DEAN AGAINST THE MACHINE

On May 16, Dean Potter, 43, and Graham Hunt, 29, died in a BASE jumping accident in Yosemite. Considered one of the most influential climbers and aerialists of his generation, Dean Potter was widely known in the global climbing community as a larger-than-life legend.

Calmly spinning I scan as far away as I can see. The last rays of the day’s sun warm my back and my stare locks onto my own shadow. I follow the lines of my body on the stone in front of me, spreading my arms as wings, and bathe in the beauty of existence.
— Dean Potter

It was luck that allowed me the privilege of meeting Dean Potter two years ago outside of the Yosemite Village Store. Awe struck by his sheer height of 6'5 and dark eyes, I couldn't believe I was interacting with someone who had inspired and informed much of my climbing ethics and aspirations. Though our encounter was brief, I felt an intensity about Potter, almost as if he were a brooding storm or quiet hawk. While he was present in our conversation, I got the sense that he was also leaning back, assessing, making observations.

 His mysterious demeanor in combination with his openness to converse with a complete stranger (me) was intriguing to say the least. This was a man who routinely lived life at the edge of realization. In his line of work, Potter was acutely aware of how quickly things could go wrong. In 2003, he BASE jumped from the Cave of Swallows, a 1,200 foot deep hole in the ground near Mexico City. Potter's rig had become wet from the night before and upon trying to open his parachute, the lines twisted and collapsed on him mid-free fall. Serendipitously, Potter was able to grab and hold onto a fixed 10-millimeter rope, which hung in space from the cave to allow jumpers to climb back out. Gripping the rope allowed Potter to slow his fall. Though he survived, he did not leave the cave unscathed. Potter’s desperate grip had gauged half-inch ruts in his palms, leaving his wounds not bleeding, but cauterized from the intense friction. I have never had such a close encounter with death, nor can I even imagine how I would go about living life after such an experience.

I did not know Potter personally, but through reading endlessly about him, and watching countless interviews, I have come to the conclusion that he approached his “dangerous arts," as he referred to them, from a spiritual perspective. He studied yoga, meditation, and martial arts. Much like a monk, Potter would focus on his breath during any of his extreme specializations, such as free-soloing (climbing without a rope), highlining (walking across a piece of nylon thousands of feet up in the air), and BASE jumping.

Potter began climbing and slacklining in his twenties and died at 43. Over the years, he developed a deep respect for life and never missed an opportunity to meticulously calculate risk. With all of his cumulative experience, he was more than an expert in his field. Because he was so adept at these seemingly risky activities, pushing the limits was a regular affair for Potter. To the mainstream public (those who have never climbed, slacklined, or BASE jumped), his actions can easily be misconstrued as reckless. 

One such person who has falsified Potter's work is Timothy Egan of the New York Times. In his op-ed titled, To Fly and Die, Egan gives his limited two cents on the BASE jumping accident describing Potter as having a “stoner ethos”. With great conviction, Egan reduces Potter’s work down to daredevil stunts, and lamely wraps it all up in a “adrenaline addiction” burrito. This article, fit for the vulnerable mainstream public who have no foundation for truly understanding what climbers and BASE jumpers are doing, made my skin crawl.

Opinions are not based in fact and Egan’s opinion is one that is entirely ignorant. For someone who admits to shivering at the preicipice of Taft Point, the point at which Potter and Hunt made their jump, it baffles me that this person could have the wherewithal to address such a foreign territory as BASE jumping. Egan’s job is to criticize and he is good at it. Criticism, however, can often be misinformed. His reaction sprouted out of blind speculation mixed with a few statistics and quotes from…Google? Wikipedia? 

“Entranced by the flight of a raven, I watch its shadow move effortlessly against golden, shimmering granite. I long to be that free, flying above the cluttered world of normalcy, where so many are half alive.” - Dean Potter

“Entranced by the flight of a raven, I watch its shadow move effortlessly against golden, shimmering granite. I long to be that free, flying above the cluttered world of normalcy, where so many are half alive.” - Dean Potter

There has been much controversy surrounding Potter throughout his career as an extreme athlete. Never one for the spotlight, Dean followed through with most of his exploits in solitude. For him, being completely immersed in the natural world, and as he describes in one of his journals, becoming “invisible” was what he was after. Many reduce his work to thrill seeking, or label him “an adrenaline-junkie-daredevil”. However, what led to Dean’s death was not the blind ambition of a naive and careless hedonist. 

This American life has taught us to plan our lives down to the most minute details. We tend to live in the future. It starts young when we say, “Once I make the basketball team, I will have really started my life.” Or, “Once I get all A’s on my report card I will have made it.” We grow up and our thoughts become, “Once I get the job, I will have really arrived.” Or, “When I have $1,000 more dollars in my savings, then I can really start living life.” Though it is wise to plan, our society makes it incredibly difficult for us to live in the present moment. Some of us may never be really living our entire lives because there will always be something else to attain. 

Dean Potter didn’t want to live a life of postponing the future. He knew that he was alive now, and the present moment was all there really was. His most important task was to be here, now, present. Dean strove to recover his sovereignty from a cultural ethos that taught him to live for the very distant future. A future that might not ever come. 

The world of extreme sports is populated by outlaws, dirtbags, drifters, wanderlusters, and nomads because they all seek this sovereignty from a society that keeps telling them to wait in line, pay the bills, and take vacations to Florida. Potter was not bored, he was not seeking thrill, he was practicing solitude and oneness with the world. 

