I once heard that a man named Dean Potter, the Dark Wizard, claimed to have seen air. He said that when in his clearest and most peaceful state, he could see air and move through it with visual context. The late Potter was a prolific rock climber, highliner, and BASE jumper. Known to be both “intense and brooding,” Potter took part in “death consequence” sports as a “spiritual” quest.
Dean Potter’s life ended in a fatal BASE jumping accident five years ago, on May 18th, 2015. Perhaps during that flight, which bracketed the final moments of his life, he went back to that clear state, watching the friction of invisible space burn around him.
Dean experienced life and freedom when living on the edge. In interviews, he’s been credited with saying that some people in the extreme sports community “believe[d] him to be insane” because of his willingness to exist undefined by possibility. To comments about his mental health, he would return that “there’s not much difference…between insanity and enlightenment.”
When questioned about his intimate relationship with death-defying activities, Potter would challenge that his infatuation was actually with experiencing life to its fullest, rather than defying death. Knowing that death was a possible consequence, he explained, makes one as free as one can be.
He sought big rock and hard grades. In doing so, he elevated the focus in Yosemite. Potter is responsible for being the first to free solo parts of El Capitan in Yosemite and Supercanaleta in Patagonia. He established routes like Yosemite’s Free Rider, and held speed records on The Nose. With regard to his highline accomplishments, Dean found himself unprotected on the highest, longest slacklines in Yosemite. He contributed to the development of FreeBASE climbing, soloing with a parachute as a safety measure, and demonstrated time and again the use of this approach. Potter held the record for the longest wingsuit jump at three minutes and twenty-two seconds.
Watch Dean’s famous FreeBASE climbing clip from Reel Rock 9.
Dean Potter’s Origin Story
Potter was born April 17, 1972, in Kansas, to a military father and yogi mother. His family and moved around for much of his childhood, finally landing in New Hampshire. While taking a walk during his high school years, Potter spotted a piece of metal stuck rock far above the ground. He decided to climb up to investigate. That piece of metal turned out to be a climbing piton. However, going up to investigate landed him far off the ground in a situation where he was unsure of how to climb down. Because of his curiosity, his first climb turned into “a 200-foot free solo” which flavored much of his identity thereafter. Throughout his early climbing career, and before becoming known for his soloist work, Dean climbed locally in New Hampshire.
He was mentored by Charley Bentley, who recalled that while Dean was “rough around the edges, [he was] pretty remarkably talented and physically pretty gifted.” A nice comment, but an understatement for a boy that grew to be the man who redefined the limits of climbing in Yosemite Valley. After finishing high school, Potter pursued climbing full time, moving to North Conway, New Hampshire.
In interviews years into his climbing career, it’s clear that Dean’s relationship with the climbing movement was his own religion. Along with his physical genetics, it’s likely that his mindset allowed him to progress quickly in climbing grades, and later in highlining and BASE jumping.
Potter settled in Yosemite Valley after his time in North Conway and made a career from his lifestyle. Sponsors and large names like National Geographic were infatuated with how he seemed so comfortable amid stakes many find unbearable. His practice was romanticized as a spectator sport, and in that process, refined for more digestible consumption. “He’s crazy, obsessed with death, something is wrong with him,” were judgments that followed his exploits. Even Potter’s innermost circle felt that he pushed limits a bit too far, too often. They felt it was really a numbers game which Potter continued to play against worse and worse odds.
These fantastic images below highlight the highlining, BASE jumping and free solo climbing of Dean Potter.
No Matter the Cost
As extreme athletes like Potter continued to take high risks, authorities in many wilderness areas took steps to restrict BASE jumping and highlining. To athletes seeking to live to the fullest and brush shoulders with the gods, finding ways around regulations was all part of the process. Potter’s frequent and illegal flights in Yosemite put him on a first-name basis with park rangers. His BASE flights became a game of cat and mouse.
