match and press out the insecure mantel that followed, but on a repeat attempt Bachar broke off a thumb-shaped hold at the mantel. According to Bachar, an outraged Kauk yelled, “You screwed it up, now it’ll never go again!”
[Also Read John Bachar Remembered by Henry Barber]
Kauk remembers it differently, saying he wasn’t even angry and was stoked when Bachar sent the problem, sans hold, now dubbed Midnight Lightning. Kauk also later repeated the problem and says he, “Thought it was really neat now that the two of us could do it.”
For five years, Bachar and Kauk were the only climbers on earth who could pull the moves on Midnight Lightning. Whenever they did, all of Camp 4 would pause to watch.
Around that time, Bachar came in and out of money from a wide spectrum of means, some more legal than others. A Lockheed Lodestar brimming with six tons of high-octane marijuana crashed in winter in Lower Merced Lake, high above Yosemite. The wreck, which killed the pilot and co-pilot, was known to the Feds, but they were only able to remove some of the pot before being shut down by extreme winter conditions. Word of the gold mine leaked to Camp 4 and instantly dozens of climbers, including Bachar, punched through knee-deep snow to hack 80-pound bales of weed out of the lake ice. Some climbers reportedly went back two, three, four times to load their packs with the “Airplane Weed” that fetched up to $400 a pound on the streets of L.A. and San Francisco. Reportedly, some 1,500 pounds were liberated by climbers before the Park Service caught wind of it and closed the lake. Bachar’s take: A measly eight grand. Why not more? “I felt lucky to get in and out once. Everyone gets busted when they get greedy. And people were nuts out there on the ice. A friend almost hit me by swinging an axe. I said, ‘Hey, watch out,’ and he snapped around and said, ‘Go f— yourself.’ When I got out I was stoked. I got a car and told myself not to push my luck.”
Other, more reputable deals followed. Bachar, with Bridwell, made a 7-Up commercial, pocketing some $30,000 over two years, but his real break was in the fall of 1982 when a Spanish climber, Miguel Angel Gallego, then working for Boreal, found Bachar in Camp 4 and asked him if he’d be interested in trying out a new type of rock boot, the Fire (pronounced fee-ray). The shoes, the first ever with sticky rubber soles, were so effective they knocked a full grade off some moves. Gallego asked Bachar if he’d be interested in distributing the shoe in the U.S. “I called Mike Graham,” says Bachar, “and told him that Fires were to shoes what Friends were to protection.”
With that, Bachar and Graham formed a partnership and began importing the magic boots. The first 265 pairs to arrive in the Valley sold out in an hour. Steady annual sales of 8,000 to 10,000 pairs followed, netting Bachar about $65,000 a year, enough to buy a new car and a home in the private Yosemite enclave of Foresta.
In 1983, Bachar became a national figure when he was featured in Rolling Stone. A Gillette shaving commercial earned him $38,000.
Despite his success and notoriety as one of the, if not the, top rock climbers in the world, Bachar began to find himself at odds with many climbers who were beginning to break with tradition, sport bolting new lines on rappel. Bachar considered rap bolting cheating. For him, ground up was the only true way to “ascend” anything, be it a boulder problem or Chomalungma, and it was as simple as that. No exceptions. He told Rolling Stone, “If I went out and did all of those tricks, I could do a route so ridiculously hard, no one would believe it. But why bother? You might as well take a helicopter to the top.”
At first, Bachar had the backing of his Valley bros, including Kauk, but one by one the lure of the new game and its super-hard numbers pulled them away until Bachar almost became the lone voice of traditional style. Even Kauk began sport climbing in Yosemite after an eye-opening trip to Europe. Bachar, says Kauk, “Had reached a certain point beyond which he wasn’t going to advance climbing ground up. He would not budge on his position and lots of climbers were going to blow by him. In Europe you could see how sport climbing was advancing the community, and as Bridwell said, ‘The first rule of climbing is there are no rules.’”
Bachar was stunned, but stood his ground. “It was like, boom,” he says, “I was alone … I didn’t have a partner like Kauk to climb with. The upside was I just said, ‘F— you, know what? I’ll just go out and go soloing.’
“All I wanted was a little rock saved for me,” he recalls. “Rap bolting was so fast and efficient you could put up a route a day. It would take me an entire week to do a ground-up ascent. I couldn’t compete with that, and just wanted a few routes set aside so I could do my thing. But they wouldn’t even give me that.”