“An outlaw can be defined as somebody who lives outside the law, beyond the law and not necessarily against it.”  ― Hunter S. Thompson

“An outlaw can be defined as somebody who lives outside the law, beyond the law and not necessarily against it.” 
― Hunter S. Thompson

From Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “Being Peace”, it states, “Society is organized in a way that even when we have some leisure time, we don’t know how to use it to get back in touch with ourselves.” Potter found purpose. He established goals. He sought peace. He was dedicated to these outdoor pursuits because it is what kept him living in the present. If you have ever meditated you know the beautiful, worthy, and healthy side effects of the present moment. 

Egan implies that Potter's career was a slew of suicide acts. He accuses Potter of rash bravado stating that he was “challenging the gods to burn his wings.” For those who are unfamiliar with Greek Mythology this is a reference to Icarus. The myth goes that Icarus’ father made Icarus wings so that he could fly. Despite several warnings, Icarus flew too high and the sun melted his wings. As a result, Icarus fell into the ocean and drowned. 

Potter's last jump was from Taft Point, a 3,000 foot high promontory in the Yosemite Valley. Egan describes Taft Point as “a ledge fit for species that can fly under their own power.” Potter was one of those species. There’s nothing stupid, reckless, or suicidal about Potter's practices. Unconventional, yes. It made people uncomfortable, yes. 

Egan’s tone implies that Potter chose death over walking out of the valley. According to Egan how Potter died was not a safe and socially acceptable way to die. Like boredom. Or old age. Potter did things differently. In our society when people do things that are out of the norm we tend to criticize it.

In a documentary I watched about Potter’s pursuits he says, “I prefer thinking of myself as more of an artist, than an athlete. I am more moved by creativity and finding new ways to do things, but also I think one thing about most artists is that they are a little out of the norm, or have weird qualities, or are really intense in some ways.” 

Egan puts the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong in contrast with Potter, saying that the Brothers W. and the moonwalkers were “meticulous, engineer-driven tinkerers…they were not in it for the thrill…What Dean Potter did with his life, and what brought him to his death, was something altogether different.” Jeff Jackson, the editor of Rock and Ice, wrote a succinct response to Egan’s article, arguing that Egan’s comparison is not only inapt, but just plain wrong. Jackson says, “You can’t liken feats of engineering to elite athleticism.”  

Egan lovingly calls the Wrights “modest midwesterners.” I’ve never controlled an airplane, but I would put money down that the Wright brothers felt thrill every time they escaped the weight of gravity.

Not all BASE jumpers, climbers, highliners, and other extreme entrepreneurs are imaginative planners. However, Dean Potter was an exemplary proponent of careful calculation, and avidly sought better ways to reduce risk. It is unfair of Egan to judge Potter as just another adrenaline junky jumping off cliffs. Like any entrepreneur, Potter was driven by a burning desire to push the limits and see how else it could be done. His undertakings took creativity, precision, and perseverance.

Maybe Egan just wanted to write about Potter’s death because he knew people would eat it up. Maybe he thought he could get away with it because he writes for the New York Times. Because he is published. Because he felt a very personal, yet very limited, sense of vertigo when he visited Taft Point.

“If you're honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you're forced to separate what is right from what is merely legal. This puts you metaphysically on the run. America is full of metaphysical outlaws.”  ― Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker

“If you're honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you're forced to separate what is right from what is merely legal. This puts you metaphysically on the run. America is full of metaphysical outlaws.” 
― Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker

As humans, we are all in some ways, striving to understand life and death. Potter was an extreme artist. He expressed himself by pushing his physical and epistemological limits in the most acute, detailed, and skilled way he knew how. 

No, the accident was not the outcome of our culture celebrating “sport-assisted suicide.” This was the outcome of a man so driven into the work of his life that he assessed the risk and still went forward with his passion. He wanted to find out how far he could go. No, I don’t believe Potter wanted to die. He just didn’t know how to live his life any other way. In a documentary about Potter, he admits, “I wish I could find that heightened awareness without risking my life, but right now its the only way I know how to find it... I’m kind of helpless to the pull. I need to do it.” 

He was meant to live on the edge, jump from it, and explore the void. He was a philosopher, but not one who sits inside on a chair reading books, writing, thinking, and staying put.  

Potter was an advocate of pushing your personal limit and experiencing life to the fullest degree. We all have limits and know what pushing them means to us as individuals. What Potter did takes extreme skill - years, decades, of methodical practice. This was not the work of a grown Peter Pan, or perfunctory stoner. This was Potter's work of tinkering and experimenting as a human. This was his attempt of gaining awareness. Like Armstrong, like the Wrights, Potter knew his risk. If Potter is a danger-loving zealot, so are the pioneers of flight. 

Potter knew the consequences of expressing his art. In its outward expression his accomplishments reflect a very physical, tangible, and evocative manifestation of what I believe as humans we all search for: what it means to be alive.

Entranced by the flight of a raven, I watch its shadow move effortlessly against golden, shimmering granite. I long to be that free, flying above the cluttered world of normalcy, where so many are half alive.
— Dean Potter

Further reading 

Potter blazed new and inspiring possibilities. He reinvented climbing, jumping, and flying. In fact, you can read more about this in Andrew Bisharat’s article for National Geographic titled, “How Dean Potter Reinvented Climbing, Jumping, and Flying.”