John Bachar was like a big brother to me. We were a part of a large family of friends bonded together by our common passion for climbing and our basic philosophical attitude toward life. We strived to free climb in the best style possible by doing the “most with the least” – meaning that we pushed ourselves on the most demanding climbs imaginable with minimal reliance on our equipment. John was a perfectionist and climbing was his means of achieving mastery. Free soloing was his way of coming as close as humanly possible to what he thought of as perfection.
Our motley crew, which is now known as the, “Stone Masters” used to call John the “punk monk” since he lived all by himself in his red Volkswagen van in Joshua Tree and climbing was the main focus of his life. This nick name referred not only to his monk-like existence, but his punk-like attitude toward mainstream society. On rest days, John spent countless solitary hours teaching himself how to play the saxophone. We were the only people he hung out with, and we joined him every weekend or holiday that was possible. John was the first person I knew that decided to become a full-time climber, even though there was no such thing as a “professional climber” at the time. I was amazed that he was able to piece together a living through the occasional television commercial or appearances on T.V. programs such as, “That’s Incredible,” “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” and “Survival of the Fittest.” I also appeared on these same T.V. shows, but I never imaged that I could actually make a living as a professional rock climber. Instead, I decided to spend my earnings in Hollywood to pay for what ended up to be a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, and I tried my best to go climbing whenever possible.
While I was busy making my way as a “starving student” and attending college in various places from California, to Las Vegas, and finally New Paltz, New York, John continued to raise the standards of free climbing. In 1981, he and Mike Lechlinski were invited to participate in an “international climbing meet” in the Frankenjura region of Germany. One of the most noteworthy ascents of that trip was John’s first free ascent of a route called, “Chasin the Trane” (named after one of his favorite jazz musicians). John demonstrated not only his fluidity and control on the rock, but his uncompromising style of free climbing. John refused to hang dog and climbed nearly every route on-sight with amazing grace (it was fitting that John’s father arranged to have a saxophonist play “Amazing Grace” at his memorial). John’s impressive demonstration had a significant impact on the various participants from all over Europe and was perhaps an important catalyst in the advancement of free climbing standards all over the world.
On his first trip to America, Patrick Edlinger used to lurk in the trees and watch John Bachar and Ron Kauk do laps on the famous Midnight Lightning boulder problem in Camp 4. When Patrick returned to France, he started a training regime “a la Californian.” He started jogging, built a “Bachar ladder,” and set up a slack line in his yard, which were modeled after the training apparatus he had seen at the rescue site in Camp 4. In his famous documentary film called, “Opera Vertical,” Patrick wore a tiny pair of running shorts (like the ones Bachar wore at the time), a red bandana (like the one Kauk wore), and portrayed his lifestyle as a climber through scenes of running, slack-lining, and free soloing barefoot way up off the ground on a reputed 5.11 route in the Verdon Gorge. This film aired on prime time T.V. when there were only three channels on french T.V. and soon thereafter Patrick became a well known celebrity in France.
Perhaps the route that best exemplified John’s commitment to style and boldness, was the Bachar-Yerian route. Many years after his first ascent of this route, I got sandbagged into repeating it and leading the two scariest pitches. (which had only four bolts and three bolts per pitch respectively). Fortunately I wore a helmet, which gave me some degree of reassurance when I found myself way out above the last bolt, lost in a sea of knobs, with no bolt in sight. Climbing this route certainly gave me a greater appreciation for John’s vision in creating this route, and for the effort involved to hand drill each one of these bolts while precariously hanging on small sky hooks.
Throughout our crossings in life over the years from our roots in California, to various climbing destinations all over the States and Europe, as well as several Outdoor Retailer trade shows over the last two decades, I witnessed John’s evolution as a person on many levels – even in playing the saxophone. I had the pleasure of hearing him play the sax in a jazz quartet at the Zephyr club in Salt Lake City around the time of a trade show several years ago and it was then that I realized his level of mastery in playing the saxophone. (and John’s impressive saxophone contribution in the tribute song by Kris “Odub” Hampton)
But perhaps what inspired John to grow the most in his life was the birth of his son, Tyrus. It was endearing to see the tender side of John and how much he loved his son. Beyond the father-son relationship, they seemed like best friends in life.
Now that he is gone, there is a huge void in which myself and countless others contemplate the impact of his life. The only consolation in our process of letting go is the inspiration he was as a climber, and the memories of the John that I knew behind the persona, of a vulnerable and loving friend.
After several hours of travel on my way to John’s memorial, I happened to call my good friend, Mari Gingery. When the phone rang, she had just finished saying in the company of a large group of friends that they needed a “ringer” to complete the last boulder problem at the “Bachar Boulders” that hadn’t been climbed that day. I happen to be within 10 miles of the Bachar Boulders and I arrived with about ten minutes before sundown.
As soon as I arrived, Mari escorted me straight up to where all of our friends were hanging out at the base of “JB’s Seam.” Since there wasn’t much time to waste, I immediately put my shoes on and gave it a try without warming up at all. After my first attempt, my fingers were burning from the combination of the course texture of the welded tough rock, and the physical shock on my sluggish, over-caffeinated body. Once the pain had subsided and blood flowed back into my fingertips, I gave it another try. This time, I arrived just below the hardest, most committing moves. A fall above this section would not be desirable, even with big, strong spotters such as John Sherman, who was reassuring me from below. On my second attempt, I still didn’t feel warmed up enough to make the necessary move to get my foot way up to waist level in my precarious lay-back position. But I did notice a tiny nubin way out right that seemed like a feasible way to make a kind of one-two step that would allow me to bring my foot up. As the last rays of light were waning, I gave it one last try. This time when I arrived at the crucial move, there was a moments hesitation when I questioned whether this was a good idea or not. Then I imagined hearing John’s voice saying, “ Come on – go for it.” The next thing I knew I was stretching my foot way out right to the tiny nubin, which enabled me to bring my foot up in the right position to wrap my fingers around the key pocket and climb to the top. It was so cool to join my friends in celebration of John’s life, inspiration and his indefinite impact on generations of climbers to come.
Below is a link to a song by Kris “Odub” Hampton (odubmusic.com) and Misty Murphy, with John Bachar on the saxophone.