After a four-hour hike to the highest point in Yosemite Valley, Dean Potter sat down to put on his wing-suit. His miniature Australian Cattle dog, Whisper, padded over and nestled beside him, exhausted after the
long climb. She could sense something big was about to happen.
Whisper nudged her backpack, asking to go inside, a place where she felt safe. She knew it was her pack since she had been in-and-out of it nearly a hundred
times as Dean worked the design over the last year.
Dean put her inside with her head sticking out, placed her little goggles over her eyes and a neoprene sleeve around her ears to protect them from the
wind, and then secured her harness. He checked the gear one last time before edging up to the cliff—“Three…two…one…JUMP!”
After a short free-fall, the wing-suit caught air and Dean and Whisper—the world’s first wing-suit BASE-jumping doggie—soared out across the
valley floor. A man and his beloved dog, flying together at last.
Today, March 31, 2015—Whisper’s birthday—is the release date for Dean Potter’s film, When Dogs Fly, covering his dream-become-reality
of wing-suit flying with his dog. The short film is available for download ($2.99) and streaming ($0.99) on Vimeo On Demand.
Rock and Ice caught up with Dean Potter to learn more about flying with Whisper:
“It really wasn’t a big deal,” Potter said, in regards to his first jump with Whisper.
“During the flight, I felt her adjust her body once, then she stayed still. In the video footage, she’s looking around, not scared at all.”
When the parachute opened, Dean reached back to make sure Whisper was there and well. They landed safely in a grassy field on the valley floor, completing
the first ever man-dog tandem wing-suit BASE-jump.
“When we landed, she was super amped, like we [humans] always are after a jump,” Dean says. “She got out, started running around all excited, celebrating.
She knew she did something really exciting.”
Dean has had Whisper, who turns five today, since she was nine-weeks old.
“She’s a cattle dog,” Dean says, “and it’s common to cut their tails off soon after birth. But when I picked her out from the litter when she was only
a couple-day old pup, I told them not to since I’m not for the mutilation of animals.
“And that was the start of our relationship—I saved her little tail.”
Dean doesn’t count the number of jumps he’s been on with Whisper, but he has been flying with her for the last two years. He says he only takes Whisper
on the highest, none-technical jumps with a large margin of safety, where he can deploy his chute twice as high as normal (at 600-800 feet, as opposed
to 300-400 feet).
He designed a backpack, with the help of engineer Peter Swan, to fit 22-pound Whisper
and a parachute.
Says Dean, “It was a one year process, making the equipment. We created multiple prototypes and tested the gear with a stuffed animal, ‘Lion,’ Whisper’s
“The design is really over built and not the easiest to fly. It’s 10-times stronger than it needs to be, but I wanted there to be no way for Whisper to
Sandwiched between Dean’s back and the parachute is the “base container,” as Dean calls it—a padded hard-shell case, “like a little doggie roll-cage”
to protect Whisper.
She’s secured with three full-strength clip-in points made with 9/16 webbing, directly attached to the main harness and four full-strength climbing harness
buckles—backed-up seven times in total. In comparison, Dean only has one harness buckle.
Dean said the idea of flying with Whisper came naturally. When she was a puppy, she couldn’t keep up with Dean when he went hiking, biking or climbing,
so he put her in a bicycle messenger-bag whenever she got tired.
“She was so comfortable that I would often hear little puppy snores from her,” says Dean.
As Whisper got bigger, Dean put her in a Metolius
haul-bag or backpack and often took her rock climbing up El Cap and Half-Dome.
“At the time, I was also base-jumping one- to two-times a day, sometimes more, which required multiple hours of hiking. Whisper also needed a few hours
of exercise each day and I was getting worn out doing it all, so decided to take her with me and the idea was born.
“She seems to like it too. Other things we do, Whisper doesn’t like and will run off and hide. She hates helicopter rides, the didgeridoo and vacuum cleaners.
But with wing-suit flying, she begs to come.”
Despite the video trailer’s millions of views, Dean has received very little negative feedback, including from animal rights activists.
Dean says, “A TV station that interviewed me was trying to stir up a little controversy by reaching out to an animal rights organization, but they
said, ‘We saw the video trailer and it looks like this guy really loves his dog. He takes great care of her, gives her plenty of exercise, doesn’t
leave her behind.’ They actually praised me.”
Dean stresses the importance of taking care for your pet, especially dogs that need a lot of exercise.
“Pets are part of the family,” says Dean. “They should never be locked up or left at home. I try to bring Whisper with me as much as possible, and if I can’t, I find someone to stay with her.
“If I can take little Whisper-dog wing-suiting, then it shouldn’t be hard for others to take their dog on a neighborhood walk.”