William Daubney Holmes
Potter lived his life on the edge of the possible. An avid BASE jumper, wingsuit flyer, and free climber, he felt at home while dangling off a sheer granite rock face, leaping into the void from untold heights, or climbing without ropes and doing it as fast as possible. He set numerous records in his life. He also took his dog Whisper with him on his travels around the world, often BASE jumping and paragliding with her.
Potter obviously didn’t want to die that day in Yosemite National Park in May. He and his friend Graham Hunt leapt off Taft Point for a wingsuit flight, and not for the first time. But despite their experience, the flight was a tricky one. They both miscalculated and died.
Just a few months before, Potter gave an interview in which he described his approach to climbing. At one point he talks like an athlete, like an Olympian. But for the most part, he talks like a creative professional. He mentions the artistic element of climbing, the creativity. And his views on risk are surprising for someone who could legitimately be called a daredevil.
Some climbs, some jumps are easier than others. Some are truly death defying.
Some extreme athletes talk about how they’re not afraid to die or that they don’t think about it. Whether you believe this or not, they inhabit a mindset that most of us cannot relate to. Their carefree attitude towards death also makes them less interesting. Seeking thrills for the sake of it may be fun, but it’s ultimately an empty experience, like someone addicted to heroin. Your purpose in life becomes nothing more than finding the next hair-raising moment. There’s no meaning beyond that.
Potter was different. For one, he was afraid to die. And that very fact motivated him to both consider the risks he took, as well as look for ways to minimize them.
The way he died shows clearly that Potter was willing to accept the extreme risk. Some climbs, some jumps are easier than others. Some are truly death defying. In much of what he did, the smallest of wrong moves or simple bad luck could end it all, and eventually did.
Some climbers cherish the purity of scaling a wall of granite without ropes. It’s insanely dangerous.
But for years before that, Potter spent time and energy thinking of ways to make rock climbing safer, which ultimately allowed him to be more creative.
The result was free BASE — the combination of free soloing (climbing without ropes) and using a BASE parachute. Some climbers cherish the purity of scaling a wall of granite without ropes. It’s insanely dangerous. One wrong move can easily lead to “instantaneous death,” as Potter once described it. But wearing the parachute protected against that. It offered at least the chance of escaping alive from a mistake, without resorting to ropes or anything else that interfered with the freedom of completely unaided climbing.
Those who engage in free soloing refer to it as the ultimate experience, where focus is key and the consequences of a bad decision are delivered with immediate, extreme finality.
Wearing a BASE parachute while doing so was a genuine innovation — something no one had tried, or even thought of, before. In it was the possibility of mitigating the risk. Not by much, but enough to open up the sport to the possibility of new routes, new experiences, new opportunities.
His creativity opened up a new way of looking at mountain climbing, our relationship with the natural environment, and the very essence of risk-taking.
He ran into obstacles, however. American national parks do not permit BASE jumping, although many allow rock climbing, even free soloing. So Potter’s innovation was technically illegal. Why, he asked, would park rangers refuse to let him make a permitted activity safer?
In his view, it would allow more people to experience the beauty of America’s cherished outdoor spaces, and in different ways than they had before. If at some point the National Park Service changes its mind about the rules, we’ll all have Dean Potter to thank, at least in part.
It would be easy to dismiss Potter as a reckless thrill-seeker who died taking a stupid risk. No matter how experienced you are at jumping off cliffs, it can end badly. There’s a reason why there aren’t many BASE jumpers over the age of 40. Most are either retired or dead.
But Potter’s life was more complex than that, and it was richer too. His creativity opened up a new way of looking at mountain climbing, our relationship with the natural environment, and the very essence of risk-taking.
Potter hoped his innovations would lead to new opportunities for his sport. Let’s hope the end of his life leads to new beginnings in the things he cared about.