Dean Potter, Free Soloist, BASE Jumper, Was One Of A Kind

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This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious.

Dean Potter (April 14, 1972 – May 16, 2015) was an American rock climber, BASE jumper, wingsuit flyer, and highliner.

As a climber, Potter was primarily known for his free solos, as well as numerous speed ascents, particularly in Yosemite National Park, where he was considered a pioneer. Alongside Alex Honnold, Potter is regarded as one of the most influential free soloists of the 21st century. He died in a wingsuit crash alongside fellow flyer Graham Hunt, after jumping from Yosemite’s Taft Point.

Max Buchini peeks over the edge of the cliff next to a heart-shaped rock with feather wings on May 18, 2015, meant as a memorial for the late Dean Potter and Graham Hunt after their death from a BASE jump of Taft Point, in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Early Life

Potter was born at a military hospital in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His father was a colonel in the US Army, and his mother a yoga teacher. While neither of his parents were climbers, Potter noted that he learned breathwork from his mother and training discipline from his father (who was also a distance runner), and said that both practices played heavily into his success as a climber. He noted in a 2014 interview originally published in Rock and Ice that he, “learned yoga pretty much as a baby.”

Potter’s family moved around often in his youth, due to his father’s military career, and spent three years in Israel, among other locations. Eventually, however, they settled in New Hampshire, where Potter attended high school. Here, at the age of 13, he taught himself to climb on a cliff near his house. His first climb was a 200-foot free solo, performed in Converse All-Stars, to go look at a python placed high on the cliff. He briefly attended the University of New Hampshire, where he rowed varsity crew, but dropped out at the age of 20 to pursue full-time climbing.

Yosemite Climbing Career

After dropping out of college in 1992, Potter began traveling the country climbing, eventually landing in Yosemite in 1993. There, while recovering from tendon injuries and unable to climb, he met legendary highliner Chongo Chuck, who taught him to slackline.

During the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s, Potter became one of the most prominent climbers in the Valley. He was the first to complete, with Timmy O’Neill, the now-legendary Yosemite Triple Crown (a one-day linkup of Half Dome, Mt. Watkins, and El Capitan), in 2001. He completed in-a-day speed solos of both Half Dome and El Cap, and set numerous speed records on El Capitan, including breaking the record on the Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft) on three separate occasions.

He and O’Neill were the first climbers to land a sub-four-hour time on the road in 2001, and he eventually sent in 2:36:45 with Sean Leary in 2010. In 2006, he made the first single-push ascent of the legendary aid route Reluctant Wall (VI 5.7 A5 2,700 feet), with Ammon McNeely and Ivo Ninov.

Potter was also a prominent free soloist, and his partial free solo of Freerider (VI 5.13a 3,300 feet), linked with Lurking Fear (VI 5.13c 2,200 feet), via a line he christened Easy Rider, was the first significant free solo on the formation. In 1998, he made a four-hour speed solo of the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome, 95% of which was completed free solo. He free soloed numerous other iconic routes in the Valley, such as Separate Reality (5.11d) and A Dog’s Roof (5.12b), both in 2006, soloing the former five times in a row. The latter was a first free solo ascent.

Other prominent Yosemite free solos Potter completed include Astroman (IV 5.11c 1,000 feet), the Rostrum’s Blind Faith (5.11), and Heaven (5.12d). The latter two were first free solo ascents, the former had been free soloed only once before, by Peter Croft.

Dean Potter signing a poster for a fan at a store opening in Denver.
Dean Potter, second from right, signs a poster for a fan inside the new store. To his right are Paul Robinson, middle and Chris Sharma. (Photo: Helen H. Richardson / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Climbing in Patagonia and Elsewhere

Potter made many prominent ascents outside of Yosemite, primarily in Patagonia and the desert southwest.

In 2002, he was free soloed Superchannel (VI 5.9 WI4 M5 / 6 5,000 feet) on the West Face of Fitz Roy (11,171 feet), becoming the first person to free solo the iconic peak, and later made the first ascent, free solo, of a major link-up, Californian Roulette (VI 5.10+ WI5), also on Fitz Roy.

He also speed soloed the infamous Compressor Route (VI 5.10 A2 3,000 feet) on Cerro Torre (10,262 feet), in 11 hours. In 2005, he made the first one-day ascent of the Egger Tower (8,809 feet) via Titanic (VI 5.10d A2, 3,300 feet) with Steph Davis, his then-wife.