Things came to a head in 1988 when Bachar discovered that a ground-up project of his on Cottage Dome had been rappel bolted, and that Kauk’s car was in the parking lot. In retaliation he chopped a route on Arch Rock that had been rap bolted by Kauk and Mark Chapman.
An angry Kauk and Chapman confronted Bachar in the Camp 4 parking lot. Kauk says he walked up to Bachar and said, “What gives you the right to take someone’s route out?”
Bachar says that Kauk threw a punch, but pulled back at the last second, his fist waving in the air.
“I didn’t flinch,” says Bachar.
Kauk says he did not throw a punch, even a pulled one, and that he simply walked off despite Bachar yelling, “Why don’t you hit me, why don’t you hit me?” egging him on.
Chapman then stepped up and told Bachar that he would “kick your ass” if he ever chopped his bolts again. Bachar replied that there was no point in waiting and to, “Go ahead and punch me.”
“I was shocked,” says Chapman, “and when he said it again a switch just went off and I hit him.”
The punch landed on Bachar’s neck. “My left arm went numb and I went to the hospital,” he says.
Bachar pressed charges and Chapman was arrested for assault.
“I wish it had never happened,” says Chapman. “[Bachar] was a friend of mine, but he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I like to think that we’ve all grown up a lot since then, and still admire John for all of the great things he’s done.”
Fed up with the feuding, Bachar became depressed but continued to solo at a high level, especially at Owens River Gorge, which he had all to himself.
But within a couple of months other people found out about the Gorge. “I swear,” says Bachar, “within six months there were 100 routes and they were all done on rappel. So again, I said, ‘OK, every time these guys put up a route I’m gonna solo the thing.’”
Increasingly upset, Bachar once showed up at the Gorge, pointed his ghetto blaster right up the wall, cranked it to full volume and began soloing Klingon (5.12). “This climber chick came over,” he says, “and asked me if I could turn the music down. I said, ‘You know what, you guys got rap bolts, I got rap music. I was pretty pissed off. I’d just been through the same thing in Tuolumne. I was like, ‘Where do I have to go, Mars?’”
In 1990 Bachar and his wife of eight years, Brenda Lugo, a Puerto Rican native he’d met in Camp 4, split up.
Next, his Foresta house burned down on the very day he was closing on its sale. Initially, a sympathetic Park Service said it would be no problem issuing a permit for Bachar to rebuild, but then recanted and offered him $2,000 for his scorched land that they now said had the value of a couple of parking spaces.
Bachar fought back, eventually getting a building permit, but the process left him so bitter he sold the land anyway, and moved to nearby Mammoth Lakes. For several years he couldn’t even bring himself to visit the Valley. Worn by nearly two decades of high-level climbing, and burned by the new attitude that had no place for him, Bachar threw himself into snowboarding, golf and playing his sax. In 1996, he had a son, Tyrus, with his then girlfriend, and for practical purposes vaporized from the climbing scene.
BACHAR IS LARGELY unapologetic about his contentious past, saying he doesn’t regret the path he took. He estimates that in total he chopped around 50 bolts and thinks that maybe chopping wasn’t the right thing to do. Peter Croft (another renowned soloist) didn’t chop bolts, Bachar says. “He just did his own thing.”
No one is apt to accuse Bachar of bending to the will of others. After his hiatus from climbing, he returned to the sport that he once lorded over. After years of other pursuits, he just got bored and realized that climbing was the only real deal, the only sport where you lay it on the line.
He says today he sees himself in a lot of athletes in the top of their fields. They’re lonely, shunned, trying to gain acceptance by excelling at their sport. Says Bachar, “They have no clue. Only later, when you master your sport and feel good about yourself and make some money, do you realize that that shit isn’t really that important. Then you relax and it doesn’t matter so much.”
He says, too, that ultimately you just have to climb because you dig it, a nugget of wisdom that he says “took him 50 years to realize.”
By 3:00 we are on our way to the local cliff, El Diente, one of Guadalajara’s best and most popular crags, and one of two major areas in the outlying area where Bachar has a solo circuit.
We drive about 15 minutes then turn onto a rough, cobbled street that runs through the shantytown of Rio Blanco. Earlier in the day we had driven along a palm-lined street with upscale homes and manicured lawns that could pass for Bellaire, but in Rio Blanco we pass crudely fashioned mud-and-block structures. Many have raw openings for windows and walls only partly laid. It’s as if the workers split for lunch one day and never returned. Hens and dogs run pell-mell ahead of the car as it splashes through a river of sewage flooding the street. At a gated, dry-lay stone fence we pay the levy of 30 pesos (three bucks) to a bent old man and park.
