Life: Quality Vs. Quantity

John Bachar

This is/was the story of  John Bachar, the world’s greatest free climber. He was this amazing (and I do not use this word to describe EVERYTHING that is above ordinary as so many do today)  man who attacked life by engaging in one of  the riskiest endeavors and died doing it at an age just younger than my own. His is a fascinating story of integrating extreme training, style and grace and even mathematical principles to what on the surface looks to be intuitive movements by a born athlete.

I admire people who excel at physically dangerous endeavors because they do what I will not. I do not excel at physical endeavors and I am hugely risk adverse.  As documented previously in this blog I am scared of heights. And yet in this case I not only admire what John Bachar did but how he went about it.

Here are excepts from an article in The Economist:

John Bachar climbed slowly, like a spider—or, as he preferred to say, a starfish. He seemed to move in slow motion, swinging his legs out in parallel to seek a ledge, pulling to a crouch, raising one graceful arm to grab a hold. Nothing was hurried; all was smooth and unforced.  His only equipment, apart from rubber-soled boots, was a bag of chalk slung at the back of his belt, into which he dipped his hands to dry the sweat and improve his grip. He had no ropes, bolts or pitons, and preferably no knowledge of the ascent except what he had gleaned from the ground.

Wouldn’t he fall? He seemed to be catching on nothing: propping his boot on a pimple, gripping a “smear” or a hairline crack, freeing both arms from the rock to make a lunge. More than 50 feet up one mistake meant death, and he was often on faces of 200 feet or more. He was, he admitted, terrified of heights. But he had got over it.  Did he ever dare look down? “Of course. It’s beautiful up there.” Besides, “just looking down isn’t going to kill you.”

To become the world’s best free-climber, he was, took years of training. At 14 he was a weakling who could do only two pull-ups; at 16, when he made his first free ascent at Joshua Tree, he could do 27. By his mid-20s he had mastered doing pull-ups with one arm, or with 140lb of weights. Tightrope-walking helped his balance. 

He concentrate until all he saw was the “little circle of rock” ahead of him, and all he was thinking of was the fluidity and perfection of his moves. If he needed a surge of strength, he imagined throwing an electric switch to flood his muscles with power. He pictured his fingers as steel hooks, himself as a dancer.

Craziness was also necessary. Mr Bachar’s fellow-climbers often thought him mad—mad to free-climb on faces such as the 400-foot New Dimensions in Yosemite. He found it as cool and addictive as “being on another planet”. And it was the only professional sport with no coaches or rule-books, where each climber planned his tactics himself.

He was a mathematician  majoring in math at UCLA until he dropped out to climb rocks. Each venture up a rock face was, for him, an act of analysis. His mental state he divided into three zones. Zone one, no harm if he fell; zone two, hospital, but he’d survive; zone three, death if he made a mistake.

Unlike mountaineers, he felt no urge to conquer the rock-face. Getting to the top didn’t matter. All that counted was the grace, control and style of how he got there. The rock was his superior and, he felt, should remain as if he had never climbed it.  He was offended to come across rusty bolts, or so-called free-climbers setting advance protection for themselves. The effect of all this was to “lower the rock to your level”, removing its capacity to challenge and surprise.

By the same token, if he escaped after making a mistake, the rock had merely let him get away with it. He got away many times; a bruised back was the worst injury he suffered until, on July 5th, he fell from Dike Wall in the eastern Sierra.

He was 52 when he died. He probably could have lived a longer life but I am not sure at all that he could have lived a fuller one. Many people survive to a far greater age and never live as long as he lived. The combination of hard work, grace,  math, and  purity he brought to his art make him special even among those who achieve much in their lives.

Makes me want to go rock climbing…with the key part of that phrase being “want”.

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About 48facets
What you read is what you get.

One Response to Life: Quality Vs. Quantity

  1. Frank Roche says:

    Man, I get the willies just thinking about rock climbing. Like you, I admire guys like Bachar..amazing life he led.

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