John Long in New Guinea with a group of sweet, little children. Image supplied by John Long.
On the Cover:
The Only Blasphemy by John Long
A John Long & John Bachar Story
Cover Date: September 21st, 2015
Sometime ago, I put together a tribute article for John Bachar and requested his friends and fellow climbers to share their memories and impressions of him. Heartfelt words poured in, I fast-tracked it to publication. John Long was kind enough to send in a powerful and beautiful story of his own, that will speak to everyone who reads it. John, climber, author and explorer, needs no introduction. Here is what he sent me: a truly incredible and exquisitely written piece.
The Only Blasphemy
By John Long
At speeds beyond eighty, the California cops jail you, so I kept it down in the seventies. Tobin used to drive one hundred miles an hour, till his Datsun exploded in flames on the freeway out by Running Springs. Tobin was a supreme artist, alive in a way the rest of us were not. But time seemed too short for Tobin, who always lived and climbed like he had days or perhaps minutes before the curtain fell. It came as no surprise when he perished attempting to solo the north face of Mount Alberta — in winter.
I charged on toward Joshua Tree National Monument, where two weeks before, another pal had “cratered” while soloing. I inspected the base of the route, wincing at the grisly blood stains, the tufts of matted hair. Soloing is unforgiving, but okay, I thought. You just had to be realistic, and never succumb to peer pressure or ego. At eighty-five miles an hour, Joshua Tree came quickly, but the stark night dragged.
The morning sun peered over the flat horizon, gilding the rocks spotting the desert carpet. The biggest stones are little more than one hundred fifty feet high. Right after breakfast I ran into John Bachar, who at the time was widely considered the world’s foremost free climber. For several years he’d traveled widely in his old VW van, chasing the sun and the hardest routes on the planet. Most all climbs were easy for Bachar. He had to make his own difficulties, and routinely did so by doing away with the rope. He dominated the cliff with his grace and confidence, never got rattled, never thrashed, and you knew that if he ever got killed climbing, it would be a gross transgression of all taste and you’d curse God for the rest of your life—on aesthetic, not moral grounds. Bachar had been out at Josh for several months and his soloing feats astonished everyone.
It was wintertime, when college checked my climbing to weekends, so my motivation was there but my fitness was not. Straightaway, Bachar suggested a Half Dome Day. Yosemite’s Half Dome is two thousand feet high, call it twenty rope lengths. So we’d have to climb twenty pitches, or twenty climbs, to put in our Half Dome Day. Bachar laced up his boots and cinched the sling on his chalk bag. “Ready?” Only then did I realize he meant to climb all two thousand feet solo, without a rope. To save face, I agreed, thinking: Well, if he suggests something too crazy, I’ll just draw the line. I was the first to start soloing out at Josh anyway.
We cast off on vertical rock, twisting feet and jamming hands into bulging cracks; smearing the toes of our painfully-tight rock shoes onto wrinkles and carbuncles; muscling over roofs on letterbox holds; palming off rough rock and marveling at it all. A little voice occasionally asked me how good a flexing, quarter-inch hold could be. If you’re solid, you set curled fingers or pointed toes on that quarter-incher and push or pull perfunctorily. And I was solid.
After three hours we’d disposed of a dozen pitches and felt invincible. We upped the ante to stiff 5.10, the threshold of expert terrain. We slowed, but by early afternoon, we’d climbed twenty pitches: the Half Dome day was history. As a finale, Bachar suggested we solo a 5.11—an exacting drill even for Bachar, for back then the 5.11 grade moved us within a notch of the technical limit. I was already hosed from racing up twenty different climbs in four or five hours, having cruised the last half dozen on rhythm and momentum. Regardless, I followed Bachar over to Intersection Rock, the communal hang for local climbers and the site for Bachar’s final solo.
Bachar wasted no words and no time. Scores of milling climbers froze when he started up. He climbed with flawless precision, plugging his fingers into shallow pockets in the 105-degree wall, one move flowing into the next much as pieces of a puzzle fit together. I scrutinized his moves, making mental notes on the sequence. After thirty feet he paused, directly beneath the crux bulge. Splaying his left foot out onto an edge, he pinched something and pulled through to a bucket hold. Then he hiked the last hundred feet of vertical rock like it was nothing. A few seconds later he peered over the lip and flashed that insolent grin of his, awaiting my reply.