In the Utah desert, Potter made a number of first free ascents on hard crack lines, such as Concepcion (5.13), The Epitaph (5.13b) with Davis, and Crack House (5.13). The latter, sent in 1998 and immortalized in Masters of Stone Vmarked one of the region’s earliest 5.13 crack sends.

Wingsuiting, Highlining, and BASE Jumping

In addition to highlining, which he was practicing in Yosemite throughout the 1990s, Potter began skydiving and BASE jumping in 2003, and rapidly progressed as a leader in the sport. In 2011, he set the world record for the longest BASE wingsuit flight (4.7 miles), jumping from the Eiger (13,025 feet).

Potter was the inventor of what he coined “FreeBASE” climbing, a variation on free soloing where the climber wore a BASE parachute rig on their back, to pull in case of a fall. Among other famous FreeBASE ascents, Potter sent the 1000-foot Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) on the Eiger’s North Face. He also tackled the Rostrum, donning a parachute for the utterly exposed Alien Roof (5.12) finish, which also marked the route’s first free solo.

Potter was also famous for embarking on many climbs, wingsuit flights, BASE jumps, and other adventures with his dog, Whisper, a decision criticized by some for the danger it exposed the dog to. (Check out 2014 Climbing Q&A with Potter about BASE jumping with Whisper here.)

Delicate Arch Controversy

While Potter was known for several controversial (and often illegal) climbs, flights, and highlines, his most infamous was a 2006 free solo of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, which he rehearsed top-down and climbed with more than one photographer in-tow.

The climb resulted in a swarm of outcry, both from the general public, the media, and the climbing community. Though there was no specific legal restriction on climbing that particular arch in the park at the time, critics saw the stunt as setting a poor example for other climbers and also sullying the climbing community’s relationship with the National Park Service. The NPS had allowed climbing in towers, walls, and boulders, but climbing on arches named on a map had been prohibited since the mid-1980s; The Delicate Arch slipped through a loophole due to it not being designated on a map, thus Potter’s ascent was legal.

Following the climb, Potter lost his Patagonia sponsorship, and climbing restrictions in Arches were significantly expanded and formalized, including a blanket ban on all permanent hardware.

Death

Potter died on the evening of May 16, 2015, at the age of 43, after a failed wingsuit proximity flight from Taft Point in Yosemite. Both he and his partner, Graham Hunt, were killed after they impacted a rocky ridgeline, which they were trying to clear via a small notch. Neither man had opened his parachute.

Climbing Accomplishments

Potter was an extremely prolific climber, and his contributions to climbing in Yosemite Valley alone are immense. Below is a list of some of his most famous feats.

  • Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.9 C1 2,200 feet), Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (1998). Sent nearly entirely free solo in four hours and 16 minutes, save for 100 feet of aid.
  • Crack House (5.13), Moab, Utah (1998). First free ascent.
  • Northwest Face (VI 5.9 C1 2,200 feet), Half Dome and Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (1999). First one-day linkup only.
  • Astroman (IV 5.11c 1,000 feet), Yosemite National Park, California (2000). Second free only.
  • Blind Faith (5.11d), Rostrum, Yosemite National Park, California (2000). First free only.
  • Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2001). First sub-four-hour time with Timmy O’Neill.
  • Yosemite Triple Crown, Yosemite National Park, California (2001). First ascent with Timmy O’Neill, and first single-day ascent of three Grade VI Yosemite routes.
  • Superchannel / Super Corridor (VI 5.9 WI4 M5 / 6 5,000 feet) West Face, Fitz Roy (11,171 feet), Patagonia (2002). First free solo ascent of Fitz Roy.
  • The Epitaph (5.13b), Tombstone, Utah (2002). First ascent with Steph Davis.
  • Conception (5.13+), Day Canyon, Utah (2003). First free ascent.
  • Reluctant Wall (VI 5.7 A5 2,700 feet), Yosemite National Park, California (2006). First single-push ascent, with Ammon McNeely and Ivo Ninov.
  • Heaven (5.12d), Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California (2006). First free only.
  • Separate Reality (5.11d), Cookie Cliff, Yosemite National Park, California (2006). Third free only.
  • Dog’s Roof (5.12b), Wawona Tunnel, Yosemite National Park, California (2006). First free only.
  • Deep Blue Sea (5.12+, 1000 feet) North Face, Eiger (13,025 feet) Switzerland (2008). First FreeBASE ascent.
  • Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2010). Speed ​​record of 2:36:45 with Sean Leary.
  • World’s longest recorded BASE wingsuit flight: 4.7 miles from the Eiger (2011).

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