Climber John Bachar Blew the Doors Clean Off the ’70s Yosemite Climbing Scene

In the early 1970s the major Yosemite climbing proving ground was an area called the Nabisco Wall, a series of vertical cracks that would have been impossible to climb before the invention of hexes. Into this scene – and it was a scene, dominated by already legends like John Long and Jim Bridwell – on a warm spring day in 1973 strolled an utterly unknown kid of 17. He and his pal sized up a vertical three-pitch crack line that spanned 5.10c to 5.11a and, despite a 35-foot whipper in mid-stream, completed the route, a mind-blowing onsite in an era when there was nothing tougher in the climbing world than 5.12.

That day, the legend of John Bachar was sealed.

Stop there you might think Bachar was all balls and no brains. Hardly. True, as a kid he would practice one-armed pullups with a dumbbell in his free arm. But what Bachar brought to Yosemite – and to climbing – was a fitness ethos that would herald today’s gym-rat climbing culture. That to get better you’d have to train just like any other athlete.

Bachar didn’t get there alone, though.

In 1973 the Nabisco Wall’s famous crack had a final pitch called Butterfingers (5.11a), a finger crack that flared to a slightly offset opening requiring hand jamming. But an alternate route was developed that was even harder – it’s called Butterballs (5.11c) and at the time it was one of the hardest sustained crack climbs in the world. Nobody onsighted it…until Bachar’s pal Ron Kauk lit up the Valley and cleaned Butterballs on the first try, no falls. And a week later so did Bachar.

And then, over the next half decade, the idea struck the pair that training on Butterballs and on a series of select routes all over the Valley by top-roping would be the best way to get better. Repetition built confidence and confidence let the pair put up Yosemite’s first 5.12, Hotline, on Elephant Rock, in 1976. Nobody in the climbing world was even close to Bachar and Kauk at the time, nobody was studying the sport the way they were.

Or pushing the boundaries. Confidence also inspired the next, scary-bold move to hit climbing: free soloing.

Bachar’s badass nature was punctuated with an exclamation point on 1979 when he went back to the Nabisco Wall and linked it all, finishing on Butterballs, without a rope. Bachar described the moment in the book, Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Tick List:

I knew I would blow everyone’s buzz. I got there and meditated for 10 minutes and just tried to zone out. Then I threw my shirt off and just fuckin’ went for it…On Butterballs you’re in a sea of blank, vertical granite and there is this perfect finger crack. It’s like you’re on the side of a building, perfectly vertical and perfectly flat…and then you’re cruising on perfect hand jams and this absolutely bitchin’ wall and you’re feeling like the king of the world.

And for a long while, Bachar was just that, or at least king of climbing. In 1981, he issued a famous “bounty,” offering $10,000 to anyone who could keep up with him, ropeless, on the rock for a single day. Nobody dared, but it was a brilliant bit of self marketing, getting Bachar in TV commercials, gaining gear sponsors, and blowing up climbing well beyond its backwater niche.

The success continued on the rock, too. In 1986 Bachar and Peter Croft completed the Nose in 10:05 and that same year did the Nose-Half Dome linkup in 14 hours. And over the coming decades Bachar would co-found a climbing shoe company and solo up to 5.13a.

And the money part of it, that had to be a little mind blowing for Bachar. He’d always lived like a monk, dirtbagging and shoplifting to support climbing, and was even part of a crew of Yosemite climbers who caught wind of winter airplane crash of a pot-smuggling jet. Bachar and others in the famous Camp 4 climbing community tramped in to find the plane and smuggled out bales of weed to sell. Bachar told Rock and Ice that he only made eight thousand dollars when others grabbed more and made more. The Jesuitical Bachar, when asked why he didn’t try for a bigger haul, said he knew when enough was enough: “I felt lucky to get in and out once. Everyone gets busted when they get greedy.”

Greed wasn’t part of the Bachar game plan. Greed meant going beyond your means.

Bachar, instead, was always after balance. He’d studied kinesiology to create a routine of pullups with a weight belt and famously believed that he needed to be strong enough not just to climb any route solo, but to be able to down-climb out of trouble. That effort toward balance stood him in great stead throughout his life – at 50 Bachar calculated his soloing career spanned 1.5 million vertical feet: 50 Everests.

Sadly, in 2006, a car crash cracked five neck vertebrae. Though Bachar worked his way back, some have theorized that post-accident weakness contributed to his death, when he fell while soloing outside Mammoth Lakes in 2009. Badass to the end.

Words by Michael Frank. Photo: Pat Ament/CC BY-SA 4.0

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