“All Whisper wants is to be with her pack family. When we go on adventures, she goes on adventures. She’s just a loyal pup with a very adventuresome papa.” —Dean Potter
BASE jumping with a dog … it sounds like a completely crazy idea. But that’s just what one of our longtime adventurers has done—and the experience was not what he expected.
Dean Potter‘s evolution over the past two decades from innovative rock climbing and linewalking to free-solo climbing to his hybrid free-BASE climbing and BASE-line walking have made him one of the most iconic and pioneering adventurers of his generation. The boundary-pushing American adventurer, 42, who lives in Yosemite, was featured in “The Superclimbers of Yosemite” in National Geographic magazine and on “The Man Who Can Fly” on the National Geographic Channel. He was named one of our Adventurers of the Year for his record-setting wing-suit flight off the Eiger. You may have seen the instant classic video “Moonwalk,” which went viral, portraying Potter walking a high line on California’s Cathedral Peak in front of a luminescent full moon.
Anyone who knows Potter knows that his beloved best friend, Whisper, is always at his side. The four-year-old, 22-pound mini Australian cattle dog dances with excitement before hiking, climbing, and even surfing with her human family, which also includes Potter’s girlfriend, Jen. In his latest film project and directorial debut, Potter explores his fantasy of wing-suit flying with Whisper, the rigorous steps he took to make it happen safely, and the dilemma it stirred in his conscience. Here watch a preview of his 22-minute independent film When Dogs Fly, which had a world premiere last weekend at Mountainfilm in Telluride.
Below, Potter answered some of our questions about this project and how the experience changed him.
Adventure: How and when did you evolve from rock climbing into wing-suit flying? What is the next evolution for you?
Dean Potter: There wasn’t necessarily an evolution from climbing to flying. They are two totally separate things. The current evolution for me is being creative in my arts, but having more of a balanced family life with Jen and her kids and Whisper.
A: How do you cope with the fact that this year alone there have been 26 deaths in wing-suit flying and BASE jumping, including your close friend Sean Leary? Do you think about giving it up?
DP: I want to fly for the rest of a very long life. During this recent deadly phase in wing-suit flying, I’ve focused my energy on gear innovation and something I call “Basic Safety,” a calculated method of pursuing my three arts that attempts to eliminate human error and gear imperfections.The deaths of such skilled fliers like my very good friend Sean Leary make me see that if there’s ever a question of safety, it’s always better to wait or walk down. Wing-suit flying can be safe if you are highly practiced and skilled and follow the fundamental rules of questioning yourself and waiting or walking down when something doesn’t seem “right.”
A: How did you meet Whisper?
DP: I met Whisper by Internet dating. I found her online and chose her because she was my favorite breed, Australian cattle dog–but mini, half the size. This allows our family to travel everywhere in the world with Whisper at our feet in the aircraft. Her small size also makes it easy for us to bring her on rock climbs that are too difficult for dogs by carrying her in a backpack.
A: When did you get the sense that Whisper was more adventurous than average? How did she start going on adventures with you?
DP: All Whisper wants is to be with her pack family. When we go on adventures, she goes on adventures. She’s just a loyal pup with a very adventuresome papa.
A: What made you want to take her wing-suit flying? It’s a very intense idea. You can’t ask her if she wants to or not … and the consequences could be lethal consequences for both of you.
DP: I’ve never had a close call wing-suit flying. I practice a very conservative form of human flight. When I fly with Whisper, we only jump off the safest cliffs in the world with the longest and cleanest rock drops. This allows Whisper to go on amazing, long mountain climbs and hikes with us, instead of being trapped in the car or left at home. It was mostly a matter of practicality of not wanting Whisper to miss out on incredible mountain dog-walks that led us to wing-suit flying together.
A: Did people tell you not to do it?
