Dean Potter is known for pushing the limits in climbing, slacklining, and BASE jumping. His dog, Whisper (winner of Climbing’s “Best Climber Dog on Instagram” contest, May 2014), has done the same for his species by accompanying Potter on big wall climbs and wingsuit flights. But this isn’t just another cutesy look into the extreme life of a climber dog. We spoke to Potter about how sharing adventures with his dog and a rash of recent wingsuit accidents helped him to take a step back and rethink his own exploits.
Tell us about Whisper. How did you two meet?I got Whisper when she was nine-weeks old. Almost four years ago. She’s a mini Australian cattle dog. I got her from these cowgirls in Oklahoma. I found Whisper online. It was Internet dating for me and her.
How did you get Whisper accustomed to heights?When Whisper showed up and she was like six pounds. She wasn’t that fast, just a little puppy. I put her in this little bicycle messenger bag at first, so she was always used to going in the bag. She goes everywhere with me. Then the bag changed to this little mini Metolious haul bag, the tiniest little one they have. I'd climb with her in a haul bag with her head sticking out. Then, when I would go and mini traction on El Cap, I wouldn’t want to leave her on top because there would be predators that could get her. She spent a lot of time up on The Rostrum, El Cap, or up on Half Dome. I’d always bring Whisper down to a ledge with me and then I would make a cave for her out of a bigger haul bag, that she could hide in. I figured the only thing that could get her would be an eagle. So I’d be mini traxioning or working free routes, and keeping my eyes open for eagles, but knowing the she was probably pretty safe up on some random ledge on El Cap.
Does Whisper ever seem nervous or scared up on the walls?Oh no. She definitely gets it. She knows what heights are, and she definitely has fear. But I also got her used to this Ruffwear Doubleback harness, this full-strength harness. The thing is so bomber. It weighs more than my climbing harness. She used to get real rigid wearing it, a sign that she’s nervous. But now she’s quite used to it. She’s pretty loose. She actually knows how to keep herself off the wall. She just wants to go along with me.
Is there anything Whisper doesn’t like?Helicopters. She doesn’t like helicopters. She made that really clear. She pooped in the helicopter. Climbing she seems to like. Wingsuiting—she doesn’t poop in my wing suit. We listen to Whisper. Most things she likes, a few things she doesn’t, and we don’t do those.
What was Whisper’s first wingsuit flight?Her first flight was Half Dome. And everything I say could be a lie, you know, because BASE jumping is illegal in Yosemite. Yosemite has the safest cliffs in the world—El Cap and Half Dome—to BASE jump. I think we’ve done seven jumps now. I jump daily, so Whisper doesn’t go on all the flights. She only goes on the very safest ones—big-mountain flights.
How did you know Whisper was ready to jump?Whisper has been around parachuting her whole life. She knows what we’re going to do. She doesn’t run away from me. When I started putting on the wing suit she came right to me. She went right to her pack. She kind of gestured to get in the pack. She’s a smart dog and she’s like, “Don’t leave me on this mountain.”
What’s her BASE rig like?I made a special BASE container for her with my friend Pete Swan out of Lodi, California. It took us about a year-and-a-half and three different prototypes before we got it right. We didn’t fly the first two. The third one is bulky, but it’s very safe. I was the first person flying big wing suits off of cliffs. I fly the biggest wing suit, with Whisper on me I fly a little steeper, but I can still fly quite floaty relative to other wing suiters. And then the opening shock, because I’m still floaty with the big wing suit, isn’t that traumatic on Whisper.
I’ve adapted. I pack a smaller pilot chute. I pack my parachute so it opens slower. It was all a learning process, just like everything people do. These pursuits, you kind of learn as you go. So I learned to pack a little different to slow it down so Whisper had an easy opening.
Did having her on your back present any challenges in flight? We made this special place for Whisper. She rides on my back and the parachute is actually on her back. She’s sandwiched between my back and the parachute. We put her in there and it just barely accepts her. Then I stuff my jackets and layers, and I put that all around Whisper. Then I have a little Platypus, like a little water container that I put under her neck, and I usually have a ziplock bag that I put my snacks in. I put that on the side and blow some air into it. So she has kind of an air bag around her neck. And then her head sticks out of a hole. She’s all clipped in there three times to her double-back harness. She really can’t move. She can move her feat and stuff like that. I do feel her adjust her feet, or shift her body a little bit. And she can move her head. When we watch the video she doesn’t move that much. She looks around. It looks like when she rides in the car. She just looks off to either side. Checks things out. Knows what’s going on. And stays pretty still.
