From the Archives: John Bachar dies at 52; rock climber specialized in free-solo ventures


John Bachar, a legendary figure in the obscure and close-knit world of rock climbing, died Sunday after a fall near his home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. He was 52.

Bachar perished after falling while climbing alone on Dike Wall outside Mammoth Lakes. Nearby climbers heard the fall and quickly reached Bachar, who was rushed to Mammoth Hospital, where he died shortly afterward from severe injuries.

Bachar, who was born in Los Angeles in 1957 and attended UCLA, became famous largely for his exploits as a free-soloist. The form of climbing he practiced was considered the most dangerous because it does not involve ropes or safety equipment.

That precarious chapter of Bachar’s life began in the early 1970s when -- as part of a hotshot group of “stonemasters” frequenting Joshua Tree National Monument in the Southern California desert -- he was introduced to John Long, himself destined for superstardom.

Long persuaded Bachar to free-solo a 95-foot route called Double Cross, which had a degree of difficulty of 5.7-plus.

(Class 5.0 to 5.14 is for serious climbers. Bachar, in his prime, stopped scaling anything less than 5.10. Climbs are further delineated by letters, as in 5.11a, 5.11b and 5.11c, the latter being most difficult.)

Bachar scampered spider-like up Double Cross and soon became part of a seasonal pilgrimage to the Yosemite Valley and Camp 4, the historic center of the climbing universe.

There the climbers enjoyed a spartan existence but relished every moment of togetherness and the beacon call of sheer surroundings. They challenged themselves and shared stories around the campfire.

Bachar often was the subject of those stories. In 1976, after he free-soloed a 5.11a route in Yosemite called New Dimensions, news resonated throughout the climbing universe.

“People looked at me like I was very weird for a couple of months,” Bachar recalled in April for an article in Colorado’s Daily Camera newspaper. “They thought I was crazy or something.”

Bachar is perhaps best known for his first ascent of the Bachar-Yerian (5.11c) route in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, which he conquered with Dave Yerian in 1981.

That same year Bachar posted a note in Yosemite offering a “$10,000 reward for anyone who can follow me for one full day.” Nobody accepted the challenge.

Phil Bard, a friend of Bachar’s and a renowned climbing photographer, recalled the days in the early 1980s when Bachar routinely scaled 5.10- and 5.11-rated routes.

“It was always breathtaking to see John gliding effortlessly upward on tiny knobs or with only the first knuckles of his fingers in a crack 100 feet off the ground.

“It took superior training and complete control over his mind-set to accomplish what he did, and in a way it is only a climber that can truly understand what he represented to the sport.”

Bachar repeatedly acknowledged the danger of climbing without ropes. But he once described the feeling as addictive and like that of flying or being on another planet.

Bachar’s most serious injury occurred during an automobile accident in 2006, while driving home from the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. He suffered five fractured vertebrae and did not recover full mobility.

Bachar was single, and his survivors include a son, Tyrus. Services are still being planned, Bard said.