As a recreational rock climber and mountaineer, I’ve always seen my work on environmental issues as a natural extension of that passion for the outdoors, and also part of a long tradition: climbers and mountaineers have a long history of moving from their sometimes solipsistic, self-involved, and meaningless-by-definition sport into hugely important and weighty work, often in the environmental field.
Names that come to mind include Yvon Chouinard, a shy and soft-spoken dirtbag climber and gear inventor who later founded Patagonia and became one of the leading thinkers, philanthropists, and spokesmen on sustainability. David Brower, the pioneering American mountaineer and tenth mountain soldier who ran the Sierra Club and defined modern environmentalism; Ed Hillary, whose mission in life and identity was tied as much to helping Himalayan villagers as summiting Everest for the first time; and of course John Muir, who was first and foremost an alpinist. Today, we have Greg Mortensen, Peter Metcalf, and many others working on important environmental and human issues.
This is not to indict those who were, or are, simply, climbers. In the climbing community there have always been other sorts of characters too–for some, climbing was the end in itself, and what the world did with that was up to them. John Bachar, who died yesterday while climbing solo in California, was one of those. He was a pure rock climber who redefined the sport by ascending sheer rock faces of extreme difficulty without ropes to protect him in the event of a fall. What he did was athletic achievement at the highest levels of human ability and training, on par with the skill and discipline of Nadia Comeneci, Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, or Michael Jordan. His climbs, only a few years earlier, had been deemed impossible, even roped; climbing them without protection was as absurd as if a man had presumed to fly. But Bachar did fly. And as a result, one can’t compare his numinous climbing to climbing: instead, you have to compare it to art. To explain it best requires words used for Beethoven’s transcendent ninth symphony; it was an “expression of the divine.”
I had never heard of Bachar, or rock climbed myself, until I was sixteen and read an article in Outside magazine, in 1986. There was Bachar, climbing the impossible, alone, wearing red striped tube socks and revealing running shorts. The article changed the way I looked at the world. When I started climbing, I also wore tube socks (it actually meant your shoes fit poorly, most climbers go barefoot inside their shoes) in homage to Bachar. And there was rarely a day of climbing that passed without a reference to Bachar. “Here’s Bachar pulling the crux on the hideous 5.7 directissima…”
Today, I work in an office, and I don’t climb that much, or that well when I do. Several of us at work convinced management to fund a small climbing wall, and we get out there for ten minutes a few days a week, returning to our desks to type awkwardly with pumped forearms. On the bouldering wall, it’s almost certain someone will mention Bachar, just for the fun of it: coming around a corner, a moderately difficult move, a colleague slips, and complains about the slick hold. “What are you, chickenshit?!” someone yells, referencing an alleged comment by Bachar to his partner on a legendary Tuolumne climb.
In college, when we were most avid, Bachar was always more than just a climber for us; he was more than a human being: he was a talisman, a kachina doll, a phylactery that we carried with us for courage and for inspiration. A friend on a climbing trip to Yosemite came back one summer and, as if he had seen Sasquach, reported that Bachar walked in front of his car. “He was huge,” my friend said. Bachar was ripped, for sure, though no giant. But he was huge to us.
Though I never met him, I didn’t need to. I had seen him climbing on videos, his smooth and deliberate and meditative progress up vertical and overhanging faces of granite. This virtuosity in fact and in concept tied to what I was learning in school: Bachar was proof of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” evidence for a human will powerful enough to do great things; to end slavery; to solve large and pressing problems. I imitated him in the same way that I imitated McEnroe’s awkward but beautiful serve
I spend my days working on what I consider an impossible task as a footsoldier in the battle to solve climate change. If you know even a little about the science, the challenge is awe inspiring. The best scientists tell us we have to cut global carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2050, and even then we’ll have warmed the planet by several degrees and suffer the consequences. I call solving climate change the challenge not of our generation, but of our species. And the things we’ll have to do are so absurdly difficult that they are almost literally impossible: we have to retool society away from fossil fuel almost immediately, if we hope to succeed, and that means we have to change a cripplingly slow political process, reinvent capitalism, and bring the rest of the world along with us. I spend some of my time in despair. But perhaps that is too strong a word, because there are rays of hope. One of those rays is Bachar.
Of all things, in this office today, as far from his life and his beloved Tuolumne as conceivable, John Bachar is helping me in my work. Bachar didn’t so much influence the sport of climbing as he altered our understanding of what is possible in the human world. His life suggests that if we’re not pursuing something impossible, we’re not achieving to our full potential. He unlocked a door of possibility, the idea that in the same way that we only use a tiny portion of our brain, we are also only tapping a tiny portion of our potential, a potential so great that like some of Bachar’s climbs, we can’t even fathom it. We will all need-and use-that vision in our common struggles ahead.
Schendler’s tribute to Bachar also appears on Outside magazine’s site.