Climbing History: Free Soloist, John Bachar

A legend and pioneer in the climbing world, John Bachar earned his legacy through his full-hearted embrace of the controversial art of free soloing. With encouragement from fellow Stonemaster John Long in the early 70s, Bachar experienced his first soloing escapade on Double Cross (5.7+)—a classic route in the iconic desert lands of Joshua Tree.

Watch this throwback video—chalk full of awful 70s music—of Bachar soloing in J-Tree:

From then on, Bachar’s draw to fanatical training and ropeless climbing led him to take on more and more difficult routes that spanned the many iconic climbing destinations of California, of course including Yosemite Valley—the notorious home for dirtbag climbers. Notably, John was also the one who drew the iconic chalk lightning bolt on Camp 4’s Midnight Lightning.

Midnight Lightning (V8) Photo: Mark Cato

At the core, envisioning bold new lines and pushing the standards for what the mind and body could do were John Bachar’s talent, passion, and contribution to climbing history. Bachar didn’t just solo hard routes … he was soloing and establishing the hardest routes in the world at that time. Recounting the day he climbed the Valley’s notoriously challenging Butterballs (5.11c R) in 1979, Bachar said,

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.

John Bachar
Bachar after climbing Tuolumne’s Gray Ghost in 1980.

This tube-sock and short-shorts clothed climber openly showcased his fearless nature to all around him. In 1981, so confident in his ability to solo any and all climbs in his path, Bachar even posted a promise on the Tuolumne Meadow’s message board to give a

$10,000 reward for anyone who can follow me for one full day.

Unsurprisingly, no one took on his challenge, and soon after—as if to set his legend status in stone—Bachar established the heady 300-foot Bachar-Yerian (5.11c R/X) route, protected with a meager 11 bolts to the anchors.

But his purist practices and penchant for spice in climbs did not stop there. Bachar continued to push the envelope with free solos in the 90s that included Enterprise (5.12b) in Owen’s River Gorge and The Gift (5.12c) of Red Rocks.

Until the very end, Bachar continued to do what he loved.

On July 5, 2009, John Bachar, at age 52, fell to his death while free soloing at Dike Wall near his home in Mammoth Lakes. Mystery still surrounds the details of the incident. Undoubtedly, his impact and life’s contribution to the development of climbing will continue to remain in the many stories and routes he left behind. Close friend and fellow legend, Lynn Hill, said of John,

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.

 


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