Climbing legend Dean Potter, 43, died with partner Graham Hunt, 29, on Saturday, May 16, after attempting a wingsuit BASE jump in Yosemite.
According to Yosemite chief of staff Mike Gauthier, Potter and Hunt made the jump from Taft Point, a 7,500-foot promontory overlooking Yosemite Valley, late Saturday. The pair was attempting to fly along terrain that required them to clear a notch in a rocky ridgeline.
Their spotter, Potter’s girlfriend Jennifer Rapp, reported hearing two sounds that could have been impacts or the noises made by parachutes opening. When she couldn’t reach the pair by radio, and when the pair didn’t meet her at their designated meeting place, she contacted Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR).
YOSAR was unable to locate Potter or Hunt that night. On Sunday morning, a state police helicopter spotted both bodies from the air. No parachutes had been deployed. Two rangers were then airlifted to the site to perform recovery.
Footage captured by Potter’s GoPro shows Hunt clip the right side of a notch in the ridge several seconds after the jump. Potter swooped left, possibly to miss Hunt, but then hit the rocks just beyond him on the opposite side of the notch. Gauthier said ‘‘It could have been an evasive maneuver,” but that ‘‘Someone else said they saw a clipped piece of a tree up there, so we don’t know for sure.’’
“It’s tremendously sad,” Gauthier added.
Survivors include Rapp and Potter’s Australian cattle dog, Whisper. Whisper was Potter’s frequent companion on his BASE jumping adventures: footage of Whisper wearing goggles, strapped between Potter’s back and his parachute pack, became an online sensation last year. Whisper was not with Potter on this particular jump.
Potter, who grew up in New Hampshire, rose to prominence in Yosemite with his daring free solos in the 1990’s. He later gained recognition as a highliner (slacklining between cliffs) and BASE jumper (parachuting or wingsuit flying from fixed structures or cliffs) in the early 2000’s. Along the way, Potter also gained a reputation as one of climbing’s most spiritual personalities.
Although Potter’s many accomplishments—such as creating “Free BASEing,” the practice of soloing with a parachute—would suggest a daredevil attitude, Potter’s friend and former Swall Meadows neighbor Michael Levine said that adjective doesn’t describe Potter.
“Considering what he was doing, he took every possible precaution,” Levine said.
Potter was a three-year resident of Swall Meadows, although he recently sold his house to be closer to Yosemite. “At one time when he bought the house here, he was going to have a garden and retire,” Levine said.
Levine recalled Potter as “one of a kind. He loved the outdoors, he loved nature and animals, and he loved being free.”
While Potter described himself as shy, Levine said he was very personable. “He’d be on the street, talking with people as they went by.” Levine added that Potter was incredibly caring—“He always worried about my blood pressure”—and loving toward Rapp, Rapp’s children, and Whisper.
“The last time I saw him, when he was moving away, he gave me a great big hug and told me I was the best neighbor he ever had,” Levine said. “Anybody that knew him personally I’m sure has the same feelings I do.”
Although Potter lost his sponsorship with Patagonia and Clif Bar over his free soloing and BASE jumping, he remained an outspoken advocate of freedom in outdoor sports.
“This homogenization of the Outdoor Industry has lasting ramifications,” he told Rock and Ice after Clif Bar’s decision. “Outdoor Arts are beyond sport and for many of us it’s our spirituality. The wilderness is infinite in what it offers. Shouldn’t we question when the leaders of our community try to manipulate our culture into a monocrop?”
Yosemite has banned BASE jumping since 1980, but the activity has remained popular in the park, creating cat-and-mouse games between jumpers and park rangers. Potter said he BASE jumped not to flaunt the law but to express his freedom as a human being.
“Dean truly loved Yosemite,” said Potter’s girlfriend Jennifer Rapp. “His heart, spirit and passions soared in the valley; it was his home. The beauty of Yosemite inspired him to be the best possible artist, partner, father and friend. This is exactly where he’d want his rule-breaking, fringe-pushing, counterculture spirit to live forever.”
Additional reporting from Rock and Ice, Outside Magazine, CNN, and New York Times.