This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition.
On Saturday, May 16, 2015 Dean Potter and his frequent BASE partner Graham Hunt died after attempting a wingsuit flight from Taft Point, a 7,500-foot promontory overlooking Yosemite Valley.
Potter was one of the most innovative, energizing, and controversial figures in modern climbing. He broke barriers in speed and solo climbing, including repeatedly setting the speed record for the Nose of El Capitan, climbing with Timmy O’Neill and the late Sean “Stanley” Leary. In 2001, he and O’Neill became the first climbers to link Yosemite’s three biggest walls—Half Dome, Mt. Watkins, and El Capitan—in a single day. He also speed soloed Half Dome and El Capitan in a day. In Patagonia, among other bold climbs, he free soloed Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy and later did the solo first ascent of the major link-up Californian Roulette, also on Fitz Roy.
Potter also became famous for bold highline walks and BASE jumping. In 2011, he set a mark for the longest wingsuit flight ever recorded, flying 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) from the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland. He combined these skills with climbing in a creation he called FreeBASE, in which he wore a parachute for protection in case he fell while soloing a climb. Using this technique, he free soloed the long 5.12+ route Deep Blue Sea on a limestone pillar on the right side of the Eiger north face.
In 2006, his solo ascent of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park caused a storm of controversy and led to the loss of sponsorships. More recently, the film When Dogs Fly featured Potter’s tandem wingsuit flights with his beloved Queensland heeler, Whisper, an activity that left some viewers in awe and others in anger. Whisper was not with Potter on the fatal flight.
Standing 6’ 5” tall, soft spoken but intense, Potter was a larger-than-life figure and an inspiration to an entire generation of climbers. Here, in his own words, we celebrate a life he lived on his own terms. Dean was 43 years old.
“The common thread in my three arts is pushing into fear, exhaustion, beauty, and the unknown. I willingly expose myself to death-consequence situations in order to predictably enter heightened awareness. In times when I’m going to die if I mess up, my senses peak in order to survive, and I see, hear, feel, intuit in vast detail, beyond my normal, day-to-day consciousness. This pursuit of heightened awareness is why I put myself in harm’s way, and it often leads to a feeling of connectivity with everything.”
“There is a different way to live, and you shouldn’t feel that you’re forced to do anything but what your one life should be. And the one life should be following your passion and doing that unique thing that only you are perfect for.”
“I’m not a dark person—I don’t think about death all the time, but it is there for me. I’m no different than any other person out there: Every day and every moment, our lives are at stake. With me, it’s very easy to see: I fall off a cliff, I die. But life and death are right there for all of us. It’s the most common thing we all share.”
“Entranced by the flight of a raven, I watch its shadow move effortlessly against golden, shimmering granite. I long to be that free, flying above the cluttered world of normalcy, where so many are half alive.”
“I don’t want to die, but I am OK with putting it all out there for the most beautiful expression of my life.”