Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One of My Heroes

I held the rope nervously as a man twice my age with four times my courage ascended the runout face climb.

John Bachar moved with a delicate grace. His feet transitioned smoothly onto each rugosity of Hammer Dome's classic 5.10c Shadow of Doubt. At each bolt, he stopped, leaned into the wall and mimicked the stance that he would take if he had been the first ascentionist hand drilling the route on lead. John climbed the route with a casualness and poise I had never seen.

On Sunday, July 5, while climbing on the Dike Wall in Mammoth, John fell. It is unknown what caused his fall or where exactly on the wall he was. John laid in a pool of his blood, breathing but unconscious. The rescue team moved as quickly as possible, carrying him across a boulder field to a nearby lake, where they loaded him into a motorboat and brought him to Mammoth Hospital. John died in the hospital, due to the severity of his injuries.

John Coltrane belted into a funky solo on his sax as John scrolled through his slideshow and dozens of photos of soloing in Joshua Tree. There was John bouldering on Up 40, sticking it out on the line on More Funky then Monkey, and being cool and composed on Father Figure. Hearing the voice of Johnny Rock describe soloing touched me. He spoke about slow warm ups, about taking a fresh approach to soloing everyday. Cool and calculated emotions controlled his ropeless climbing; when he felt off or insecure in his movement he simply stopped. Soloing was an integral part of the climbing experience.

A few days after John’s slide show, I found myself at the base of Joshua Tree’s North Overhang on Intersection Rock. Four and a half years earlier, I fell from the top of the formation while free soloing. My body flew seventy feet before hitting a ledge. I rolled off and fell another thirty feet to the ground. I laid in a pool of my own blood. It was a lonely place. I had 8 surgeries, spent 81 days in the hospital, and returned to climbing 381 days later. John inspired me to return.

The four-runner bumped, shaking its black frame side to side, as Public Enemy belted heavy, old-school beats. The SUV parked on the side of 120 between Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. The bass kept booming as John, Lucho, Linh, and I fell out of John’s rig.

We marched a long thirty minutes to South Whizz Dome, wheezing from the high altitude of Tuolumne. We skirted a small marsh, then hit a small slope of granite. Just around the corner from the start of the dome came the wall- a hundred fifty feet of technical steep edges and knobs. Kurt Smith and John established many of the hard, run-out, ground-up test pieces. John made the first ascent, on top rope, of a beautiful black streak in the middle of the wall. From a ledge sixty feet off the ground, Blackout follows a series of walnut knobs for sixty feet. Kurt onsighted the route, drilling two bolts on the lead, snagging the first lead ascent, and solidifying the 5.11 route as a serious undertaking. The route with its old bolts, and scary old-school vertical climbing is the definition of a “museum climb.” John flaked out the rope, grabbed two quick draws, and a couple of cams.

After fifteen feet of delicate climbing, John clipped a quarter inch rusty bolt. Another twenty feet passed before John clipped another rusty quarter incher. He moved slowly, placing his feet, shifting his hips, and transferring his weight onto the overhanging knobs with the elegancy of a ballet dancer and the funk of Flavor Flav. He danced his way, unprotected for thirty feet, to the top.

A few years prior, John crashed his car while driving back from the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. The vertebrae in his spine were fused and he had limited mobility in his neck. We talked extensively about recovery, about the best ways to deal with trauma, and return to climbing. John told me my recovery was impressive. “You’re one of my heroes,” he said. Watching John climb Blackout, to fight his injuries and return to climbing as bold as before, made the metal in my spine become a little more pliable.

I free soloed the North Overhang. It was a cathartic experience for me. If I had fallen again, I would have wanted to die. Trying to fight through the pain would have killed me-if not physically, then emotionally and mentally. John’s candid talk about soloing invigorated me, and reminded me how precious those ropeless moments are. His talk planted a seed in my mind to return to Joshua Tree.

A week before he died, we talked about meeting up this summer to climb some more scary routes in the meadows. I wanted a ropegun and John’s passion for climbing was insatiable. He wanted to get his granite legs underneath him before heading to the meadows. John always climbed so solidly. It pains me to think of him falling. John was a legend. A man made immortal not just by his deeds but by who he was. He will be missed.