This article was originally published in Rock and Ice No. 153, September 2006.
At midnight on May 7, Dean Potter, a professional climber renowned for his kamikaze-style big wall speed-solos, including a one-day link-up of the Nose of El Capitan and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in 1999, walked down a beaten trail to one of America’s most iconic rock formations, the Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park, Utah, and prepared to climb it. He uncoiled a rope and lobbed it over the center of the arch. Brad Lynch, Potter’s friend and the best man at his wedding, served as a counterweight anchor as Potter ascended the opposite side of the rope. Once on top, Potter constructed a cam anchor and scoped his planned line of ascent, finding a system of slopers and incuts, just as expected, up the east leg of the arch, right on the weathered spine.
At dawn, Potter soloed the arch several times. His wife, Steph Davis, snapped some photos of the ascent, and Lynch returned with a video camera to capture the climb on film. Though Potter did not mention it in the interview, Rock and Ice learned later that professional cameraman Eric Perlman also shot photos and video of the climb.
A storm of controversy erupted when the general public heard about the solo and saw the photos and video, which aired on Fox News in Salt Lake City. Utah citizens were upset by Potter’s climb because they felt he had used Delicate Arch, the cherished symbol featured on the Utah license plate, for a publicity stunt.
The National Park Service was concerned that Potter’s climb might prompt others to scale the fragile arches and took immediate action. On May 9, two days after the solo, climbing regulations in Arches National Park were expanded from 10 lines to 44 lines. Changes included a ban on new permanent climbing hardware—no new bolts or pitons, including at belays, may be installed. The regulations seriously limit climbing in the park, which is largely aid routes on towers.
Climbers were perhaps the most vocal in denouncing the climb. Rock and Ice received letters and the message boards on various climbing-related websites were jammed with virulent posts. In a press release entitled “Access Fund Condemns Delicate Arch, UT, Climb,” the advocacy group summed up many climbers’ feelings by stating: “We trust the public will understand that the actions of one person should not condemn the larger community of climbers who are equally appalled by this event. The Access Fund urges all climbers to recognize and limit the impacts of their climbing practices on the environment and other users of the land and to respect existing closures.”
In its statement, the National Park Service admitted that no crime had been committed and conceded that its regulations, which at the time said that arches “may” be closed to climbing, were ambiguous. But as longtime Arches climber Jimmy Dunn pointed out in an online post, whether Potter broke a law was beside the point.
“Dean broke a trust that we climbers had with the Park Service to not climb the arches,” he wrote. “Instead we left them for the ravens. We were allowed to climb the towers, the walls, the boulders, do new routes, and even place bolts with a hand drill if needed. Just stay off the arches! This ascent shows the Park Service that we may need rules on paper in big letters. This is not good.”
When Rock and Ice first contacted Potter, he was reluctant to speak about the climb. “I’ve been sitting back and hoping this would go away,” he said. “But it doesn’t look like it’s going to.” Ultimately, he decided to speak out about what has become this season’s most fractious climb.
RI: Why did you climb Delicate Arch?
Potter: Mankind is totally separating himself from nature—drilling for oil in the wildest places, jack-hammering footsteps that lead to the Arch, paving roads and parking lots so that people can just sit in their cars and view nature. At a way intuitive level my mind was like a monkey’s mind, going after a banana in a tree. When I saw the Arch, I wanted to climb it. And free soloing seems to be a good symbol for man touching nature—putting your life on the line shows a real connection.
RI: Why did you hang a rope and preview the route?
Potter: The climb was too hard to onsight for me. I don’t rate things, but it was hard climbing, quite a serious solo compared to other things I’ve done. The footholds were insecure and if the feet slipped, the handholds weren’t good enough to hold me. From a climber’s point of view, the rock was perfect. I didn’t even have to clean it at all. There were holds in just the right spots, just enough to make it possible.
RI: Do you think the Arch has been climbed before?
Potter: I know it has been climbed before. There’s even an underground guidebook called The Arch Baggers’ Handbook.
RI: Why take photos and video?
Potter: Why not? Everybody who walks to the Arch has a camera. Every climber takes photos of beautiful routes. Whose wife wouldn’t take a picture of her husband soloing Delicate Arch? Whose best man wouldn’t take a video?
RI: Why publicize the ascent?
Potter: I was asked. The people I work with are climbers. They were inspired and excited. Everybody who heard about the climb said, “Fuck, that’s beautiful.”
RI: How do your sponsors feel about it now?
Potter: I haven’t heard anything negative about the climb. Maybe that’s because I’m 6’6” and 200 pounds [laughs] but I haven’t heard anything from anybody. They [his sponsors] are concerned with the response from the community, and I want to be a part of the community, but they didn’t think there was anything morally wrong with what I did.
RI: What about the Park Service?
Potter: The Park Service hasn’t talked to me at all. I spend a lot of time living in National Parks, so I make sure I know the laws. If I sleep under a tree, that’s illegal. If I keep food in my car, that’s against the law. So I know they’re very specific about what is legal and illegal. No law said that it was illegal to climb Delicate Arch or any other arch on that day. If you’re standing at the base and you know you’re not going to damage the arch, what would stop you from climbing it? Being a super law-abiding citizen like myself, I knew it wasn’t illegal and saw no reason not to climb the most beautiful rock I’ve ever seen.
RI: Did you consider the ramifications of climbing an off-limits arch?
Potter: I’m kind of ashamed to say it didn’t really cross my mind. I do spend a lot of time in the wild living in caves, in ice caves. I don’t watch TV. I think I’m disconnected with what the modern world has become. I just saw it as a beautiful climb. Looking back it seems pretty stupid not to have foreseen this, but I didn’t.
RI: Did you learn anything from this experience?
Potter: I didn’t realize before that what I did or do affects other people, and now I do. At the same time it seems unhealthy how a lot of people’s views are really negative and hateful about a guy climbing a rock. My peers and I try to push each other up. In the past, the climbing community has been split and not united. That’s a real weakness in all of us—including myself—when we can’t see the insignificance in a guy climbing a rock. Can’t this negativity be focused on something more important? Maybe people are frustrated at the state of the world and don’t know how to express their frustration.
RI: What’s next for Dean Potter?
Potter: I want to fly.
RI: How are you going to do that?
Potter: I don’t know. Believe in it.
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