John Bachar: Rock climber celebrated for his solo ascents without ropes or equipment

In 1981 a note appeared on the notice board in the climbers' campground in Yosemite Valley, California, offering: "$10,000 for anyone who can follow me for one full day." At that time Yosemite was the world's rock climbing Mecca, with no shortage of young guns looking for adventure. Yet none of them took the $10,000 challenge because the poster was John Bachar – perhaps the greatest solo climber the world has ever seen.

Bachar's speciality was free soloing: taking on climbs with no rope and no equipment. He took this dangerous yet seductive game to a new level on the granite cliffs of Yosemite, climbing many of its hardest routes alone and unroped, hundreds of feet above the pine trees.

A rash attempt by John Long – another of America's best rock athletes – to keep up with Bachar during an orgy of solo climbs resulted in an exhausted Long nearly peeling off 50 feet above a jumble of spine-crushing boulders. He spent the next day collecting flowers in the woods, his mind shot by the experience. Bachar soloed another 30 climbs.

Bachar started climbing aged 14 near his home in Los Angeles. He studied at UCLA, where his father was a maths professor, but soon dropped out and headed to Yosemite Valley, where climbing was undergoing a revolution thanks to a new breed of training-obsessed climbers. Under the non-stop California sun these athletes did steeper, smoother and more strenuous routes than ever before, with Bachar at their forefront.

The Yosemite campsite, with its scattering of clean, angular boulders, was Bachar's outdoor gym. He was one of only two people to have climbed "Midnight Lightning", a fingery route up a house-sized block. Many strong and talented climbers had spent weeks and months trying and failing on this 35ft test piece. Bachar climbed it regularly at 5.0pm as part of his daily work-out.

His masterpiece was the Bachar-Yerian in Tuolumne Meadows, an exhausting voyage up a blank face where 100ft falls are the penalty for failure. Even today it is rarely repeated.

In the 1980s the winds of climbing changed. Bachar's training techniques were taken up by European climbers who pushed physical standards even higher but ignored the mental aspect. Their routes were protected by bolts drilled into the rock, which made falling a completely safe proposition. Free from fear and danger, climbers concentrated on pure difficulty, with intricate sequences of moves that required weeks of practice to master.

American climbers, desperate to catch up, copied the Europeans and Bachar's more experimental, ground-up style fell out of fashion. When the new school of climbers tried to drill bolts into Bachar's cherished Yosemite cliffs fist-fights broke out in the campsite parking lot. Bachar, once in the vanguard, was now the old school.

Bachar did not stay out of the limelight for long. The Californian blonde ponytail began to grey but he still soloed climbs at a world-class standard. Magazine editors, photographers and film-makers loved him, and he remained a hero to the vast majority of weekend warriors who were – and still are – awed by his precision and mental control. Although he was happy to prick the egos of climbers whose talk exceeded their skill, he encouraged many climbers of modest ability.

A keen chess player and saxophonist, he lived in Mammoth Lakes, California, and was design director for a company making climbing shoes. At noon on Sunday 5 July he was climbing, alone, on his local cliff, when he fell around 80ft. Nearby climbers rushing to his aid found him at the bottom of the cliff, still alive. He died later in hospital. He is survived by his son Tyrus.

Sean Kenny

John Bachar, climber, born 23 March 1957; married twice (marriages dissolved, one son); died 5 July 2009.

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