This past Saturday evening, on May 16, revered climber and BASE jumper and all-around extreme sports legend Dean Potter (43), alongside jump partner Graham Hunt, died after attempting a BASE jump and wingsuit flight from Taft Point above Yosemite Valley. Taft Point is a 7,500 foot promontory or headland that overlooks El Capitan, where fellow pioneers Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently completed the first free climb of Dawn Wall, “[prompting] a deeper reflection into the history of climbing, as well as its future.”
As Potter and Hunt took flight following their jump, a spotter saw them descend and soar into the night, but once they fell out of sight, she soon heard the tragic disaster unfold. Outside reports that the pair “had been attempting to fly along terrain that required them to clear a notch in a rocky ridgeline.” According to the New York Times, “[s]he heard a ‘pop-pop’ sound from below. She had hoped it was the smacking sound of their chutes opening somewhere in the darkening depths of the valley… But daylight brought the confirmation that it was not.”
I didn’t know Dean Potter personally. But that is not to say that I didn’t know Dean Potter inspirationally. The Dark Wizard’s pursuits instilled a dreamer’s sensibility in the most grounded of people, as they watched him do the undoable and conquer the unconquerable.
His outsized passions and eternal charisma also inspired his contemporaries. “We as climbers are really good at justifying what we do. And those of us who push the safety aspect convince themselves that they are invincible,” climbing contemporary Tommy Caldwell told TIME. “I definitely felt Dean was invincible and when something like this happens I get shattered and it makes me very introspective and makes us pause and take a reality check.”
Another climbing contemporary in Alex Honnold, as well as many other extreme sports athletes, remembered Potter on social media.
Such a bummer about Dean. I’ve been in a dark cloud all day.
— Alex Honnold (@AlexHonnold) May 18, 2015
The only stars are the ones in heaven – RIP Dean Potter – another sad BASE fatality
— Andy Kirkpatrick (@psychovertical) May 17, 2015
Saddened to hear of the passing of extraordinary human and friend Dean Potter. I had the privilege of spending a few moments in time with Dean over the years through both mutual friends and sponsors. A few years back we shared a very profound conversation on the topics of fear, life, death, risk etc. I had recently nearly lost my life in a big wave surfing accident and expressed to him that I was contemplating walking away from riding big waves forever. He was actually one of the very first people I ever admitted this to. His response to my confession has stayed with me forever, and was actually one of the significant turning points for me in deciding to continue my journey back into the ocean to riding big waves. He said, “We all have our callings in life, not that they can’t change, but I believe there are those that are simply ingrained into your being. You can try to turn your back and walk away on them, but In doing so, I think you would likely be presented with the biggest fear of all…The fear that you weren’t living out your greatest dreams”. I don’t climb, I don’t slackline, and I don’t fly, yet I still acknowledge Dean as being one of my heroes and greatest inspirations simply based on the way that he lived his life. Humble, respectful, and always seeking to explore and push the outer limits of human potential. Your actions in life know no boundaries and have the ability to affect even those who you may never come into contact with, so make them outstanding just like Dean did. Because “What the outstanding person does, others will try and do, and the standards that such people create will be followed by the world.” I know you’re climbing and flying more free than ever. Forever grateful and inspired. #rememberdeanpotter
What do you imagine you’ll think the moment before you die? Will you surrender to the experiences you’ve had and breathe a thankful sigh of relief? Will you remember fondly all of the wonderful experiences and friends and family you had along the way in that last instant? Or will you have regrets for the things you didn’t say or experience or act on? Will you wish you lived more fully or thoughtfully or actively? I’d imagine #DeanPotter will have had few regrets and many fond memories in that moment. He set standards that will live on for eons and inspire people for generations to come to live the lives of their dreams and push beyond what they know to be the standard. I didn’t know Dean but my heart goes out to many of my friends who were close friends of his who are surely mourning his early departure and that of his flying partner, #GrahamHunt. #FlyOnDeanPotter #WhisperTheDog
A photo posted by Kelly Slater (@kellyslater) on
Travis Rice took to Facebook to express his condolences: “I am truly sad to learn of the passing of Dean Potter. In the walk of life there are few that really inspire us – R.I.P.”
The deaths come at a time when the extreme sports community — particularly the free solo-ers and BASE jumpers — and the brands/sponsors that support their endeavors are attempting to work through recent tensions that saw Clif Bar fire five of their top athletes, including Potter, citing safety concerns: “Climbing has been a part of our company’s DNA from the beginning. Over a year ago, we started having conversations internally about our concerns with B.A.S.E. jumping, highlining and free-soloing. We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go. We understand that some climbers feel these forms of climbing are pushing the sport to new frontiers. But we no longer feel good about benefitting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.”
The split followed the eye-opening chronicling of Potter and Honnold’s (among others) superhuman feats in Valley Uprising, such as Potter’s first free solo of Heaven in Yosemite.
It should be noted that BASE jumping is illegal in Yosemite National Park, though it is still widely practiced by the ever-fervent family of high-adrenaline enthusiasts in the area.
Potter began his ascent to international recognition in the late nineties, then known best for solo and free-solo climbs of Yosemite’s classic routes. He went on to lift slacklining to the expressive so-called “art form” that it is today, crossing the likes of Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite and the Three Gossips feature in Arches National Park, often times without a tether.
And with Potter’s increasingly public persona came greater scrutiny, from both outside as well as inside of his community. After he publicized his free solo ascent of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park — the same sandstone feature that shows prominently on Utah license plates — he received an immediate backlash from a range of the, the most prominent being his then sponsor Patagonia who decided to drop him in response. The Washington Post provides greater detail:
While not technically illegal, the ascent was roundly condemned by National Park Service officials and even some climbers. Critics accused him of staging the climb and risking the arch in order to get publicity — the feat was filmed and included in a trailer for a movie about Potter. But the climber maintained that his ascent of Delicate Arch was ‘a beautiful communion with nature,’ done in the most respectful way possible. Potter’s then-wife, fellow climber Steph Davis, was also dropped from her Patagonia contract — the couple later divorced, and Potter described the incident as the “beginning of the end” of their relationship.
He later went on to invent a new sport dubbed free-basing where he climbed routes with nothing but a parachute for safety. His most recent turn of fame came by way of When Dogs Fly, a documentary following the adventures of Potter and his BASE jumping Australian cattle dog, Whisper.
Despite the continued scrutiny, Potter kept following his dreams and pushing the limits of human ability, strides that have and will forever influence how many of us view our own personal boundaries and capabilities.
“Part of me says it’s kind of crazy to think you can fly your human body,” Potter told the New York Times back in 2008. “Another part of me thinks all of us have had the dream that we can fly. Why not chase after it? Maybe it brings you to some other tangent. Chasing after the unattainable is the fun part.”
Potter is survived by longtime girlfriend Jennifer Rapp and Whisper.