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Dean Potter climbing Half Dome, Yosemite, California; Photograph by Jimmy Chin

Remembering Pioneering Climber Dean Potter

The legendary Life of Climber and Wingsuit BASE Jumper, Dean Potter

How Dean Potter Reinvented Climbing, Jumping, Flying

Wingsuit BASE jumping, which is steadily gaining a reputation for being the world’s most dangerous sport, has claimed its latest victims. Dean Potter, 43, and Graham Hunt, 29, died from impact during a wingsuit flight from Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, just after 7:30 p.m. on May 16.

Hunt, from El Portal, California, was an active climber and wingsuit BASE jumper in Yosemite.

Potter was widely considered one of the most influential climbers, highliners, and BASE jumpers of his generation. He was a National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee who was featured across National Geographic print and broadcast media, including being named an Adventurer of the Year.

“Dean was a visionary,” says Cedar Wright, a professional climber from Boulder, Colorado. “He was always one step ahead of what everyone else was doing.”

“He was a larger-than-life character,” says Mike Gauthier, the chief of staff in Yosemite National Park. “His role in the community in Yosemite Valley, and the climbing world—he’s just in the pantheon of great athletes that people idolize and look up to.”

An observer shooting photos of Hunt and Potter’s flight reported hearing two disconcerting, loud sounds in succession that suggested impact—but also could have been parachute deployment.

When the jumpers didn’t return from their outing on Saturday night, Jen Rapp, Potter’s partner in life, and Rebecca Haynie, Graham’s partner since January, approached Gauthier with the news that the jumpers had missed their scheduled arrival. Gauthier helped arrange a team from Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR), and a hasty, ultimately unsuccessful search on foot was performed.

A helicopter was placed on standby for the following morning.

A California State helicopter arrived Sunday morning and the pilots, using the photos taken by the observer on the previous night, were able to quickly locate two subjects that matched Potter and Hunt’s descriptions. By noon, two rangers were short-hauled onto the site, they confirmed Potter and Hunt’s deaths, and performed the recovery. No parachutes had been deployed.

Whisper, Potter’s miniature Australian cattle dog, who recently gained notoriety from the film When Dogs Fly, a film about Potter’s penchant for wingsuit BASE jumping with his dog in tow, was not with Potter on this last flight.

Nicknamed the “Dark Wizard” for his brooding, intense personality, Potter, at 6’5” and 190 pounds, was a world-class rock climber and was also considered one of the most experienced wingsuit BASE jumpers in the world. His contributions to climbing, highlining, and wingsuit flying are the stuff of legend.

Potter, a resident of Yosemite West, had been living in the Valley for the last 22 years and pushing the limits of what is possible on these granite big-walls the entire time. He held numerous speed records in Yosemite, including the coveted Nose speed record. Most recently, he pioneered a new “running” record, reaching the summit of Half Dome via the technical “Snake Dike” rock climb in 1:19 from the car.

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Potter walking a high line above Yosemite Falls in 2010, Yosemite, California; Photograph by Jimmy Chin

Potter had been pioneering new ways of climbing light and fast for a long time. In 1998, he set a different kind of speed record on Half Dome, climbing the technical Regular Northwest Face route (V 5.12a), mostly without a rope, and occasionally employing the use of a rope and gear to pull through the more technical cruxes of the route.

“It was the first time anyone had ever climbed big walls by themselves with this art of no rules that I had established called ‘speed solo,’” Potter said in an interview last Tuesday. “At the time it was totally new, but it really opened up potential on the big walls, and in the alpine world, to be able to move incredibly fast, outrun storms, and still have the safety of a tiny little bit of gear.”

“When Dean soloed Half Dome,” says Wright, referring to the 1998 record, “that was a paradigm shift for the way people soloed big walls. And guys like Alex Honnold are using those tactics today.”

Potter put his techniques to use in 2002 in Patagonia, when he speed soloed Fitz Roy twice in one season, once by a new route.

“That really was the year that I started thinking about how to get off the mountain in a safer way,” Potter said. And for him, that meant flying off the top, either with a paraglider, BASE jumping, or even wingsuit BASE jumping.

For the past 13 years, Potter had combined his three sports of climbing, running, and flying into hybrid “sports,” though it is hard to be label some of these endeavors as sports since they are so technical, so dangerous, and so difficult that oftentimes Potter was the only person even practicing them. For example, Potter invented “free BASE,” which is free-soloing (climbing without a rope) tall walls (at least 1,000 feet in height) with a parachute for safety in the event of a fall.

“One thing I always appreciate about Dean is that he was always true to himself,” says Wright, who considers Potter a climbing mentor. “Even when it meant losing sponsors and rubbing people the wrong way. Dean was refreshingly non-corporate, and always just balls-to-the-wall badass.”

In 2006, Potter was the subject of a scandal when he free-soloed Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Though climbing on Delicate Arch was not technically illegal, Potter drew criticism from Park rangers, Utah government officials, and even within the core climbing world for his flagrant media exposure. Ultimately, Potter’s main sponsor, Patagonia, dropped both him and his then wife, Steph Davis, over the incident.

Potter, however, was undeterred and remained committed to practicing his “arts,” as he always called climbing, flying, and running. In 2009, Potter set a record in the wingsuit BASE jumping world for duration. Jumping from the Eiger North Face in Switzerland, he stayed in flight for 2 minutes and 50 seconds, a feat which made him one of our Adventurers of the Year. (Watch a video from his Eiger wingsuit flight.)

Wingsuit BASE jumping has only been around for the last ten years, and the number of people practicing this sport world-wide is probably less than 400. A number of high-profile deaths of wingsuit BASE jumpers in recent years has contributed to its reputation for being dangerous.

BASE jumping is illegal in all national parks, though according to those in the community, it happens often, typically at dusk or at night, when the chances of being caught by park rangers are lower. There were only four arrests for BASE jumping in national parks in 2014—coincidentally, one of those was Hunt, though the charges were dropped due to circumstantial evidence.

“We’re not too concerned about discussing the ins and out of BASE jumping [in national parks],” says Gauthier. “And on the record, all we really care about right now are the family and loved ones of Dean and Graham.”

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