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Dean Potter flying in a wing suit in the Swiss Alps with the Eiger in the background; Photograph courtesy Andy Maser

Climber Dean Potter on Valley Uprising, the Art of No Rules

Sixty years of fascinating Yosemite climbing culture come to life in Valley Uprising, the latest Sender Films doc now globetrotting on the Reel Rock film tour. In this 90-minute documentary that was seven years in the making, we learn of daring dirtbags who have poured blood, sweat, adrenalin, and tears into achieving what seemed impossible. Each generation manages to outdo the last, etching their places in history on Yosemite’s famed granite walls.

Enter Dean Potter, a climbing legend who continues to break new barriers more than 20 years after moving to Yosemite. He first rose to prominence with unprecedented free-soloing and speed-climbing feats in the 1990s. But Potter is more than a climber. His vertical adventures extend beyond the rocks he ascends to the spaces in between, incorporating highlining and BASE jumping. Most recently, he has combined all of his dizzying pursuits, strapping a parachute to his back to enable him to free solo harder routes and walk higher lines—because if he falls, “instead of dying, he’s flying.”

Living by his own rule of no rules, Potter embodies a free-spirited, daredevil nature that mirrors Yosemite’s climbing evolution. We sat down with him to chat about the film and his philosophy on sending routes and coming down.

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Dean Potter; Photograph courtesy Reel Rock Tour

Adventure: What do you think of the film?
Dean Potter: I like it. I think it tells a much broader story than just a climbing story. It’s a story that people will gravitate to based around being free.

A: Is the film true to the roots of the climbing community?
DP: It really captures the culture of Yosemite. [Directors] Pete Mortimer and Nick Rosen told the story that resonated the strongest with them and showed one thread of the evolution of Yosemite climbing—probably the strongest thread. You can’t include everyone. I loved how at the end they showed Peter Croft and others who didn’t make it into the film.

A: Why do you think this film is important?
DP: This film is all about freedom. It’s about people who follow nature’s law in conflict with the law of our government. It shows how Yosemite is a center for us wild people to express ourselves. We [climbers] are on the endangered list. Maybe Valley Uprising will lift us off this list.

A: What is your climbing philosophy?
DP: I practice the art of no rules. Climbing for me is about being free. It’s just to move and be uninhibited and feel and tap into the connection with nature. I can trigger heightened awareness through putting myself in harm’s way and focusing on my breath. That simple focus on the breath—that meditation that I do—brings out the higher senses. That’s the majority of my art.

A: When did you start climbing in Yosemite?
DP: I’ve been living in Yosemite since 1993. I went there when I turned 21 and drank my first beers there. I’d been climbing since I was 13, so I was fascinated. I got really humbled in Yosemite. I thought I would go there and crush. I got flapped down for years and years. It wasn’t until 1997 [with free soloing] that I started to shine a little bit.

A: What gives you the guts to attempt seemingly impossible feats?
DP: I grew up in the 1970s. It was a super open-minded time. I was taught through my parents and TV that everything was possible. You’d see cartoons where superheroes would fly. I always wanted to do these things.

When I started climbing, whether it’s a disorder or a benefit, I thought I could do anything. If we just open our minds to the art of no rules, we can do anything. That’s all within us. What you see in the film—climbing walls, flying, walking on air, super-human powers—years ago it would have been called superheroes.

A: How have you contributed to the evolution of climbing?
DP: My contribution is a show of creativity in what can be solved with the mind. It’s pulling climbing back toward its roots, which is more of a spiritual pursuit and less of an athletic pursuit.

In 1997 I invented speed solo climbing. That was my first creative change. Later it was minimalist climbing—climbing big walls with basically nothing. And also the hybridization of parachute protection—freeBASE, which gives you the freedom of free soloing but with the protection of parachute. So if you fall, instead of dying, you’re flying. There are many people who parachute and many people who climb. I’m the only person who does both.