In 2006, Potter’s disregard for the rules came under fire when Potter climbed Utah’s Delicate Arch, the hallmark rock on Utah’s license plates. He and two others arrived at the monument in the early morning hours and photographed his solo ascent. The act caught wildfire in the press and generated an intensely angry critique. Not only was the climbing community criticizing Potter, but the outdoor world at large was outraged. Reflecting on his choice to bypass vague recommendations against climbing the soft sandstone, Dean said,
There was no moral or legal reason not to climb it.
Unfortunately, it also cost him his sponsorship with the well-known brand, Patagonia. Potter was not a stranger to his choices being questioned. His image was painted as one of being rather solitary, and knowing that while people were cordial when interacting in person, he was not well-liked. Similar to how humans crave definition and category, they often reject that which is not understood.
Opinions of the way Potter conducted his life did not stop him from contributing in significant ways to the communities he was a part of. That is the nature of a visionary. Dean’s desire to fly was shared with his partner of 13 years, Steph Davis. A pioneer and prolific climber (and BASE jumper in her own right), Davis found similar peace in what would seem to be the most uncontrollable of activities. In interviews, they offered a shape as to “why they do what they do.” Davis and Potter warned of the paramount prerequisites for stepping over the threshold of what is believed possible; a rationale for those who don’t quite understand the depth with which either climber embodied an artist.
Dean and Steph separated after 13 years of marriage, because “both were focused on their careers and weren’t around much.” The divorce did not stop either athlete from continuing their individual journeys. Potter found himself committing to his brainchild, FreeBASE climbing, and BASE jumping more than before. He took to “studying aerodynamics and aerospace technology and was committed to developing safer gear and flying protocols.” In the midst of all of this, Potter abruptly found himself on the fringe.
Dean Potter’s Final Flight
The oddity of many deaths related to extreme athletes is that they rarely occur when the athletes are truly at their limits. Potter was no exception. His final jump was from a peak he knew well and had successfully flown from before, Taft Point. On May 16, 2015, Potter and his friend Graham Hunt suited up to jump from this point, hoping to clear The Notch, a V-shaped cut out in a nearby ridgeline. When they jumped around 7:30pm, Potter’s girlfriend, Jen Rapp, was with them photographing. By 9pm, when she was unable to reach either by phone, she alerted Yosemite Valley Search and Rescue. The next day, Potter and Hunt’s bodies were found 50 feet apart on the Valley floor, neither parachute had been deployed.
It’s unclear exactly what happened mid-flight for things to go so wrong. Photographs of the airborne men suggest that both approached The Notch rather low, perhaps causing Hunt to alter course momentarily, then recorrect. It is speculated that his adjustments, along with turbulent evening winds, sent him colliding with the side of the Notch, leaving Potter alone. There is less information to suggest what took Potter’s life during the flight.
Statistics for wingsuit BASE jumping reflect that each year, more than twenty pilots are lost to the practice. With the current number of wingsuit pilots estimated to be only about 400, twenty deaths suddenly finds a sobering weight. Potter was not ignorant of this reality, nor were others in his community. News of the two deaths rattled loved ones, followers, and dreamers. Potter’s Google SEO quickly transitioned from details of his many accolades to pages on his “final flight.” He was reduced, finally explained, in the smattering of articles sensationalizing his passing. An interesting concept: to be infatuated with death. Though Potter was poked at on numerous occasions for being “obsessed with death” as rationale for his choices, a simple internet search would suggest that the news media and consumers at large are truly the ones hooked on the idea. Death makes for an interesting story. We all understand a period at the end of a sentence. Finality. For Potter, however, it is clear that his experience while performing under death-result circumstances was transcendent, his “senses peak[ed]” and he found “the ability to take in more than [he] usually would” of the world around him. For the Dark Wizard, this was truly about life. About finding the spaces in his body and the world that felt most connected to something larger, the community, mountains….maybe the air.
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