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Five Minutes: John Bachar and Kurt Smith

Submitted by j_ung on 2008-11-30 | Last Modified on 2008-12-04

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by J. Young

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Bachar and Smith simulsolo Darth Vader’s Revenge, a two-pitch 5.10 on Low Profile Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. Photo: Kurt Smith Collection.

John Bachar and Kurt Smith first met and climbed together at Joshua Tree in 1982. Like many others, Smith calls Bachar a personal hero, but it’s somewhat a two-way street. The friendship these two have spans decades and has as many stories attached to it as any of Homer’s epics. So, naturally, when I found myself in the same room as both of them I grabbed five minutes and a recorder to yak about their heyday and their friendship and what they think is the most impressive climbing they’ve ever seen.

Jay: Let’s talk a little about Joshua Tree when you guys met.

John: Yeah.

Jay: What was the environment like then? Who was there? What were people getting into?

John: Looking for new routes, mostly. You hike around, hoping that around the corner is some over-hanging thing, maybe a crack that going to be maybe a little harder than you’ve done before.

Kurt: Or new boulder problems.

John: Or new boulder problems.

Jay: Was Joshua Tree pretty much wide open?

Kurt: Oh yeah. The Park Service never messed with you. There were no limits as to how long you stay there. I mean, you still had to be a little crafty about it. We had the big New Year’s party that year. I’ll never forget that – big bonfire.

John: Heh heh, yup. It was tons of fun out there.

Jay: Who was out there?

Kurt: Like, 100 J-Tree climbers, the California scene. What was cool about those times… I was there for the winter, so everybody would come up on the weekends who had jobs. The list goes on and on – the core crew.

Jay: What are you most proud of in your life as a climber?

Kurt: Oh, I don’t know… I mean I guess I don’t look at anything as accomplishments as much as experiences. There’s so many… to really pick on out and go, “That was better than this one.”

John: There’s different things, like some of the solos were cool. But like Kurt was saying, they’re more like experiences. Some of the solo circuits I had, maybe in Spain or the Gorge, or soloing the Gift. Things like that were always at the same level. For first acents, stuff like the Bachar-Yerian, Body and Soul. Even a lot of the routes me and Kurt used to put up, you know a lot of the runouts and stuff.

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Smith, Bachar and friends at High Profile Wall, a 40' tall knobbed cliff, which Smith first came across at the top of Low Profile Dome in 1984. The area “became my secret 'head-training ground' to prep me for the third ascent of the Bachar-Yerian," says Smith. Photo: Kurt Smith Collection.

Jay: Like what?

John: God, I can’t remember all the names!

Kurt: Here’s Johnny, the Pinhead…

John: The Pinhead? There was like four routes on that one – General Shorty, the Kid…

Jay: What are those like?

John: They’re like 5.11, but really runout, and real hard stances. He [Kurt] pulled off some stances I probably couldn’t have done.

Jay: That’s us little short guys.

Kurt: I was skinny.

John: Yeah, and strong feet, a lot of go-for-it, you know? I mean you could probably drill anything, if you have to. All of a sudden you’re 20 feet out and you’re starting to cry. You whip out the drill. It’s going in. You know that’s what’s going to happen when you look ahead, and you’re like, I’m going to end up on shitty footholds and I’m going to have to drill. You’re just hatin’ it.

Kurt: But you get it in anyway. My best memories of climbing with John in the 80s are bouldering and going over to the East Side of the Sierras. He was a legend even back then. Any day that I had to go climbing with John was a glory day, no matter what the grades were.

Jay: I don’t think anybody would disagree that both of you guys have done some pretty sick stuff (in a good way!), but what would you guys say are the sickest things in climbing that you’ve ever seen others do?

Kurt: Schneider repeating Body and Soul. That was pretty bad ass. We both tried it that day. I got pictures of him on it. We both tried it and he took a huge whipper on it. I took a couple pretty big whippers and I was like, “I’m not going back up there.” But he took a big whipper and came down, chilled out and then went back up and sent it. I thought that was pretty impressive.

John: Seeing Yabo solo Leave it to Beaver the first time. That was pretty bad ass. He waltzed it. Seeing Croft solo some of the things he’s done… I saw him do Horseshoes and Hand Grenades one time, and the way he made it look so easy, it was just unbelievable. God there were so many days like that, where you see things that are paradigm changing.

Jay: Let’s say age, injuries – all those things – are not factors. You’re 22 years old again knowing what you know now, and you’re in top shape. What are you going to go do?

Kurt: The best thing, whatever just looks like the best thing out there. For me it’s always been about the line. Like John, I’m a first ascencionist, so I’m always looking for “the line.” Whenever I go to a crag, whether it’s a new crag or an old crag, whether it’s already been done or never been done – whatever that is. And that could be 11a, or it could be 12 or 13d – whatever. The number is not really relevant. It’s more the “classic” nature of the FA.

John: I would probably be looking for big cliffs to put up new routes on with severe runouts, like maybe the Tyrol or maybe Verdon – wherever I can find cliffs like that.

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7 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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Kick ass!!!!
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4 out of 5 stars jay - 4 * cause it wasn't long enough - good job. how'd you get that gig?
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Kurt and his wife are friends, and I was down in Brevard for the Bachar slideshow/Looking Glass Outfitters grand re-opening. That stars just aligned that way. To be totally honest (shame coming) it was a little bit longer but it was my first time with a new digi recorder and I f-ed it up. This is the best stuff, though. There will be more like this in the future! "Five Minutes" is pretty easy to get, what with the plethora of rendezvous and slideshows these days.
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4 out of 5 stars Too short, but great stuff.****
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Great Job on this!! Need more man--- I could read on and on about them. Nice~~
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Good one J.
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j- nice interview. a good read. short enough for my attention span.

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