It is the dry season and our feet kick up clouds of fine, talc-like dust as we hike along a rutted road past a cornfield where mounds of dried husks await composting. A patchwork of blue agave plants shimmer in the hilly distance, destined for the bottle after spending seven years in the earth preparing itself to become tequila. A large furry spider rears up in the road, menacing, as Dario prods it with a finger.
“Violinist?” I ask, wondering if this was the poisonous arachnid that Dario had said kills half the people it bites.
“Tarantula,” he replies.
At the rock, Bachar points to a gently overhanging wall well over 100 feet high and solid 5.12 by the looks of it. “El Mistico soloed this,” he says laughing and Dario does, too. Bachar then quickly boots up to solo Grand Illusion, a rope-length 5.10c up the prow of El Diente, the prominent rocky tooth for which the area is named.
The golden rock is “basaltic,” but it looks and feels more like Joshua Tree granite, though heavily pocketed, sharper and ripped with very grabbable if urchin-like knobs and cranial plates.
It’s bullet stone, but holds do sometimes snap off, as evidenced by the occasional white scar on the boulders
Suddenly, I realize that outside the Camp 4 boulders, I have never seen Bachar climb. Normally, I’d be reluctant to photograph someone soloing for fear they’d try to prove themselves, but I figured that Bachar, after over 30 years of press, couldn’t care less. As I heft the camera and mess with the dials, I recall that Bachar had mentioned soloing the route for the first time just recently, and that he didn’t think he’d do it again because of a creaking hold at the crux, a gently overhanging bulge about 80 feet up.
Bachar cinches up his shoes, then spits in his palm and rubs one squeaky clean. It’s a ritual he goes through before every climb, even boulder problems. I’ve also noticed that the night before he climbs he doesn’t drink and turns in early. In the morning, he has just one cup of coffee. When he solos, he tells himself that he’s only going up 10 feet to check it out. He breaks a climb down into sections. “If things ain’t cool, no problem, I’ll just go down.” If it does look good, he’ll go another 10 feet, then reevaluate, always keeping the door open for backing off. “It’s the only way I don’t get nervous.” This is the way he’s done it for 30 years and only once did the system fail.
That was in Eldorado on Clever Lever (5.12a) in 1979, a bouldery roof between Kloberdanz and T2 on the Redgarden Wall. Bachar had previously led the route, styling the crux 20 feet up, a big move out the ceiling to a bucket, then a foot cutaway to easier 5.10 climbing. On lead, however, Bachar hadn’t noticed that rope drag had partly checked his swing on the cutaway move. He realized this just as he cut his feet loose on solo. The force of the out-swing ripped his hand off the jug. Falling, Bachar flashed on the broken legs and ankles he was about to suffer.
He slammed onto the slabby, sloping hillside, luckily impacting feet first and even more miraculously right between a couple of bone-snapping boulders. “Shit,” Bachar thought, “I made it.” But just as he sat up, a boulder he’d dislodged hit him, punching a hole in his back. It was as if someone had whopped him with a hickory bat. The pain was searing. Bachar took a few steps, then passed out, face first, tongue in the dirt.
A couple of climbers had seen Bachar hit the slab, but thought he’d fallen 150 feet from the upper wall and freaked, screaming and hollering. Bachar came to, took a few more steps, then blacked out again. Eventually, he worked his way to friend Pat Ament’s house and banged on the door. Ament’s wife, a nurse, answered. “I fell,” Bachar said then crumpled to the floor.
Ament’s wife patched up Bachar, who quickly mended, but it was three weeks before he could bring himself to solo again.
I’m not surprised that Bachar is still soloing, but had figured that a dude his age with all he’s done and having just recently broken his neck, would content himself with yamming around on mellow stuff. When he hops on a steep, exposed and technical 5.10 that no one was even doing with a rope, I am floored.
In his youth, Bachar had said that he would “rather [die soloing] than on a deathbed at 80.” He has mellowed on that stance, but only a little after staying by his dying mother’s bedside for several weeks and a string of accidents claimed two of his close friends.
In August of 2006, Bachar was driving home from a grueling four-day trade show in Salt Lake City when, around midnight, he fell asleep at the wheel. His Toyota 4Runner ran off the road and flipped. In the backseat, catching a few winks and unbuckled, was Bachar’s Acopa U.S.A. partner, Steve Karafa, who was ejected and died at the scene. Bachar broke five vertebrae in his neck. His girlfriend at the time, Anastasia Frangos, also riding in the truck, received minor injuries.
