"It was so quiet you could hear ringing in your ears, and suddenly it came from out of nowhere over the mountain," Kauk says. "I thought, 'The mountain is coming down. Prepare.' I shut my eyes as tight as they could go and smashed my cheekbone into the rock. Agh!" Seconds later Kauk realized that what he had heard was the echo of a jet fighter.
His comeback complete, Kauk found himself involved in the Free Solo Debate, which currently rages up and down Yosemite Valley. The controversy is also known as the "Bachar/Kauk thing," much as Kauk and Bachar would like to avoid that label, which implies animosity. They respect each other's achievements and remember their times together up on the walls. But lately their achievements have been very different.
Bachar often climbs alone, with no rope at all: free solo. Good climbers will occasionally venture off unroped, usually for speed and efficiency, but Bachar pushes it, in conspicuous places, such as LIFE and PEOPLE. He believes free solo is special because your life is at stake with every move. He calls the rope a psychological aid—which is probably accurate.
"It's a completely different ball game," says Bachar, who, when hanging around the Tuolumne Grill in Yosemite with other climbers, seems like a man with a boulder on his shoulder. "It takes a different kind of concentration. A lot of times the only contact you have with the rock amounts to the area of a postage stamp, and you're a hundred feet up. It's really exhilarating. Most of the time I'm not scared at all, I'm just cruisin', it's great. It gives you a really deep understanding about yourself that you don't get on a roped climb. I don't know, it's like you're floating."
"John is the ultimate in pushing himself mentally up there," says Rick Cashner, who has taken two free-solo falls, suffering a concussion and a broken arm each time. "But John is very competitive. Very. John is the most competitive guy in the valley. That's why he free-solos."
"I am a competitive climber," admits Bachar. "I solo because no one else is doing it at my level—there's a lot of 5.10 routes I've soloed, and even some 5.11s, and no one's repeated them."
"I can see it, but I hate to believe it," says Kauk, who has free-soloed the 1,500-foot North Buttress of Middle Cathedral, which includes 5.10 moves. "Bachar is heavy on my mind, like a bad commercial or a song you don't like and can't get out of your head.
"For a long time Bachar and I were great friends, we kind of came from the ground up together. We did some big walls together. Then I eased off and was doing my work and stuff. He took over and, man, he was king of the mountain for a while. He put up some unbelievable routes. Then I get back into it, and it doesn't take me long to be right back where I want to be. And he starts doing all these free solos.
"Free solo is kind of like martial arts. You don't just learn to beat up people and then show everybody how badass you are. You don't just do it to get an ego boost. If you do, something's screwy. I used to not want to tell anybody about it when I free-soloed, because it gets recognized, doesn't it? I'd really like to be able to slow things down and have climbers think about themselves, use climbing for a tool to better themselves, not to try to impress people."
Kauk is on El Capitan with a partner. They are on the East Buttress, not a sheer route up the face, and maybe only 1,600 feet high, but it's a classic one-day climb with variety: chimneys that must be stemmed, cracks that must be jammed, overhangs and teensy face holds.