How Dean Potter Reinvented Climbing, Jumping, Flying
The BASE jumper who died over the weekend said facing his fear of falling to his death is what drove him.
In 2003, with less than a year of BASE jumping experience under his belt, Dean Potter stood at the precipice of the Cave of Swallows, a 1,200-foot-deep hole in the ground near Mexico City. He jumped and free fell about 600 feet before opening his parachute. His rig, however, had gotten wet overnight. When the parachute opened, its lines twisted and the canopy eventually collapsed on top of Potter.
A 10-millimeter rope, rigged to allow jumpers to climb back out of the cave, dangled in space just beside the free-falling Potter.
Now just 200 feet above the cavern floor, Potter managed to grab onto the rope, gripping with all his might.
Jimmy Pouchert, Potter’s partner and BASE-jumping mentor, had jumped moments before Potter and was now standing at the base, watching the whole thing happen above him. “Don’t let go!" Pouchert yelled.
"Don’t let go!”
With a literal death grip on the rope, Potter slowed his fall and survived crashing onto the floor. When Pouchert pulled the canopy off Potter and saw him wide-eyed and alive, he was so happy he kissed Potter on the forehead.
Potter was not totally unhurt; the rope had gouged half-inch ruts in each of his palms, yet they were strangely not bleeding. The intense friction had cauterized his wounds.
Stories like this one led much of the global climbing community to believe that if anyone could survive pushing the limits in such risky activities as free-soloing (climbing without a rope), highlining (walking a slackline strung thousands of feet above the ground, sometimes without a safety tether), wingsuit BASE jumping, and speed climbing Yosemite’s biggest walls, it would be Dean Potter, a six-foot-five, 180-pound, larger-than-life character who was widely considered one of the most influential climbers and aerialists of his generation.
Potter’s greatest fear, of falling to his death, came true last weekend in Yosemite, where he died BASE jumping at age 43.
Climbers were quick to paint Potter as an iconoclastic giant.
“Dean Potter was the ‘chosen one,’” said John Long, a longtime climbing writer. “He was perhaps the first person to ever achieve world-class proficiency in three adventure disciplines: climbing, slacklining, and BASE jumping.
"Dean Potter was an event," Long added. "A force of nature.”
Accident in Yosemite
Just after 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, 29, died from impact during a wingsuit flight from Taft Point, a promontory 3,000 feet above the valley floor in Yosemite National Park.
Hunt, from El Portal, California, was a charismatic Yosemite denizen, who worked odd jobs in the valley and was a mainstay in the climbing scene there. He had also recently become one of the most active wingsuit BASE jumpers in Yosemite, where all forms of the sport are illegal.
Wingsuit BASE, a sport that’s just over a decade old, is considered to be the most dangerous sport on Earth. For example, simply BASE jumping—the act of parachuting from “fixed” objects such as buildings, antennas, bridges, or cliffs—is estimated to yield one fatality for every 60 participants, according to one 2008 study.
Meanwhile, wingsuit BASE is generally considered far riskier. It also requires the demanding skill of flying a wingsuit—a full-body costume that resembles a flying squirrel, with webbing between the arms and legs—at over 100 miles per hour, often in close proximity to terrain.
BASE jumping of any kind is illegal in all national parks for safety reasons, although the law has done little to deter motivated individuals from practicing their sport.
Critics contend that although the federal law is intended to keep people safe, it has had the opposite effect. Because of the law, those who choose to jump within national parks, where most of the biggest cliffs in the United States are located, usually do it at times they are less likely to be seen: during the night or at dusk, when visibility is low.
Low visibility may have been a factor in Potter and Hunt’s accident, but it's not a certainty. Though people have flown wingsuits from Taft Point before, Potter and Hunt’s exact line of descent was new and uncertain—one reason why Potter didn’t bring his dog, Whisper, this time. (Potter had become notorious for flying with his miniature Australian cattle dog strapped into a harness on his back.)
Carving through the air, Potter and Hunt tried to clear a notch in the granite walls but impacted into the cliffs, according to the initial observations from the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team.
When the jumpers didn’t return from their outing, Jen Rapp, Potter’s longtime partner, and Rebecca Haynie, Hunt’s partner since January, approached Mike Gauthier, Yosemite National Park's chief of staff, who was a friend of Potter’s. They told Gauthier that the jumpers had missed their scheduled arrival.
Gauthier helped arrange a team from YOSAR, and a hasty, ultimately unsuccessful search on foot was done Saturday evening.
On Sunday morning, a California state helicopter quickly located two subjects that matched Potter and Hunt’s descriptions. By noon, two rangers were lowered out of the helicopter onto the site. They confirmed Potter and Hunt’s deaths, and performed the recovery.