DP: None of my friends, or anyone I know, told me not to jump with Whisper. Anyone who knows me knows that I would never put my dog in harm’s way. They also know that I’m a “gear-geek” who has been innovating the best gear in climbing, linewalking, and flying for the past 20 years and knows more about safety than most anyone else in the outdoor industry.
A: What challenges did you have to overcome to make it possible? Did you train with 22 extra pounds to see how you flew differently? Did you have to get special gear made to secure Whisper?
DP: I made an entirely new BASE-rig that would hold Whisper with the help of my friend and master rigger Pete Swan in Lodi, California. The first test flights were made with Whisper’s favorite stuffed animal, Lion, and some sand bags. Her test-dummy Lion survived the flights just fine and I knew Miss Whisper and I were ready to go.
A: What about Whisper’s goggles? Are they standard doggles?
DP: Whisper wears standard doggles. At first we tried size small, but have now found size medium works best. We’ve learned it’s best to slightly oversize your dog’s doggles! Additionally, we found the standard straps on Doggles don’t hold tight at 100 mph, so we added double the amount of bungee cord to secure the doggles at higher velocities.
A: Did you do any test jumps with Whisper to see if she liked flying? Had she experienced freefall at all?
DP: We do a lot of roped rock climbing with Miss Whisper. We raised and lowered Whisper on static lines repeatedly during our big wall climbs of El Capitan with her. During these times, she’s gotten very used to exposure and the sensation of free hanging in the air. Also, Whisper would ride on my bicycle and motorcycle (up to 60 mph) a lot with me and got used to high speeds. She seemed to love the wind speed and begged to do it again and again.
A: What does Whisper do during the flight?
DP: Whisper loves being in her BASE-pack. Often I hear her snoring before I am going to leap off a cliff top into winged flight. The padding that holds her in the pack seems to comfort her. During the flight, I don’t feel Whisper move whatsoever on my back, but I’ve noticed in the videos, that she moves her head around as though she’s sticking her snout out of the car window.
A: What did she do after the flight? What did her behavior seem to indicate?
DP: After a flight, Whispy is so excited. She runs around and shows off and celebrates and barks and yips with joy.
A: Did you make just one flight? Are you still flying with Whisper?
DP: Whisper and I have made about a dozen wing-suit BASE-flights together. Though I’ve been taking it easy and not flying with her for the past eight months, I have been drafting different designs of new doggie BASE-packs for Whisper, and I’m thinking of making her a full-face helmet. The problem with the original doggie BASE-pack design is that it’s too bulky and heavy and it reduced my mobility and agility. I’m presently working on a more space-aged flight capsule for Whisper so she’d be more comfortable, and we’d be more streamlined and safer in the sky.
A: What adventures do you pursue nowadays with Whisper?
DP: Whisper goes everywhere with our family. She walks Jen’s kids to school and plays with grandma. She swims, surfs, skis, paraglides, and rock climbs. She goes mountaineering, mountain biking, and long-distance running. Whisper dog especially likes chasing her Gourdo toy or rolling in lush grass and snow or chasing sandpipers and seagulls along coastline. We have found out that Whisper doesn’t like flying in helicopters or small airplanes when their doors are off. She also doesn’t like vacuum cleaners. They are all too noisy. She sends very clear signals that she doesn’t want to associate with these contraptions, by trembling and running away. We respect Whisper’s wishes. If she says she doesn’t want to do something, we sure don’t force her.
A: Is the full length film about more of Whisper’s adventures that just flying?
DP: The full-length 22-minute version of When Dogs Fly is about our little family’s vacation in the Swiss Alps. During the summer of 2013, we lived in the tiny town of Wengen and camped on the West Flank of the Eiger and alpine climbed throughout the mountains and pioneered human-dog flight off of some of the most renowned alpine faces on earth. Additionally, the film goes inside my head and emotions and reveals my fears and internal questioning as well as the pure joy of being one with nature.
Sound Off: What do you think of Dean’s fantasy of flying his his beloved dog and his resulting fear of putting her in harm’s way?