In the early 1970s, Joshua Tree, Calif., was the winter locus of America’s vagabond climbers. They were a ragtag band of dreamers and thrill-seekers pursuing a fringe activity that would have to wait more than a decade to be called a sport. A blond teenager named John Bachar was among the gang, challenging himself on J-Tree’s scattered blobs of quartz monzonite.

One day Bachar’s climbing partner, John Long, invited him to climb a 95-foot route called Double Cross 5.7+ — and do it unroped. Bachar thought he was insane.

Long then asked, “John, if you top-roped the route a hundred times how many times would you fall?”

The impressionable youth replied, “Well … none.”

“Alright then,” Long said. “Let’s go!”

That was the beginning of Bachar’s legendary free-solo career, which broke paradigms in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to this day. That story was also how Bachar introduced his packed-to-the-gills slideshow last week that benefited The Access Fund and was hosted by Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering.

By the mid-70s, Yosemite Valley was Bachar’s primary playground. In 1976, when 5.11 was rarely climbed, Bachar free-soloed a four-pitch 11a called New Dimensions, whose crux finger crack was at the very top.

At his presentation last week, he showed a slide that provided a view looking down on a climber at the crux, with the treetops so far below they looked like broccoli stalks. The climb brought him international acclaim, but in Yosemite, “People looked at me very weird for a couple months. They thought I was crazy or something.”

Bachar amazed his audience with photos and humorous commentary on some astonishing career highlights. They included his 1980 solo of the Nabisco Wall in Yosemite, his 1981 first ascent of the infamous Bachar-Yerian in Tuolumne and extreme solos like J-Tree’s Father Figure, which he did way back in 1985. He also defended traditional climbing ethics, recounted the birth of redpointing (which he thought was a fad that would never catch on) and rhapsodized about the evolution of his own soloing.

The audience’s energy was palpable, possibly influenced by the pre-show cocktail hour hosted by The Access Fund.

Jazzy funk accompanied his modest voice as he continued with the summer of 1981. He wanted to hone his soloing skills by on-sighting, rather than solo routes he had already climbed dozens of times. He didn’t tie into a rope the entire summer.

What he didn’t mention during the show was at the end of that summer, supremely confident, he posted a note promising a “$10,000 reward for anyone who can follow me for one full day.” Nobody took the challenge.

When the show ended, I wasn’t the only one who wanted more. He didn’t have time to mention his standard-setting Colorado routes, like the first free ascent of D-7 (11c) on the Diamond of Longs Peak in 1977, where he led every pitch on-sight. (It was the Diamond’s most difficult free route at the time.) Or the bold first free ascent — again on-sight — of West Owl Direct aka Silly Putty (11+ R) at Lumpy Ridge in 1978, and many more.

Bachar was “thought by many to be the best climber in the world” in his prime, according to Pat Ament, author of “Wizards of Rock.” His soloing was legendary, and so far ahead of its time that even today few people can solo like he did.

Today he lives in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., designing climbing shoes for Acopa International. And you can still find him, ropeless, experiencing the same freedom he first tasted 35 years ago.

Contact Chris Weidner at cweidner8@gmail.com.

Archived comments

Bachar rocks.

Jesus_was_a_socialist

4/1/2009 10:17:18 PM

Update:

John Bachar, 51, of Mammoth Lakes, fell to his death while free solo climbing the Dike Wall above Lake George near Mammoth yesterday, July 5, 2009. A highly respected climber he took the art of climbing without a rope, to the highest levels.

Mono County Paramedics, Mammoth Fire and Mono County Sheriff Search and Rescue responded to the scene, where Bachar had sustained numerous, severe injuries in the unwitnessed fall. Other climbers nearby heard the fall and reached Bachar within a minute. He was evacuated to Mammoth Hospital where he died from his injuries.

http://www.mammothtimes.com/content/view/132764/1/

fgd135

7/8/2009 2:22:54 PM