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John Long’s tale of soloing in Joshua Tree with John Bachar in the late 1970s is one of climbing’s greatest classics and has been published and republished in Climbing, the book Games Climbers Play and in John Long’s anthology Gorilla Monsoon. This story and many like it are available with your Outside+ membership, which also includes a year of Climbing magazine in print and our special coffee-table edition of Ascent.
At speeds beyond eighty miles an hour the California cops jail you, so I keep it down in the seventies. Tobin used to drive one hundred, 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 charge on toward Joshua Tree National Monument, where two weeks before, another pal had “decked” 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 think. You just had to be realistic, and can never stove to peer pressure or ego. Soul climbing, and all that jazz. At eighty-five miles an hour, Joshua Tree comes quickly, but the stark night drags.
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 run into John Bachar, widely considered the world’s foremost free climber. For several years he’s traveled widely, mostly in his old VW van, chasing the sun and the hardest routes on the planet.
Most all climbs are easy for Bachar. He has to make his own difficulties, and usually does so by doing away with the rope. He dominates the cliff with
his grace and confidence, never gets rattled, never thrashes, and you know that if he ever gets killed climbing, it will be a gross transgression of
all taste and you’ll curse God for the rest of your life—on aesthetic, not moral grounds.