Fellow extreme rock climbers remember Dean Potter, who died Saturday in a Yosemite National Park BASE jumping accident, as a legend and innovator.
“He thought of all sorts of ways to experience the mountains that no one had ever conceived of,” said fellow climber Chris McNamara. “Most innovators do everything 5% faster or better than the person before them, but he invented entirely new sports, a lot of which few other people could repeat.”
BASE jumpers use parachutes or wing suits to leap from cliffs or other high structures. Among the sports Potter invented, McNamara said, are baselining — jumping off a tightrope suspended between rock cliffs — and turning a free solo rock climb (without ropes or safety equipment) into a BASE jump (the acronym refers to the fixed object from which one can leap: building, antenna, span, earth).
Potter, 43, and his climbing partner, Graham Hunt, 29, died Saturday night after jumping from Taft Point, a 7,500-foot promontory that overlooks Yosemite Valley, 3,500 feet below. Park spokesman Scott Gediman said their bodies were recovered Sunday by Yosemite search-and-rescue personnel and the California Highway Patrol.
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Gediman said rescuers looked for the men overnight but couldn’t find them. Their girlfriends had alerted rangers to begin searching after they lost contact. On Sunday morning, a helicopter crew spotted their bodies in Yosemite Valley. Neither man had deployed a parachute.
“This is a horrible incident, and our deepest sympathies go out to their friends and family,” Gediman said. “This is a huge loss for all of us.”
Alex Honnold, another expert Yosemite climber who knew both men, said they were trying to fly through a notch in a ridgeline and were in the air for about 15 seconds before they slammed into a rocky outcropping. They would have been traveling at speeds close to 100 mph as they aimed for the narrow gap in the ridge.
BASE jumping — parachuting or flying with a wingsuit from a cliff or structure — is illegal in national parks.
No one knows exactly what went wrong. A gust of wind or a slight miscalculation could have sent them off course, hurtling into rock.
“What they were doing is pretty routine” for them, Honnold said. “Not like a once-in-a-lifetime performance.”
Most people who attempt BASE jumping use parachutes. Potter and Hunt flew in wingsuits — “flying squirrel” outfits that have fabric stitched between the arms and body and between the legs to keep them aloft — which is much more dangerous. Honnold said their bodies were found in the notch they attempted to fly through.
Honnold said Hunt, who lacked sponsors, worked cleaning the park and was “maybe the most prolific base jumper in the Valley right now.”
Potter and Hunt, who had grown up in Shingle Springs east of Sacramento but lived near Yosemite, were prominent figures in the park’s climbing community. Potter lived with his longtime girlfriend, Jen Rapp, and her children. His dog, Whisper, often joined him on climbs and jumps.
Potter knew the risks, and relished the feeling of cheating death.
“I love the idea that I can change the worst possible thing to the best possible thing: dying to flying,” Potter says in “Fly or Die,” a documentary about his wingsuit jumps that can be seen on National Geographic’s website.
Potter is famous for completing solo ascents, tightrope walks across some of the world’s most famous rock formations, and BASE jumps without a rope, tether or other safety gear. He drew criticism in May 2006 after he made a free solo climb of Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch, prompting outdoor clothing company Patagonia to stop sponsoring him.
In 2009, he set a record for completing the longest BASE jump from the Eiger North Face in Switzerland by staying in flight in a wingsuit for 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The feat earned him the Adventurer of the Year title by National Geographic magazine.
Potter set several climbing records, including a speed record in November 2010 for the Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan (2 hours, 36 minutes and 45 seconds). Earlier this month he achieved the fastest-known time to climb up and down Half Dome – 2 hours, 17 minutes, 52 seconds. He used a combination of running, speed hiking and free-solo climbing to reach the 8,839-foot summit in 1 hour, 19 minutes before completing the trip to the Valley floor.
Honnold, 29, said Potter was a hero to his generation of rock climbers.
“When I think of Dean, I think of that guy: the guy who inspired me as a kid,” he said.
Honnold said Potter pushed himself internally and externally. Potter felt fear the same as anyone else, he said, and that made him even more impressive.
“He was the dark wizard,” Honnold said. “People around the Valley jokingly called him that because of the type of climbing he was doing.”
McNamara and Potter met in 1998, shortly after Potter moved to Yosemite from New Hampshire, where he grew up. McNamara said Potter later popularized slacklining — walking on a flat nylon rope suspended between two points — and influenced climbers to start BASE jumping.
McNamara quit BASE jumping in 2009 after watching a friend die. He and Potter attended a memorial service for another friend who died BASE jumping six months ago.
“The longer you do it, you will start seeing friends die,” he said. “I can’t think of another sport even remotely as dangerous.”
Even so, McNamara understands why Potter continued. Most people only ever get to fly in their dreams.