Flying Free

In a wingsuit-flying accident that’s left the adventure community reeling for the past several weeks, world-record-setting climber, highliner, and wingsuit BASE jumper Dean Potter and his flying partner Graham Hunt died from impact on May 16th after launching from Taft Point in Yosemite National Park.05

I met Dean – already in his prime as a triple-crown adventure icon – in June of 2008, during a Yosemite climbing trip with our mutual friend Timmy O’Neill. Timmy and Dean had set and re-set the speed-climbing record on El Capitan’s Nose Route together. (By comparison, Timmy and I often set unofficial records for the slowest-ever ascents of far more moderate climbs.)

Perhaps it was Timmy’s energy – the comedic tide that lifts all spirits – but during numerous encounters over those weeks, I saw little of the brooding moodiness that’s led others to nickname Dean “The Dark Wizard.” Rather, he was alternately lighthearted, impassioned, distracted, and soulful.

Sitting at my picnic table in Camp 4, we practiced our imitations of raven calls (I’m no slouch, but his were better). Mooching free WiFi at the Awahnee Lodge, we chatted – in between emails and blog posts – about his then-under-development pursuit of free-soloing high, hard climbs while wearing a BASE-jumping parachute, what he wryly called “free BASEing.” During one of those conversations, Dean offered to show me a special place.

A few days later, then, Timmy and I planned to meet up with him atop El Cap after climbing the East Ledges. There, we announced our late-afternoon arrival, calling out “Caw-caw!” Dean emerged from the cliff edge and motioned me toward the 3,000’ face. Off the climbing routes and hidden from view – from summit and valley alike – was a short ledge. At the end of the shelf was a protected cranny in the granite just large enough for an unfurled sleeping bag; it was a natural Porta-Ledge, which Dean had made into a seasonal home. He pledged me to secrecy, to protect his spiritual (and illegal) nest.

Similarly, whether it was fire restrictions, bolting approval processes, or the prohibition against BASE jumping and wingsuit flying in the Park, Dean often chose liberty over compliance. In a sense, some of his climbing, flying, and highlining projects were not only his arts of passion but also his practice of an adventure-based form of civil disobedience. He used sport to overcome his fears and push beyond perceived limits, not just to go faster but to live truthfully.

If Dean occasionally disregarded federal regulations, he held the ultimate respect for nature, physics, and self-actualization. On their final evening, by launching at dusk, Dean and Graham were mitigating the legal risk of being seen, but perhaps exaggerating the mortal hazard of flying in low light. What was not acceptable was compromising his personal imperative to fly free.

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