Monday, July 6, 2009

John Bachar 1957-2009: The End of an Era

The climbing community is truly reeling from the report of John Bachar’s death while soloing near Mammoth Lakes in California. Tributes are being posted at various sites by close friends and distant admirers alike. And as I read them I sense that a particular kind of loss has been experienced, one not quite like any other I have seen or experienced in the world of climbing and one that deserves closer inquiry and examination.

First of all, I was not a friend of Bachar and only met him once in Joshua Tree, a very long time ago, and briefly talked with him about bouldering. My only other connection was my sole appearance in a climbing magazine being in a very old issue of Climbing with him soloing Outer Limits on the cover. So I can’t speak to his character or personality except of course as he was depicted in the media, and there was a lot over the years. He came across to me as someone who knew very well how good a climber he was and had incredible skills and confidence along with a keen sense of understanding what the game of climbing was about. The famous $10,000 Camp 4 wager speaks of a climber who was not merely commenting on his own ability but that of his peers, a gesture unprecedented in American climbing not least because of its aggressive forthrightness.

So why does his death matter to anyone besides family and friends? I believe it matters because he became a symbol for an idea of something far greater than climbing. For anyone who cared about the problem of climbing harder routes, he represented an ideal of perfection and grace fronted by a cool and remote personality that appeared even and measured no matter how intimidating the path ahead. The eponymous Bachar-Yerian route epitomized this quality as Bachar seemed to have placed just enough bolts to encourage others to see where he could take climbing if he really wanted to push it out even further. Bachar went way beyond where the rest of us would choose to go but he did it with an icy edge of rationality that contrasted with the more out-there personas of his time.

Thus to watch Bachar was to believe that poise, control and reason were at the heart of climbing well. Somehow with him soloing 5.11 onsight made sense or you could at least try to make sense of it. He never looked remotely in any danger or ill at ease with his surroundings. His example could encourage you to master yourself and your own fear to live up to your aspirations. Even if you found his sense of climbing ethics overly strict or his media persona overdone, at the core something endured that was hard as steel and genuine.

Yet a reading of John Long’s short and masterful essay The Only Blasphemy points to a darker side, an atmosphere of almost inhuman severity that Bachar inhabited and even seemed at times to cultivate. We all marveled at the ease with which he climbed difficult and dangerous routes. See for example Bachar soloing the 12c route The Gift at Red Rocks on the video Masters of Stone 3. Anyone who has climbed on this route knows that it is not very secure and hardly on solid rock. The crux is up high on a sloping sidepull/gaston that certainly had me in suspense when I did the route. I have soloed some climbs myself back in the day and I know that I would never have dreamed of going there. Bachar deliberately explained himself in the video by saying “You don’t try, you just do” and somehow watching you know you can’t, won’t ever do it. Why? Because you realize there are other ways of finding out what you are made of that don’t require the isolation, the total inner focus, or the deadly risk of free-soloing. Some have it and some don't, that is all.

Now Bachar’s era is truly over and with it the sense of youth and immortality that he almost literally embodied, even as he aged. Bachar stood for the 1970s, a time before climbing became much more circumscribed and defined. With nothing but the famous blond hair, a chalk bag, running shorts and his Firé climbing shoes, he tackled climbs that had been considered cutting edge just before he arrived. He became an emblem of the American climbing scene, especially that of the Valley, a symbol of fresh, brash, energy with no limits or precedents to obey. Along with the surfers and the skateboarders, Bachar represented a vision of California as the land of youth and sunshine and open, endless freedom. The world is different now, climbing is different now, we are ambivalent about where to turn next, and now one of our guides is no longer with us.


Chris said...

Beautifully said, Peter.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Chris. This was difficult to write because I never knew Bachar but I knew the importance of his legacy beyond that of climbing. He stood for something from another realm altogether and trying to understand and articulate that feeling is really hard. Bachar was a kind of artist and few can ever really understand what he was up to.

Seth said...

Nice job Peter.

chuffer said...


Justin said...

I had the privilege of knowing John personally over the last two years. This article is very well written and I believe that you are accurately depicting his character. John cared more about others and the climbing community in this late stage of his life than he did for himself. He was always eager to teach and to inspire others to become better climbers.

Jeff said...

Well said, Peter.


Jeff Butterfield

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Jeff,
Hope you're doing well. I often revisit Acadia in my memory and hope to visit again in person sometime. You might be interested to know that the reference to the climbing magazine in my piece was an article in Climbing Magazine written by Todd Gregory on Maine climbing. He took a picture of me soloing/bouldering at Fort Williams which was published in the article.

David Stevenson said...

Nicely said, Peter. I just found this after seeing it mentioned by klk on Supertopo today. I had about the same degree of personal interaction with JB as you did, and yet, I found his death affected me on some highly personal level that o simply did not expect. Coming up on a year and I continue to think of him often.

Best--David Stevenson

Peter Beal said...

Thanks David! I cannot think of too many other climbers who made such an impact on the sport in modern times.

Bob said...

As great and as bold as Dean Potter is there seems to be something different about Bachar. Something, perhaps, more enigmatic and legendary. It transcends his climbing skill and ethic. I met him once at an event in the Valley to honor the landmark status of Camp 4. He was in his mid 40's then but I was amazed at how youthful he appeared. His energy was like that of Huckleberry Finn. What a Rock Star!!! He will continue to inspire me.

great piece by Peter