Yet again, Dean Potter was hurtling through the air. A dead tree stood on the ground below him, a strange tug at the space between his shoulders came from above.
After years of risky climbing, he began the even more treacherous sport of base jumping, which involves leaping off of cliffs and other high-up structures and waiting till the last possible moment to deploy a parachute.
Wearing a webbed “wingsuit” that made him look like a giant, red flying squirrel, Potter spent a decade leaping from the highest cliffs he could find. Head angled down, arms outstretched, the jumps were the closest a human has ever come to soaring like a bird. Meters from the ground, when he finally deployed his parachute, the sensation of the canopy catching him echoed the feeling from his dreams, that tugging between the shoulder blades. He wasn’t dying in the dreams, he believed, he was flying.
In the end, Potter’s recurring dream proved prophetic: Saturday evening he died in a base jumping accident at Yosemite National Park. He and a fellow jumper were found dead below Taft Point, a 7,500-foot cliff overlooking the park’s famous valley. Their parachutes were never deployed.
For years, Potter had toed the line between deadly falls and impossible flight.
“I know it’s insane to think that I could fly,” Potter told ESPN. “But to make it possible, you truly have to believe in it — to go to a place that’s not accepted.”
It was the guiding principle of Potter’s climbing career: Pursue the impossible, regardless of what the law, fellow climbers and the rules of physics had to say about it.
Potter began climbing at 16 on the rugged granite cliffs of Joe English Hill, a 1,200-foot mountain in his hometown of New Boston, N.H. Characteristically, the climbs were both illegal (the cliffs were part of a military reserve) and incredibly risky: Potter was scrambling up the cliff face with no harness and ropes dug up in a friend’s garage.
“Some older guys … ran into us and said, “Damn kids, you guys are going to die!” he recalled to Outside magazine in 2011.
Potter briefly stopped climbing in 1990, when he joined the crew team at the University of New Hampshire. But the grim competitiveness of the varsity sport — particularly his tyrant coach, whose philosophy was “You don’t just want to beat the guy. You want to own him” — grated on him. One day he went for a climb, according to ESPN, and decided he didn’t want to “own” anyone. He dropped out the next day, opting for the free-spirited life of an “ultra-dirtbag” climber, in the words of Outside.
It wasn’t glamorous. For most of the 1990s, Potter just barely eked out a living from jobs at a golf-bag factory and a local greasy spoon. In an interview with Outside, he recalled a Christmas Eve spent eating salt sandwiches.
“Now, somehow, I romanticize it. But at the time I wondered, ‘What’s gonna happen when the salt runs out?'”
Everything he earned went to climbing trips, and by the early 2000s, Potter was one of the top climbers in the world. He set records for climbing challenging routes fast and without a rope — a technique he called “speed solo.”
“I had a unique style, I didn’t care about how things were done in the past, and I just did what felt natural, ‘No Rules’ once again,” he wrote about the new method in a blog post for FiveTen, a climbing shoe company that sponsored him.
Cedar Wright, a professional climber from Boulder, Colo., who considers Potter a mentor, called Potter’s speed solo technique a “paradigm shift” in an interview with National Geographic. It meant that climbers could scale huge walls without the limitations of cumbersome rope and gear. It meant they could go where no one had been before.
But as Potter tested the limits of his sport, he was also pushing other boundaries. In 2006, a controversial climb of Utah’s Delicate Arch (the sandstone structure featured on the state’s license plates) cost him a major sponsorship from Patagonia. While not technically illegal, the ascent was roundly condemned by National Park Service officials and even some climbers. Critics accused him of staging the climb and risking the arch in order to get publicity — the feat was filmed and included in a trailer for a movie about Potter. But the climber maintained that his ascent of Delicate Arch was “a beautiful communion with nature,” done in the most respectful way possible. Potter’s then-wife, fellow climber Steph Davis, was also dropped from her Patagonia contract — the couple later divorced, and Potter described the incident as the” beginning of the end” of their relationship.
Over the next decade, Potter mostly put the incident behind him. He traversed the globe seeking ever-higher mountains to jump off of and ever-larger caverns to traverse, always doing so with as little equipment as possible. Other climbers started calling him the “Dark Wizard,” a nod to both his brooding intensity and his seemingly superhuman athletic feats. Along with base jumping, Potter was a pioneer of highlining — a sport similar to tightrope walking, but on a wavering, or “slack,” rope. He was one of the only people in the world to make his crossings without a leash.
“You slip, you die,” he said of the sport.
Despite the risks he regularly took, Potter always said he didn’t have a death wish. He often had nightmares before his stunts, climbing partner Jim Hurst told Outside, and was fully aware of what was at stake. It was that awareness that constantly drove him out over the ledge.
“I’m addicted to the heightened awareness I get when there’s a death consequence,” he told ESPN. “My vision is sharper, and I’m more sensitive to sounds, my sense of balance and the beauty all around me. A lot of my creativity comes from this nearly insane obsession. Something sparkles in my mind, and then nothing else in life matters.”
In recent years, Potter had been practicing wingsuit base jumping, in which jumpers use a fabric suit to slow their descent before deploying a parachute. A video of him jumping with his dog, Whisper, went viral last year.
Potter holds the world record for longest “WiBASE” — a three-minute, 20-second plunge off of the Eiger, one of Europe’s tallest mountains.
“Lately I think of myself as more bird than human,” he wrote in a blog post for Tony Suits, which manufactured his wingsuit for that flight.
At the end, he added, “It’s still not right … that I can’t legally fully spread my wings in ‘The Land of the Free,'” — an oblique reference to the fact that base jumping is banned in U.S. national parks. But climbers in the community told National Geographic that base jumps still happen at night, when the risk of being caught by rangers is lower.
That appears to be what Potter, 43, and fellow jumper Graham Hunt, 29, were doing Saturday evening, when they attempted a wingsuit flight in Yosemite.
Yosemite Chief of Staff Mike Gauthier told Outside that the pair’s spotter heard two noises that sounded like impacts, though they could also have been the sound of parachutes snapping open. When the two men didn’t respond to radio calls and didn’t show up at their pre-designated meeting place, she contacted the park, which initiated a hasty search.
Potter and Graham were discovered Sunday morning. Neither of their parachutes had been deployed.
Although Potter had a sometimes contentious relationship with Yosemite rangers for his illegal climbs and jumps, Gauthier waved away discussion about the legality of what Potter had been doing.
“We’re not too concerned about discussing the ins and out of base jumping” in national parks, Gauthier told National Geographic. “And on the record, all we really care about right now are the family and loved ones of Dean and Graham.”
He added, Potter’s “role in the community in Yosemite Valley, and the climbing world — he’s just in the pantheon of great athletes that people idolize and look up to.”