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John Bachar: American Rock Climbing Icon

By

John Bachar: American Rock Climbing Icon

Climber John Bachar, one of the greatest American climbers of the late 20th century, standing on a cliff at Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Photograph courtesy Karl Baba

Personal Data:

Born: March 23, 1957 in Los Angeles, California.
Died: July 5, 2009 after a solo climbing fall at Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, California.

California climber John Bachar (1957-2009) was one of the world’s best rock climbers from the mid-1970s until 2000. Bachar, who died in a fall while free-soloing near his home in Mammoth, California, redefined the limits of the possible with his audacious climbs, both with and without a climbing rope.

A Climbing Traditionalist

John Bachar was a staunch climbing traditionalist who eschewed rappel-placed bolts and rappel-bolted routes with his uncompromising ethics and his belief that a climbing route began at the bottom of a cliff and ended at the top. John firmly believed that the style a climb was accomplished with was more important that that it was done. He remained an outspoken critic of rappel-bolted routes, which became popular in the 1980s, feeling that they took the adventure out of climbing.

Climbing Achievements

John Bachar’s climbing achievements were many. He put up the first recognized 5.12 route in Yosemite Valley and in 1978 worked on the iconic Midnight Lightning boulder problem in Camp 4 with Ron Kauk, who claimed the first ascent. With Peter Croft in 1986, he linked The Nose of El Capitan and the Northwest Face of Half Dome in 14 hours. In 1981 Bachar established with Dave Yerian the landmark route Bachar-Yerian (5.11c), a 500-foot free climb in Tuolumne Meadows that was bolted on the lead with a mere 13 bolts, including four belay bolt anchors.

Famous Free-Solo Climber

John Bachar was famed for his many free solo climbs over the years. In Yosemite he free-soloed, that is climbed without a rope and other protective climbing gear, New Dimensions, The Nabisco Wall, and The Moratorium, all 5.11s. He also regularly soloed lots of routes at Joshua Tree, linking as many as 100 in a day. John climbed with utmost mental control as a soloist and felt that the ultimate style to climb a route was alone with the rock.

John Bachar Timeline: Best American Climber of His Generation:

  • 1971 John Bachar began rock climbing at age 14 at Stoney Point bouldering area near Los Angeles in the upper San Fernando Valley.

  • 1973 Does Mike’s Books (5.6), his first climb at Joshua Tree National Monument with his 16-year-old high school mate Mike Ransom.

  • 1974 Climbs several routes with Tobin Sorenson, including the first ascent of Short but Thin (5.11b) and the first free ascent of Rixon’s Pinnacle South Face (5.11d).

  • 1974 Set a new achool pole vault record at Westchester High School.

  • 1975 Bachar climbs Free Blast (5.11), the first 10 pitches of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California, with Jim Bridwell, John Long, Mike Graham, and Kevin Worrall.

  • 1975 First free ascent of Astro Man (V 5.11c) on the East Face of Washington Column with John Long and Ron Kauk, Yosemite National Park, California. It was the hardest long free climb in the world at that time.

  • 1975 Establishes Hotline, Yosemite Valley’s first recognized 5.12 route, with Ron Kauk on Elephant Rock, Yosemite National Park, California.

  • 1975 Began his solo climbing career with an ascent of Double Cross (5.8) at Joshua Tree National Monument. John Long was about to solo the route when Bachar walked by. Long told John to solo it with him but John was “kinda sketched about the idea." Long then asked the hypothetical question: “If you top-rope this route a hundred times, how many times will you fall off?” The answer, of course, was zero to Bachar, so he soloed it behind Long, and then started soloing lots of climbs.

  • 1976 John Bachar dropped out of UCLA and its math program and became a full-time climber with the aim of becoming the best free climber in the world. Bachar, spending summers in Yosemite Valley and winters at Joshua Tree, adopted the life of a climbing bum. John’s father, a math professor at UCLA, was so chagrined by his son’s decision that he didn’t speak to him for 10 years. He went back on speaking terms with John after one of his students showed him an article about the world’s best free climber and asked if they were related.

  • 1976 Free soloed New Dimensions (5.11) in Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California. Bachar had previously top-roped the route, including the crux pitch with its thin hand and wide finger crack over 300 feet off the ground. News of his risky ascent shocked the climbing world. Later Bachar told the Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, Colorado: "People looked at me like I was very weird for a couple of months. They thought I was crazy or something."

  • 1976 Second ascent of Crimson Cringe (5.12a in Yosemite Valley with Ron Kauk, Yosemite National Park, California.

  • 1977 First free ascent of D7 (V 5.11c) with Richard Harrison on The Diamond, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

  • 1978 First free ascent of The Wisdom (5.11d R), an old Layton Kor aid route, on Redgarden Wall, Eldorado Canyon, Colorado.

  • 1978 First free ascent of D1 (V 5.12a) with Billy Westbay on The Diamond, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

  • 1978 First free ascent (on-sight) of Silly Putty (5.12a R) with Doug Snively on The Twin Owls, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

  • 1978 Second ascent of Midnight Lightning (V8), a famed boulder problem in Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, California. Bachar and Ron Kauk pushed each other in a friendly competition to see who could first do the problem with its distinctive lightning-bolt-shaped hold and slippery mantel at the top. Kauk beat Bachar by pressing the insecure mantel. The problem was unrepeated by any other climbers for five years, while Bachar and Kauk continue to crank its moves.

