John Bachar by Henry BarberJohn Bachar's friend and rival Henry Barber recounts their competition to make the first ascent of a difficult rock climbing in Yosemite in the late 1970s.
John Bachar and the rivalry with Henry Barber to establish Yosemite’s first 5.12
The Bachar-Yerian, D-7, The Wisdom*, Astroman. On my life’s list of 10 routes still to do, four are authored by John Bachar—no one else has put up more than one. Why these routes? They are necky. One is a challenge at altitude. All require varied techniques. My cup of tea, but I have never been in the right shape at the right time, which are the requirements of great routes. John’s climbs epitomized his style of flawless technique and a balance of mental and physical harmony. For most climbers, the stars have to be aligned to take them on.
I met John in Yosemite in the early 1970s. The valley lads didn’t roll out the welcome mat for me, a visitor from the East, and John was no different. I had some great days on the rocks with some of the Stonemasters back then but it was mostly on Southern California stone. In 1975 after I returned from Australia a funny incident happened when I went to do the first ascent of Fish Crack**. Climbing in a light rain I fell from the chicken head at the end of the crux. The next day, John and Ron Kauk with a large cheering section looking on yo-yoed the hell out of that thin crack trying to get past my top nut. It was not to be. The next day I returned to knock it off. Such was the rivalry back then. Me, the older and more experienced climber traveling the globe in search of the hardest climbs, and John, just out of high school and hot to make his own mark. To this day Bachar and Kauk’s route Hotline and my route Fish Crack both contend historically for the title of Yosemite’s first 5.12.
John and I skirted each other for several years at places like the Buttermilks and Stoney Point. He was respectful as I walked the crux on several highball problems. Soon, though, as the 1970s came to a close, it was my turn to be amazed as he established difficult routes on boulders and walls. He quickly accelerated past my abilities and stood his ground fighting the onslaught of Euro tactics taking hold in the U.S. That we shared the same old-school ethics was obvious when we both represented the traditional ways at the AAC’s Great Debate in December 1986 in Denver, Colorado.
In the past few years we have been in touch more often and found common ground inside and outside the climbing world. We were equally floored by the talent of today’s youth, and he really got excited talking about snowboarding with his son, Tyrus, at Mammoth. His love for Tyrus brimmed in his eyes and it was our discussions about our sons that broke the ice for us, now aging one-time rivals with our climbing primes behind us, but equally new and exciting frontiers ahead. Whatever walls had been up sheltering our egos came tumbling down, and we both were able to appreciate one another’s contributions.
Free soloing, in particular, was an important part of our lives and we often talked about it. Our strategies were similar: To be able to down climb out of trouble and be in mental control at all times was our foundation. We also both thought the perfect style was a first ascent solo. He often remarked that he had soloed 5.13 but had never done the first ascent of a 5.13. This is perhaps the most important point. 5.13 (and perhaps harder) was well within his range, but he never found a climb that he could do from the ground up in clean style placing gear on the lead, and he wasn’t willing to break with tradition just for the sake of chasing numbers.
That didn’t bother him. What did bother him were climbers who compromised style by bolting on rappel on first ascents when the routes could have been saved for an even bolder and more capable generation who would push the mental and physical aspects beyond what even he could do.
John stood outside the sport-climbing trend of the 1980s and never wavered. In a world today where we measure status by titles or wealth, he believed that in the end it is not what you did that counts but how you did it. This is a solid measure of the man. I only wish he was still around to author more routes that could stand as benchmarks for other climbers, myself included, to measure ourselves.
*Bachar did the first continuous ascent of all three pitches of The Wisdom. Eldorado Canyon, Colorado.
**Editor’s Note: In an interview for the feature “Being Bachar,” No. 166, Bachar commented on Henry Barber’s ascent of Fish Crack. According to Bachar, Barber took a long fall onto a Stopper that barely held. When Bachar climbed to that nut the next day, he noticed that it was deeply gouged where a crystal had cut it, and that it was just barely hanging in the crack. Alarmed by the scant pro and potential ground fall, Bachar downclimbed and gave up on the route, admitting that he didn’t have the mental strength to risk such a fall onto that nut. Bachar said it was a real learning moment for him, and he never forgot it.
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