Ascending a sea of knobs on the steep west face of Yosemite’s Fairview Dome, John Bachar was enjoying a fine autumn day, cool and quiet without another climber in sight. As usual, he was free soloing: climbing without a partner, rope or protective gear.
That contentment quickly became alarm when, about 100 feet up, he spotted a terrifying flaw on his new route, which no one had ever climbed before: a knob of rock which looked too fragile to trust with his weight, but which he absolutely needed to complete his ascent.
“From the bottom, it looked really good. Then I got there, and after I stood up, I could see that it had this crack in it,” Bachar recalled. “It just looked like it was going to break. You might stand on it if you’ve got a rope, but soloing, you would never want to stand on it.
“The problem with knobs in Tuolumne is sometimes they break,” he said. “You never can tell. It can look totally good and then it will just pop right off. Soloing that stuff, it’s crazy. It’s dicey as hell. But I soloed a lot of it.”
In such a situation, Bachar normally would have exercised discretion as the better part of valor and simply climbed back down again. But on this occasion, he had made a difficult and irreversible high-step move just moments before. Climbing up was a life-threatening gamble. Climbing down was impossible. On the route Bachar later named “Solitary Confinement,” he felt trapped as if in jail.
“There was nobody out there, just nobody around. I could scream all I wanted and no one would ever have heard me,” Bachar said. “I wanted to just undo the high step and go back down, but I couldn’t. I was probably there for 15 minutes. It seemed like an hour. How can I get around this move? There’s no way. Finally I just had to gingerly step on the crappy knob, and reach the next knob.”
The dubious knob held, Bachar moved past it quickly, and completed the easier climbing above with the overwhelming relief and adrenaline rush of a man who narrowly cheated death.
“Normally when you solo and you conquer the rock, you feel good about it,” he said. “I didn’t feel good about this. I felt like I got away with something.”
Bachar described the scare at my request when I met him in June. I was collecting material for a book of Yosemite adventure stories, and though we had never met, he kindly shared a few when I called him out of the blue. But for this world-class athlete, close calls were the exception, not the rule. Bachar trained exhaustively and routinely shocked the climbing community with ropeless ascents of such routes as New Dimensions, the first 5.11 in Yosemite, The Nabisco Wall (5.11C), and the East Buttress of Lower Cathedral Rock, a “gnarly” 12-pitch affair more than 1,000 feet tall.
For more than 30 years, Bachar embraced the rewards and perils of free solo climbing, a controversial approach he defended when we met for coffee in Mammoth Lakes.
“On the one hand, there’s this incredible danger. If you fall, you’re dead after you’re 50 feet off the ground. But on the other hand, you’re completely safe,” he said, in reference to climbs within his ability range. “And there’s the feeling that you’re doing something that you shouldn’t be doing, or you’re in a place that most people never go, like being on the moon maybe… Free soloing has that sort of intrigue.
“The other benefit is that you can do tons of climbing,” he said. “There’s no stopping for belaying. You don’t have to stop to place protection. You don’t have a giant rack of gear with you. You don’t need a partner. You just walk up and climb.”
As a climber with just a small fraction of Bachar’s ability and experience, I didn’t presume to debate him. Though part of me wished I had when, two weeks later, Bachar fell to his death while free soloing at Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, where he had climbed countless times before. Because no one witnessed the accident, the exact cause of the fall isn’t known. He was 52, and left behind a 12-year-old son, Tyrus.
In wake of the tragedy, it’s tempting to conclude that free soloing is a reckless practice and unacceptably dangerous under any circumstances. With the consequences of a single mistake so severe and irrevocable, why would anyone take the risk? These thoughts certainly came to me when I read the awful news, accompanied by guilt for not challenging the bold position my new friend had expressed.
But upon further reflection, I realized that stark line of black-and-white reasoning doesn’t address the issue’s subtle complexity. Free soloists are a rare breed, but who in the outdoors community hasn’t assumed some risk? Skied a steep run? Biked without a helmet? Ran out a pitch?
Since I began the sport in 1994, the vast majority of my climbing has been in traditional, roped style. I’m cautious perhaps to a fault, with only a handful of leader falls in 16 years. Yet I’m sure that in my limited exposure, I’ve taken greater risks than Bachar assumed on Dike Wall during his final hour. So have countless others who have climbed, hiked, swam, crossed the street without looking, exceeded the speed limit or texted while driving. The fact that we walked away from these hazards shows that we got lucky, not that we’re any smarter or fitter than those who suffered accidents.
Climbing and other outdoor pursuits are central to the lives of many. These activities change for the better the lives of even those who sample them only occasionally. But without some danger, outdoor recreation as we know it could not exist. We need it to make us who we are. Defining acceptable risk is an essential and critical assessment that no one can make for another.
Bachar understood that. While the climbing legend extolled free soloing for himself, he knew it wasn’t right for most, and didn’t encourage others to emulate him. “Don’t scare yourself, and know your limits,” he said. “You’ve got to be really honest with yourself, or you’re going to get bit, big time.”
The heartbreaking fact that Bachar made a mistake and paid the ultimate price for it doesn’t make that advice wrong.