From The Economist, 16 July 2009
John Bachar, free-climber, died on July 5th, aged 52
THE rocks of the California mountains, in the Joshua Tree National Monument and the Yosemite Valley, rise in polished granite towers from the scrubby floor. For most of the daylight hours, the wildlife of the place—coyotes, ground squirrels, lizards, road-runners—seek rare, small spots of shade. But in recent years knots of people often gathered there to watch an odder creature creeping, by feet and hands alone, across the high sheer face of boulder, buttress or cliff.
John Bachar climbed slowly, like a spider—or, as he preferred to say, a starfish. He seemed to move in slow motion, swinging his legs out in parallel to seek a ledge, pulling to a crouch, raising one graceful arm to grab a hold. Nothing was hurried; all was smooth and unforced. Being southern Californian to the core, there was an air of the surfer about him. He climbed sometimes in skimpy black singlet and white jeans, sometimes in minute running shorts, with his long blond hair dangling as he inched across a layback or relaxed, hanging by his fingertips, for a while. His only equipment, apart from rubber-soled boots, was a bag of chalk slung at the back of his belt, into which he dipped his hands to dry the sweat and improve his grip. He had no ropes, bolts or pitons, and preferably no knowledge of the ascent except what he had gleaned from the ground, telling himself "Dude, there's some holds here, man." There was just John Bachar, working out the rock. He could only have been more pure, he said, if he had gone up naked.
Wouldn't he fall? He seemed to be catching on nothing: propping his boot on a pimple, gripping a "smear" or a hairline crack, freeing both arms from the rock to make a lunge. More than 50 feet up one mistake meant death, and he was often on faces of 200 feet or more. He was, he admitted, terrified of heights. But he had got over it, practising his moves first on boulders from which he could fall five feet onto sand, gradually working higher, until some hundred feet up he could confidently climb with his palms open and relaxed, as calmly as if he was walking to the store. Did he ever dare look down? "Of course. It's beautiful up there." Besides, "just looking down isn't going to kill you."
To become the world's best free-climber, as he had set out to be and as, in the 1970s and 1980s, he was, took years of training. At 14 he was a weakling who could do only two pull-ups; at 16, when he made his first free ascent at Joshua Tree, he could do 27. By his mid-20s he had mastered doing pull-ups with one arm, or with 140lb of weights. Tightrope-walking helped his balance. At Camp IV in Yosemite he built his own gym among the trees, in which he and his fellow ponytailed dreamers trained to be "masters of stone".
The training was also mental. He made himself relax and concentrate until all he saw was the "little circle of rock" ahead of him, and all he was thinking of was the fluidity and perfection of his moves. If he needed a surge of strength, he imagined throwing an electric switch to flood his muscles with power. He pictured his fingers as steel hooks, himself as a dancer. It was better to backtrack, every move elegantly reversed, than to climb in a clumsy or scrappy way.
Working by numbers
Craziness was also necessary. Mr Bachar's fellow-climbers often thought him mad—mad to free-climb on faces such as the 400-foot New Dimensions in Yosemite, and especially, in 1981, to leave a note at Camp IV offering $10,000 to anyone who could follow him, unroped, for a day. No one tried that challenge. His first safety tip was to give free-climbing up. He never took his own advice. He found it as cool and addictive as "being on another planet". And it was the only professional sport with no coaches or rule-books, where each climber planned his tactics himself. It was, in his own soft words, the real deal.
Yet his climbing was the reverse of reckless. He was a mathematician and the son of a mathematician, majoring in maths at UCLA until he dropped out to climb rocks. Each venture up a rock face was, for him, an act of analysis. Each boulder problem was mentally broken into sections before he started. Even his mental state he divided into three zones. Zone one, no harm if he fell; zone two, hospital, but he'd survive; zone three, death if he made a mistake.
Unlike mountaineers, he felt no urge to conquer the rock-face. Getting to the top didn't matter. All that counted was the grace, control and style of how he got there. The rock was his superior and, he felt, should remain as if he had never climbed it. He was horrified to find, when free-climbing in France, that holds had been chiselled in the rock face and stone-like grips glued on. He was offended to come across rusty bolts, or so-called free-climbers setting advance protection for themselves. The effect of all this was to "lower the rock to your level", removing its capacity to challenge and surprise.
By the same token, if he escaped after making a mistake, the rock had merely let him get away with it. He got away many times; a bruised back was the worst injury he suffered until, on July 5th, he fell from Dike Wall in the eastern Sierra. He must have made some move that was ugly, clumsy or distracted. If he had kept the climb focused and beautiful, he could not possibly have died.