I was booted up and covered in chalk, facing a notorious climb which was rarely done, even with a rope. Fifty hungry eyes gave me the once over, as if to say, “Well?” That little voice said, “No problem,” and I believed it. I drew several breaths, if only to convince myself. I didn’t consider the consequences, only the moves. I started up.
A body-length of easy stuff, then those pockets, which I finger adroitly before yarding with maximum might. The first bit passes quickly. Everything is clicking along, sincere but steady and I glide into bone-crushing territory before I can reckon. Then, as I splay my foot out onto the edge and start groping for the pinch, I realize that a moment’s haste has bungled the sequence, that my hands are crossed up and too low and my power is starting to fade. My foot starts vibrating and I’m desperate, wondering if and when my body will freeze and plummet. I can’t possibly down climb a single move. My only salvation is straight up. A montage of black images floods my brain.
I glance down beneath my legs. My gut churns at the thought of a freefall onto the boulders, of climbers later cringing at the red stains and tufts of hair. They look up and say, “Yeah, he popped from way up there.” That little voice is bellowing, “Do something! Fast!” My breathing is frenzied while my arms, gassed from the previous two thousand feet, feel like concrete.
Pinching nothing much, I suck my feet up so as to extend my arm and jam my hand into the bottoming crack above. But I’m set up too low on that pinch and the only part of the crack I can reach is too shallow, accepts but a third of my hand. I’m stuck, terrified, my whole life focused down to a single move. Shamefully, I understand the only blasphemy – to willfully jeopardize my own life, which I have done, and it sickens me. I know that wasted seconds . . .
Then everything slows, as though preservation instincts have kicked my mind into hypergear. In a heartbeat I’ve realized my desire to live, no matter what. My regrets cannot alter the situation: arms shot, legs wobbling, head on fire. Then fear burns itself up, leaving me hollow. To concede, to quit, would be easy. The little voice calmly says: “At least die trying.” I tomahawk my hand deeper into the bottoming crack. If only I can execute this one unlikely move, I’ll get an incut jug and can rest on it, before the final push to the top. I’m afraid to eyeball my crimped paw, scarcely jammed in the bottoming crack. It must hold my 205 pounds, on an overhanging wall, with scant footholds, and this seems impossible.
My body has jittered for close to a minute, forever. My jammed hand says “No way!” but that little voice says, “Might as well try it.” I pull up slowly — my left foot still pasted to that tiny sloping edge — and that big bucket hold is right there. I almost have it. I do. Simultaneously my left foot slips and my right hand rips from the crack and all my weight shock loads onto one arm.
Adrenaline powers me atop the “Thank God” bucket where I try and press my chest to the wall and get my weight over my feet. But it’s too steep to cop a meaningful rest so I push on, shaking horribly, dancing black dots flecking my vision. It takes an age to claw the last hundred feet up to the summit. “Looked a little shaky,” laughs Bachar, flashing that insolent snicker of his. I wanted to slap it right off his face.
That night I drove into town and got a bottle. The next day, while Bachar went for an El Cap day (three thousand feet, solo, of course), I wandered through dark desert corridors, scouting for turtles, making garlands from wildflowers, staring up at the titanic sky — doing all those things a person does on borrowed time.
Postscript: John Bachar died July 5, 2009, while free soling on the Dike Wall, near his home in Mammoth Lakes, California. He was fifty-two years old, an iconic rock climber and a legend in the world of adventure sports. Thirty-one years before I wrote that if John ever got killed climbing, I would curse God for the rest of my life. Now, I’m not so sure I want to curse God or anyone for the rest of my life, though I’m saddened to have to live it knowing John Bachar is not out there somewhere, tangling with Old Man Gravity. But maybe he still is. He’s just higher than I can see from here.
Story and image © John Long
This piece is part of the John Bachar Tribute created by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
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Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
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