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Dean Potter on Flying Like a Bird, the Art of Not Falling, and His Nat Geo Show


“On the highline my thoughts are simple and clear,” says pioneering rock climber, BASE jumper, and wing suit flyer Dean Potter. “Fundamental needs shine through the mental clutter. I focus completely on my breath, my connection with the line, and making it safely to the other side.” This highline was set up on the summit of Cathedral Peak, in Yosemite National Park, at an elevation of 10,911 feet. Though Potter is untethered, he is in control. “I’ve always been a ‘free soloist.’ Whatever I do, I long to be untethered and free,” notes Potter. “I am completely confident with my ability to catch the line if I were to fall. I’ve practiced this catch move successfully for the past 19 years.”

This shot is just one spectacular scene from “The Man Who Can Fly,” an episode of Explorer airing Sunday, February 12,  at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel (see a photo gallery). The show captures Potter’s quest for true human flight, with first feats in free soloing and wing suit flying in Yosemite, California, and British Columbia, Canada. The episode examines Potter’s unique blend of daring, determination, and pursuit of the unknown.

Adventure: What were you thinking at this moment?

Dean Potter: On the highline my thoughts are simple and clear. Fundamental needs shine through the mental clutter. I focus completely on my breath, my connection with the line, and making it safely to the other side.

A: Where exactly are you and what are you doing? How high up are you?

D.P.: This highline was set up on the summit of Cathedral Peak, in Yosemite National Park, at an elevation of 10,911 feet.

A: Did the moon look like it does in the photo with the naked eye?

D.P.: Photographer Mikey Schaefer was taking the photographs from approximately 1.2 miles west of the highline. For him, the moon and myself looked exactly like you see it in this picture. From my vantage point on the summit of the Cathedral Peak, the moon was higher in the sky and it looked as the moon always looks to us mortals on the ground.

A: Looks like you don’t have any protection. What would you have done if you had fallen?

D.P.: I’ve always been a “free soloist.” Whatever I do, I long to be untethered and free. This desire for freedom goes far beyond the highline to every facet of life. Freedom is our most fundamental right. I am completely confident with my ability to catch the line if I were to fall. I’ve practiced this catch move successfully for the past 19 years.

A: What are the significant feats in “The Man Who Can Fly” the National Geographic Channel’s Explorer episode about you? (The show airs Sunday, February 12, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.)

D.P.: “The Man Who Can Fly” captures my quest for true human flight. This pursuit of the unknown and following dreams that may or may not be attained are the most important principles we portray in the National Geographic Special. During this time period, I strive to improve the design and glide of the wing suit. First I visit ‘bird scientist’ Brett Tobalski at the University of Montana and learn about wing shape and flight efficiency. Then I hang out with Tony Uragallo at his shop, Tonysuits, in Florida. Tony makes me a custom wing suit and teaches me how to fly it effectively while skydiving together. Shortly after I meet up with my friend and master rigger Pete Swan, in Acampo, California. Pete custom tailors my wing suit and smoothes out the back curve of the airfoil by integrating the BASE container to the suit itself.

Creativity and exploring new ideas is also a major theme of this show. I also pioneer a new route on El Capitan, where I free solo the most exposed portion of the 3,000-foot wall by down climbing a route called Lurking Fear, traversing across Thanksgiving Ledge, and then finishing up the last 600 feet of the route Freerider, to the summit of El Capitan. Then I free solo the “moonwalk” highline on Cathedral Peak. Shortly afterwards, my closest companion-dog-friend, Whisper, and I travel up the West Cost to Squamish, British Columbia. There I free solo across a much more demanding highline on the Chief and also refine my wing-suit technique, by flying from the beautiful cliff tops to the sea. Then I team up with my friends Wayne Crill, Damien Kelly, and Jimmy Marinello, for the first free ascent of the massive big wall  Mount Bute, in the British Columbia coastal range. And finally, I wing-suit fly off of Mount Bute for one of the most amazing flights of my life.

A: Where are you living now and what’d you biggest climbing/flying priority for 2012?

D.P.: I presently live at the Flying Spur in Yosemite, California. At the moment I am simultaneously pursuing two opposite arts. One is the “art of not falling,” where I try to figure out a way to climb Yosemite and the world’s biggest walls from ground to top, free solo, without a rope. The other is the “art of true human flight,” where I pursue the reality of flying and landing my human body safely on the Earth without the use of a parachute. More simply puts I am pursuing the reality of flying like a bird.

Additionally, I am trying to get BASE jumping legalized in our ‘Land of the Free,’ the USA. In most every other country, “body flying” more commonly known as BASE jumping is legal and looked upon as a beautiful art. Here in the United States, those of us who pursue human flight are treated as criminals and are forced to travel abroad to seek one of man’s most fundamental desires, to fly free.

Photograph by Mikey Schafer, learn how he got the shot in our Extreme Photo of the Week gallery