  • 1978 First ascent of Caliente (5.12c), Suicide Wall, California.

  • 1979 Free-solo ascent of The Nabisco Wall, climbing 3 pitches—Waverly Wafer (5.10c), Butterballs (5.11c), and Butterfingers (5.11a)—on Cookie Cliff, Yosemite National Park, California.

  • 1979 Falls 20 feet off Clever Lever (5.12a) on the Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. He made the third ascent with a rope, then two days later attempted to solo it. Bachar later said, “The crux involves climbing into steep territory with a long reach for a bucket. You grab the bucket, then let your feet loose and swing into the hold above this slab.” On his solo, he fell from the bucket and landed between a couple large boulders, but severely injured his back.

  • 1980 Free-solo ascent of Leave It to Beaver (5.12a) at Joshua Tree National Park, California.

  • 1980 First ascent of Chasin’ the Trane (5.12d) at the Frankenjura, Germany. At the time the route was graded 5.13a and was Germany’s hardest free climb. Bachar’s landmark ascent opened the eyes of German climbers to the possibilities of difficult climbs. Wolfgang Gullich (1960-1992) made its second ascent in 1981.

  • 1981 First ascent of Body and Soul (5.12 R) with Mike Lechlinski on Daff Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California.

  • 1981 First ascent of Bachar-Yerian (5.11c X) with Dave Yerian on Medlicott Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California. The 500-foot-high Bachar-Yerian, an iconic American free climb up small knobs on a golden granite face, was established on the lead by Bachar with only nine protection bolts drilled from stances and hooks.

  • 1981 John Bachar posted a note on the Tuolumne Meadows message board in Yosemite National Park offering a "$10,000 reward for anyone who can follow me for one full day" while free-soloing climbs in the park—nobody accepted the challenge.

  • 1982 Free-solo ascent of Baby Apes (5.12b), Joshua Tree National Park, California.

  • 1982 Spanish climber and Boreal employee Miguel Angel Gallego asked John Bachar in Yosemite Valley if he wanted to test some new rock shoes with dsticky rubber called Fires (fee-rays). Bachar found that the shoes with the magic rubber were superior to any other climbing shoe at the time, lowering the rating on some routes as much as a full grade.

  • 1983 Established Sole Survivor with Mike Graham and began importing sticky-rubber Fires made by Boreal from Spain to the United States. The first shipment of 265 pairs sold out in Yosemite Valley in an hour.

  • 1983 Appeared in the April 28 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine in an article called “Valley Boys” by Trip Gabriel. The article noted: “John Bachar is like Bjorn Borg without an audience. That is, his single-mindedness of purpose and the level at which he performs are equivalent to those of any top professional athlete. If America were to adopt rock climbing as a spectator sport, Bachar would probably be its first superstar.”
    In the article, the 26-year-old Bachar described the feeling of soloing The Nabisco Wall in 1979: “Four hundred feet down on either side, and it’s outta sight. You feel like something that doesn’t belong there, a human being running with the lizards on a wall without a rope, and it’s just not your territory. It’s like going to a new continent, the moon or something. I don’t know. A new frontier. It’s someplace no one belongs, way beyond the boundaries.”

  • 1983 Appears in a Gillette shaving commercial and banks $38,000.

  • 1984 Appears in the September issue of Life Magazine in an article entitled “The Ultimate Dare. Solo Rock Climbers in Yosemite—Ron Kauk and John Bachar.”

  • 1985 Free-solo ascent of Father Figure (5.13a), Joshua Tree National Park, California.

  • 1986 First ascent of Phantom (5.13a R) at Reed’s Pinnacle, Yosemite National Park, California.

  • 1986 Climbed a link-up of The Nose of El Capitan and the Northwest Face of Half Dome with Peter Croft in 14 hours.

  • 1986 Set a new speed record on The Nose of El Capitan with Peter Croft, climbing the route in 10 hours and 5 minutes.

  • 1988 Climber Mark Chapman punches John Bachar in the neck after Bachar had chopped a route that Ron Kauk and Chapman had bolted in retaliation for them rap-bolting one of his ground-up projects in Yosemite Valley. Chapman was arrested for assault. Later Chapman said, "I wish it had never happened, (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."

  • 1991 Free-soloed The Gift at The Gallery at Red Rocks Conservation Area west of Las Vegas, Nevada.

  • 1996 Wrote the instructional book Free Climbing with John Bachar, co-authored with Steve Boga.

  • 2000 Stops working for Sole Survivor and Boreal.

  • 2003 Started Acopa International with Steve Karafa and Dario Piana, designing and producing rock shoes in Guadalajara, Mexico.

  • 2006 Bacher is seriously injured, with five fractured vertebrae, in a night-time car accident that killed his partner Steve Karafa while they were returning home from the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City in August.

  • 2009, July 5 John Bachar dies after falling while free-solo climbing on Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, California. Bachar had soloed routes on the cliff many times. It’s unknown why he fell. He possibly was hit with rockfall; his hand slipped out of a wet crack; or he may have experience a momentary loss of strength in his arm due to injuries sustained in the 2006 car accident.

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