Tributes paid to Dean Potter after fatal Base jumping accident

Extreme climber hailed as artist by contemporaries following Yosemite incident

Extreme sports personality Dean Potter and his dog Whisper in an undated handout photograph. Tributes have been paid to Potter after his death in a Base jumping accident over the weekend. Photograph:  EPA/Adidas AG

Extreme sports personality Dean Potter and his dog Whisper in an undated handout photograph. Tributes have been paid to Potter after his death in a Base jumping accident over the weekend. Photograph: EPA/Adidas AG


Dean Potter was an artist and a visionary, friends and contemporaries said today, following the death of the extreme climber in a Base jumping accident in Yosemite national park in California.

Potter died alongside fellow climber Graham Hunt on Saturday, when the pair leapt from a 3,000ft peak while wearing wingsuits, and crashed into a cliff face.

Their bodies were recovered on Sunday. Neither was found to have deployed a parachute.

Potter (43), who grew up in New Hampshire and lived more recently in Yosemite, was one of the most recognisable figures in extreme sports, and was the creator of “freebase”, a hybrid extreme sport that combined rock climbing without ropes and skydiving.

Graham Hunt (29) was also a climber and a Yosemite resident.

The two crashed late on Saturday after leaping from a promontory called Taft Point, 3,000ft above the valley floor.

An investigation into what caused the men to crash is ongoing.

Base jumping in Yosemite is illegal.

British climber Andy Kirkpatrick, who had known Potter for more than a decade, said that he was full of contradictions and thought of himself as an artist.

“He was using his body and his life as some kind of twisted piece of art, really,” Kirkpatrick said.

“He was definitely walking quite a hard path in his life, hustling and trying to make a living, while at the same time trying to live a sort of zen life, and doing some of the most extreme versions of any sport, Base jumping and proximity flying and free soloing.”

Potter was sponsored by high-profile brands and had an active presence on social media and in climbing films, but his extrovert qualities were countered by another life, “like a monk living in the woods, as quite a shy person”, Kirkpatrick said.

He and others described Potter as intense: alternately joyous, stoic, brooding and generous.

Potter’s death had shocked the climbing community, “but not really shocked it”, Kirkpatrick said, because the inherent dangers in taking part in such extreme climbing for so many years made some kind of accident inevitable.

“But it’s sad. He leaves a lot of people behind . . . and this robs even more people of the chance for him to inspire them in person.”

Potter climbed without any harnesses or protective gear, walked along slack rope across points of high elevation, parachuted off cliffs, often with a webbed wingsuit to better control his flight, and flew in a wingsuit near the surface of cliffs, mountains and ridges .

Chris McNamara, a climber who no longer Base jumps, told the Associated Press: “He always recognised how dangerous the sport was and at the same time how magical it was - the tension between those two things.”

Alex Honnold, a Yosemite resident and another of the world’s most renowned rock climbers, tweeted that Potter’s death had left him “in a dark cloud”, and told the New York Times that Potter “shaped the direction of climbing for this generation. He was a very creative influence on climbing”.

Conrad Anker posted on social media an old photo of Potter showing the moment before the pair jumped from a plane to parachute into a canyon, writing: “We loved it - mostly because it was a thrill and 99.9 per cent of us knew we would never do anything quite this wild.

“Dean was a visionary in many disciplines,” Anker wrote. “We will cherish these memories and hold the ray of life you often radiated close to our hearts.”

Career controversy

Potter courted controversy throughout his career, both in his increasingly dangerous manoeuvres and his ways of drawing attention.

In 2006, he lost sponsorship from clothing company Patagonia after climbing Utah’s Delicate Arch; in 2014 he and Honnold lost Clif Bar sponsorships after they appeared in a documentary about Yosemite climbing that the company felt included overly dangerous climbs and falls.

He also drew criticsm for strapping Whisper, his miniature Australian cattle dog, into a backpack to soar with him on wingsuited Base jumps.

Yosemite chief of staff Mike Gauthier, who occasionally climbed with Potter, downplayed concerns over his methods.

“He was a larger-than-life character,” Mr Gauthier said. “He’s just in the pantheon of great athletes that people idolise and look up to.”

Potter lived with his girlfriend, Jen Rapp, and her three children in Yosemite. Rapp told the Times that Yosemite “is exactly where he’d want his rule-breaking, fringe-pushing, counterculture spirit to live forever”.

In a 2014 documentary for Outside Television, Potter described a recurring dream of flying and falling.

“When I was a little boy my first memory was a flying dream,” Potter said.

“And in my dream I flew and also fell. I always wondered as I got older if it was some premonition of me falling to my death.

“So I started free soloing harder and harder roots, kind of proving to myself that I could take control of this - pretty much the biggest fear that I had, of falling to my death.”

He said that adding parachutes gave him an extra security that balanced the dangers of free solo climbing.

“It ups my chances of living to be an old man,” Potter said. “And then you have the super bonus of if you fall you don’t die, you fly.”

Guardian service