The climbing and BASE jumping worlds were left reeling, if unsurprised.
“Dean was pushing the limits. He was living right on the edge,” says Cedar Wright, a professional climber from Boulder, Colorado. “You don’t meet many old wingsuit BASE jumpers. It seems like the better you get, the more dangerous it gets.”
An Outspoken Critic
Tom Aiello, the owner of the world’s only formal BASE jumping school, Idaho's Snake River BASE Academy, says that BASE jumping has always been subversive.
“In the U.S., BASE jumping comes from illegal roots,” Aiello says. “Most of my peers—and there is an ever diminishing number of them—started out BASE jumping at night off of illegal objects. We’re talking about antennas and buildings and sneaking into national parks.”
Potter positioned himself as perhaps the most outspoken critic of national park laws that prohibited his kind of extreme athletics.
“It’s about basic freedom,” Potter said in an interview with me on May 12, days before his death. “Being allowed to travel in nature in a way that doesn’t harm the environment shouldn’t be illegal.”
That tension, between exercising his personal freedom and running up against the law, was perhaps the defining theme of Potter’s life.
Potter began climbing in 1988 when, as a 16-year-old military brat, he trespassed onto Joe English Hill, a 1,273-foot mountain controlled by a local Army base near his home in New Boston, New Hampshire. Lacking ropes and gear, Potter’s first experiences involved simply climbing barefoot, free-solo (no ropes or gear for safety), and alone.
He went on to complete three semesters of college at the University of New Hampshire before dropping out and becoming a quintessential itinerant climbing bum in the 1990s.
Potter lived on Saltine crackers and slept in caves, avoiding rangers who tried to kick him out of Yosemite National Park for overstaying the two-week camping limit.
He walked everywhere barefoot and climbed that way, too. He often spoke in mystical overtones, referring to his sports of climbing, highlining, and wingsuit flying as “arts.” Most of all, he was known for his brooding moods, garnering him the nicknames of “Mean Dean” and, ultimately, the “Dark Wizard.”
“Dean could be the most amazing person to hang out with,” says Wright. “Hilarious, awesome, and really insightful one minute, and then the next minute he could turn into this kind of dark soul.”
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 some in the core climbing community for his flagrant media exposure and potential damage done to the soft rock on the arch. Ultimately, Potter’s main sponsor, Patagonia, dropped both him and his then-wife, Steph Davis, over the incident.
Mastering the Dark Arts
Potter said that falling to his death was his greatest fear. But facing that fear of falling was also what initially drove him to start free-solo climbing, and later, wingsuit BASE jumping.
By the mid 2000s, Potter’s success as a professional climber had brought him a home on 30 acres in Yosemite West, just outside of his beloved Yosemite Valley where, over the past 22 years, he had pushed the limits of what was considered possible in climbing famous, huge granite walls.
Potter has intermittently held numerous speed-climbing records in Yosemite. He'd recently pioneered a new “running” record, reaching the summit of the iconic Half Dome via the technical Snake Dike rock climb in 1 hour and 19 minutes.
For the past 13 years, Potter had combined climbing, running, and flying into hybrid “sports,” though it is hard to label some of these endeavors as sports because 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.
In 2008 Potter achieved the first free BASE of the infamous north face of the Eiger in Switzerland, one of the “three great north faces of the Alps,” via a difficult route named Deep Blue Sea. He’d routinely climb up the wall, working up courage to put fear aside, not to mention the strength to climb such a demanding route with a parachute on his back. To survive a fall, he would need to have the catlike agility to turn around the right way, steady his body position, and deploy his parachute before crashing into the slabs below.
“This concept of turning dying into flying is a metaphor for my basic life principle,” Potter wrote of his free BASE solo of the Eiger.
Potter continued to push the limits of wingsuit BASE jumping too. In 2009 Potter set a record in the wingsuit BASE jumping world for duration. Jumping from the Eiger’s north face, he stayed in flight for 2 minutes and 50 seconds, a feat that made him a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Potter had been testing out a new paragliding rig that weighed only three pounds, including the harness, and could fit into a fanny pack. He said he was looking forward to putting this technology, as well as his highly technical skill set, to use in other areas around the world, where deploying a parachute isn’t illegal.
“To be able to practice my three arts, and experience the simplicity and beauty of moving quickly in the mountains and on big walls," he said, referring to climbing, flying, and highlining: “What could be better than that?”
Potter balances between two rock pillars on the summit of Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park. He got climbers to embrace highlining—walking across a slack rope stretched over a drop.