A: In the film, we meet Chongo, who was a slacklining mentor to many climbers in Yosemite. How did he influence you?
DP: Chongo was one of my biggest teachers. I was 20 when I met him. He showed me that as long as you can walk, you can walk the line. That really helped me in life. I found a way to absorb my mind and totally focus. That’s a powerful lesson. The line has taught me how to meditate.

A: How do you feel when you’re perched on a highline, thousands of feet above the ground?
DP: When I’m out on the line, it’s the most alone and most exposed I feel. All I’m doing is focusing on my breath and my intention to get to the other side. Through that meditation—with a single focus on breath—the whole world opens up. I haven’t achieved that with sitting meditation. Something about death consequences brings out the heightened consciousness. That’s why I do it: it’s my pathway into the heightened awareness.

A: What is your biggest passion? Climbing? Highlining? BASE jumping?
DP: I’m a rock climber. Rock climbing has evolved to include other ways of moving with the rock—whether I’m moving up while climbing, or jumping off, or the space between the rocks when I walk lines. To me it’s all rock climbing. I’m sure other people disagree.

A: How much harder can you push yourself with the protection of a parachute?
DP: You can free solo. Certain people have this need to be on the rocks alone. I’m 42 years old and have seen a lot of my friends die and realized the odds of me dying are high. I don’t want to die, so I created a way of having all the benefits of free solo, but if I fall, I fly. That seems like the most beautiful thing.

Feeling comfortable on the rock or in the air really opens up what you can do. If I happen to fall, I have such knowledge of the emptiness of the air that I can turn my body and fly away. I used to see it in cartoons as a kid, and now I’m doing it. It’s not falling; it’s human flight.

A: What do you say to people who call freeBASE a stunt?
DP: There will always be people who don’t understand what you do. It’s new so it’s scary for people. But you could look at everything in different lights. You could call sport climbing like weightlifting. Tightrope walking could be called a circus trick. For me, what para-alpinism [rapid parachute descents] has done is open the walls. Whereas the most dangerous part of climbing statistically has been on the descent, now under the proper conditions, a parachute is the safest and fastest way down. It doesn’t seem like a stunt. There’s a way I can climb the biggest, baddest walls in the world safely. That’s all I care about. I’m still alive.

A: Is freeBASE spreading?
DP: No. It takes a lot of skill. You have to be a master free solo climber, and there are only a few of those in the world. And you have to be a top BASE jumper. There are only a few of those. It took me my whole life to get here.

A: Do you consider yourself part of a counterculture?
DP: I realize that some of my thoughts, emotions, and ways aren’t quite normal and can be said to be healthy or unhealthy. I fit into the fringe of very thoughtful alpinists. The farther I am from normal society, the more I connect with people.

A: Who are your heroes?
DP: I’m really fascinated with the Japanese sword fighter and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi. He wrote The Book of Five Rings, and he basically coined the art of no rules. Also Philippe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center buildings. I love the way he does his art. He expresses himself and writes beautifully. I’ve been very influenced by him.

A: Do you think the outlaw climbing culture is alive and well? Or is illicit freedom the stuff of eras past?
DP: With the popularization of climbing and climbing gyms, a lot of people have focused more on the physical and less on the spiritual side of climbing. So for a lot of people, it’s about how strong you are instead of the lifestyle you live. A lot of people are happy going into the park, touching the stone, and getting strong. There are fewer people who are brave enough to stand up the authority and camp out illegally and live in the park, hiding in the shadows.

There’s a younger generation forming, at least I hope. A big part of the culture now is linked to the flying monkey [BASE jumping]. I see the younger generation learning how to fly. There’s a big camaraderie there, but it’s all underground because it’s illegal to fly in national parks.

Hopefully Valley Uprising will help the system see our world better so we’re not so forbidding.

In the coming months, Valley Uprising is screening in more than 450 cities worldwide. Read our review and find a show near you.

Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.