Over the weekend, I received a message about Dean Potter’s death. As time went by, more and more of my friends in the climbing community were sharing their sadness about the loss of the larger than life and seemingly unstoppable force that was Dean. Dean and Graham Hunt were attempting a wingsuit flight from Taft Point in Yosemite Valley. Initial reports were vague at best and not many outside of YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) knew much of the details. As reports trickled in, the disbelief became a reality. The climbing and extreme sports world had lost two great men and a legend.
For years, Dean Potter pushed limits, set standards, and inspired thousands to pursue a grand adventure. Fifteen years ago, watching Dean climb in Yosemite Valley, I was inspired to take my first trip to the Valley and follow the path of those before me. Many have looked at Dean’s accomplishments as a list of antics, that at some point, would surly result in failure. In Dean’s eyes, failure was not an option and he used his own fears of falling to take the world of extreme sports beyond what many thought possible.
Dean Potter stood on the shoulders of the climbing greats before him and set a grand platform for future generations to climb into the unknown. It’s hard to imagine where the climbing world would be without Dean Potter. From free-soloing, speed climbing records, slacklining, to his coined term “free-basing” (free-solo climbing with a BASE jumping parachute), the list of accomplishments could fill a book.
The following was sent from from fellow BASE jumper and Yosemite Valley community member Corbin Usinger, @corbinusinger. Although words cannot convey reality, hopefully it will reveal some of the feelings Dean had every time he flew.
With arms at my side and feet together, standing on the edge ready to cast off into the abyss below. I stand on the edge and breathe the cold morning alpine air into my nose to my lungs and hold it as I crouch then gently push casting off into the abyss. Within seconds, the sound intensifies and material between my arms and legs pressurizes, making me a wing and shooting me out horizontally over the deadly terrain below. Once distant and far away trees and boulders are now bigger and flying past my vision. I rocket forward, aim toward the big meadow which serves as a nice landing zone and punch it. I drop my head slightly down and press on my biceps and forearms to forward load the wing and increase glide. When its time to pitch, I reach back and throw my pilot chute, saving my life. The 7 pounds of nylon erupts in the morning air and rips me out of the sky, letting me glide safely to the dewy meadow below my feet.
No one knows exactly what went through Dean’s or Graham’s mind each time they took off into the unknown. In times like these, it is easy to judge and be unforgiving about the results of a decision that lays outside the normalcy of society. Like in my own life, I like to think they felt some of what many soldiers feel after returning from battle. Each time you push the limits and step closer to deaths door, the perception of failure and loss flows further and further away from the point of reality.
These are feelings that I and many others in Special Operation have felt through our time in and out of service. I know personally, after I was out of Ranger Battalion, I had a misguided sense of security about my safety. There is something about having rounds ricochet feet from your position and seeing your brothers make it home after nearly being killed by a suicide bomber that makes you lose all consideration of death.
Dean Potter was a grand and controversial character in the world of extreme sports. In a moment when its easy to judge, point the finger of selfishness, and lay blame, take a moment to recognize this man’s great accomplishments and passion for living a full and exhilarating life.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Mikey Schaefer)