What do you say to critics who think you shouldn’t jump with your dog?Dogs don’t live as long as we do. Every day that they’re trapped inside a house is like seven days trapped inside a house for us. Certain people I know will say, “Hey, you’re freaking taking your dog BASE jumping, you lunatic!” But my response is that Whisper wants to come with me. My philosophy is take the dog with you. It’s part of the family. Don’t trap it in the car or at the house all the time. That’s no fun.
Has your opinion changed since you started bringing Whisper along?There’s been a lot of dying in BASE jumping lately. One of my best friends, Sean Leary, and three other friends were killed. It kind of caught up with me a bit after this summer. Last year close to 30 wing suiters died, and I kind of stopped. This is back in September, where I was like “Mmm, something’s not quite right. That’s like, five percent of the wing suiting population just died. And here I am doing it with my dog.” So I started questioning myself.
I really felt it was safe while I was doing it, and I still—I fly in a certain way. I’m more into big mountain flights. I don’t need to be inches away from the wall. I do carve along walls, and maybe I’m five feet from the wall, but I don’t need to be inches from the wall. Five or ten feet is plenty.
As I think about it deeper, I don’t know whether it was the right thing to do to fly with Whisper. We were safe every time. I’m a very safe flyer. I take her on the safest flights. To me, it felt more dangerous soloing Snake Dike, a 5.7, with Whisper on my back than it did flying with her. Certainly I’ve done more dangerous climbs with her. I lead with her on my back when I climb with my girlfriend. I climb 5.10 or 5.11 with Whisper on my back. That’s certainly more dangerous, but I’m not so sure about the wing suit flying. I’m not stupid, either. I realized there’s a big risk there. I think before I do it more with Whisper I will refine the gear more, or I won’t jump with her anymore at all. It’s not just all like, “Yeah look at me, I jump with my dog.” It’s like, “Hey, I kind of learned a little bit. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should.” I’d be heartbroken if I ever hurt Whisper. Still, every time I go grab my pack Whisper wants to come, but she hasn’t been since September. I haven’t been bringing her. Just because it’s serious, you know. More than 30 people have died in the past year. Now my whole emphasis is on figuring out a safer way to wing suit and redesigning the gear. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last two months in this lab with my friend up in Canada, redesigning the wingsuit.
You think the wing-suiting system is flawed? For everybody, yeah. There’s something not quite right with the system. I definitely still jump, but I’m not pushing it as much right now in the air. I’m pushing it in the sewing room and designing safer gear. Maybe I’m known for doing really dangerous stuff for the last 25 years, but I’ve never been injured. I’ve always been really safe doing everything I do. More and more I’m realizing that I do have a system that works for staying safe. I’m trying to refine what that is. A lot of it is a decision making process. Another part of it is that I’ve always tweaked the gear. I’ve always made my own gear or adapted existing gear. I think between making gear safer and making a little checklist, like a pilot goes through when they get in their airplane—this is for climbing and for slack lining, too. I’m kind of calling it basic safety, and figuring out the checklist to eliminate as much as possible human error and gear imperfections.
What do you see as the single biggest gap in safety for wing suit flying?To me, it’s people being impatient or being uncomfortable in the mountain setting. Often people walk for hours and hours, or climb up to the top of the cliff, and the conditions might not be right, but you haven’t brought any survival gear or anything to bivy in. Most people are uncomfortable spending the night, so they will jump in not optimal conditions. It’s a lot easier for them to throw the dice for a few seconds than it is to have been prepared or to spend a cold night. I think everything has to be about conservative decision making. It takes a lot of maturity and patience to sit it out. There’s also a lot of ego involved. Being the guy that says, “Hey. I’m not jumping. Winds are bad, you guys go ahead.” is pretty rare. A lot of people nowadays count their jumps. I don’t count my jumps. I do seem to count how many times I’ve walked down, and I’m more proud of that than I am about the number of jumps I’ve done in the last decade.