In a 1991 feature for Climbing, Steve Schneider wrote that Bachar had traded ethics for friendship and had few comrades to turn to. But if there was ever any doubt about Bachar’s support within the climbing community, that was quashed immediately: Climbers across the nation flooded him with get-well emails and cards and hosted fundraisers to help offset his mountain of medical bills.
Bachar was shocked and even a little embarrassed by the support, saying that people should give their money to a good cause—not him.
After surgery to fuse two vertebrae, Bachar was strapped with a neck brace for almost half a year. Less than a month after it was removed, on his 50th birthday, he went on a soloing binge in Clark Canyon. Afterwards, he jammed on the sax with his closest buddy, his son Tyrus. Now 11, Tyrus, is only mildly interested in climbing, preferring ball and board sports. He does, however, brag to his friends about his famous climber dad who was in a bunch of commercials and offers photos to prove it. “They believe me,” he says, “but aren’t that interested because they don’t climb.” He also says that he thinks his dad’s soloing is “cool, but scares me a little bit sometimes.”
Almost a year after the auto accident, on Friday, July 13, 2007, tragedy struck again when Michael Reardon drowned, swept out to sea by a freak wave while he was walking along a rocky Irish coastline. Reardon, a controversial soloist and Hollywood producer who held Bachar up as a model, was one of the few climbers Bachar and Acopa thought was worthy enough to supply with free shoes. Sharing the same strict trad ethic, Bachar and Reardon became fast friends, going on soloing binges at Jtree and Tahquitz. When skeptics doubted Reardon’s outrageous on-sight solo of the nine-pitch Romantic Warrior (5.12b) in the Needles of California, Bachar, at the risk of tarnishing his own rep, stood up for Reardon, saying that Reardon had “it” on the rock, able to climb well at the drop of a hat. Bachar even offered a “shoes for life” deal to anyone who could keep up with Reardon for a day—no one responded.
The sum of all those incidents has surely mellowed Bachar, but they haven’t changed his ideas about climbing. Ground-up is still the only way, and he even jokes when you ask him about a certain year he did a climb, saying, “Oh, that was 5 B.C.,” with B.C. standing for “before cheating.”
I find Bachar jovial, engaging and welcoming to everyone. At the crag he hollers greetings to climbers ambling among the boulders, and is downright chatty, although he augments his vocabulary with a veritable carpet bombing of the F word.
Bachar cruises the steep 5.10 in about 10 minutes and, as he pulls onto the table-sized summit, he scares a team of locals lounging on top. They had just finished a potholed 5.8, Alumbrado Publico, and were unaware that Bachar was soloing nearby. In a few minutes, Bachar reappears at the base of El Diente. “I found an alternate hold at the crux,” he says, beaming. “It let me skip the loose one. I’d solo the crap out of the route now.”
We hike about a hundred yards past the main area to an enormous egg boulder that looked as if it had been hard boiled then dropped onto a cement floor. No one knows if any of the obvious cracked-up features have been climbed. Bachar doesn’t care and boots up to give the center and tallest line a go. Refusing a crashpad, on the ground only 20 feet away, he methodically climbs to 15 feet, where he decides that the next bit is just a tad too thin for today.
“I can’t risk jumping off from that high with my bum neck,” he says.
We walk uphill to another block, this one so enormous the locals have bolted a route on it. A hive of Africanized bees buzz a warning: Don’t piss them off. Unaware, Bachar almost walks headfirst into the hive. Like the bees, he is still a little angry inside, though seldom shows it and no longer harbors the knot of rage that once consumed him. He has come to terms with rap bolting, and even clips up a few sport routes himself. When I ask him about the old stuff he shrugs and says, “Oh no, here we go again.”
IT’S COMFORTABLY WARM in Mexico in November, but back at Bachar’s home at Mammoth Lakes, high in the Sierra, it’s close to snowboarding season. Tuolumne, too, will soon be smothered in snow. In the spring, Bachar thinks he’ll go back up to the Meadows where he once tested himself both on and off the rock, holding the invisible line of tradition all by himself. He’s working on a new route there, ground-up, naturally. It’s an oily slab of dime edges. Bachar isn’t sure he can do it, but he hopes to give it a good try sometime in the summer, before a rap bolter beats him to it. Now well past his prime, he knows that with each rising of the sun his climbing prowess fades another shade, but he’s far from throwing in the towel and will do his thing until a broken hold or a deathbed close his chapter in climbing history. And even then, he says, all the legions of rap bolters and their countless routes and incessant number chasing will, “Just keep making me look better.”