05/06/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
The huge granite slab rises straight up from the valley floor in Yosemite, Calif., immense and forbidding. Halfway up, about 200 feet, two climbers roped together pause to consider their next move to get to the top, Suddenly, from just below their toes, they hear a voice. "Mind if I pass?" asks John Bachar. Pass? At this height on the wall? Bachar deftly works around the men, and then they notice that he's not wearing any protective gear at all, just boots, shorts, a mesh shirt and a small pouch around his middle. Bachar is free soloing, or clean climbing, up an almost vertical rock wall without anything but his guts and some adhesive on his fingertips. "Getting to the top isn't why I climb," he explains later in a quiet, firm voice. "It's the challenge, the struggle of doing it. People who say I'm crazy don't have a clue to what's going on. I compare what I do to a tightrope walker. He can do flips when the rope is five feet off the ground or a hundred feet. The only difference is the height at which you're operating, and that's purely a mental thing. To me, hanging off my arms at 300 feet feels normal."
Bachar (pronounced "Bocker"), 38, is a legend among the mountaineers who challenge peaks from the High Sierras to the Alps. At 19, he became the first person to clean climb a 400-foot wall in Yosemite called New Dimensions—a feat climbers likened to a world-record mile. In a sport where stature is measured by technique, not necessarily conquest of the peak, Bachar knows no peer. "Lots of climbers are hot for a year," says Rob Rohn, 26, a Canadian climber, "but Bachar's been hot for 10 years. He seems to be the most enduring of the hot rock climbers." His technique is simple: Instead of ropes and spikes, Bachar carries only adhesive gymnast's chalk to help with the gripping, a yellow toothbrush for dusting fingerholds and nail clippers for trimming skin scraped on the rocks. Thus the nickname "Norelco—because I'm cordless."
Climbing of any kind, and especially free soloing, is dangerous. Last year Bachar's best friend Rick Cashner, 27, fell and nearly killed himself. A few days later Bachar free soloed up to the spot where his friend lost his grip just to check it out. Then he visited Cashner in the hospital, walked into the hallway and passed out. "I could have been looking at myself," he says nervously of the incident. And John nearly lost it himself once when he was almost to the top of a cliff and couldn't find a fingerhold. "I returned to my highest point," he explains, "and realized that the next hold was only wide enough to fit the first knuckle of my pinky. When I reached the top I was freaking out over how close I had come to not making it." Says Bill Wendt, who was Yosemite's chief ranger last year, "My biggest reservation about free soloing is that when you fall you most likely die. And talking to the next of kin was my job. It wasn't pleasant."
Born in Los Angeles, the elder of two sons whose parents divorced when he was 7, Bachar started serious climbing at 14, visiting Yosemite every summer. Despite good grades, he dropped out of UCLA in 1975 to climb full time. "I said, 'This is it. I've blown it. I'm going to give all I've got for climbing and that's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.' " For a while he lived on almost nothing, doing odd jobs around Yosemite. In 1980 he met Brenda Lugo, now 27, a waitress at one of the hotel restaurants. They married in 1982 and live in a small house in a private section of the park. "I don't get scared when I see him up there," she says. "I see the beauty of it and I don't think of the danger. It's more like a ballet. I'll never tell him to quit." Says Bachar: "My wife understands that even if I fall, I'm doing what I want to be doing. If I didn't climb, I'd be a wreck. But I think Brenda has confidence in my ability and she knows I'm not nutso. If I was, I'd be dead right now. Instead, I just get better."
Now, with the winter snows melting, the 5'11", 160-pound Bachar is climbing again. He works out daily, lifting weights and building up his endurance by hanging by his fingertips from wooden blocks nailed to a tree. His financial situation improved dramatically when a Spanish climbing boot company made John and a partner their exclusive U.S. distributors, a deal that netted him $60,000 last year. "I really don't think about money," says Bachar. "I don't have much interest in it. If I get a house out of the whole thing, that would be the most I could ask for."
Bachar is so obsessed he even thinks about climbing when he sleeps. "A lot of times when I'm working on a route I'll have dreams of doing it," he says. "The next day I'm able to relax more." Yes, he's dreamed of falling, but even that's not a nightmare. "I always," he says with a smile, "end up flying."