A Close Encounter With Dean Potter
A close encounter with Dean Potter, the Legend of Moab.
Did I tell you about the time I hung from the lip of the overhang, pumped, looking down at the strewn blocks far below, calmly waiting for death to take me into its bosom? Can’t be bothered. Or the time I was marched away at the point of a Kalashinikov in the remote Central Asian uplands by “soldiers” wearing Adidas shoes and “Enjoy Coca-Cola” T-shirts? Why bother. You’ll have heard one just like it, I’m sure. Or the time I was liebacking the 30-ton obelisk of granite on that forgotten island off Greenland and the entire thing started coming toward me. Oh, not that one again
The big stories are often too big. Bloated carcasses of derring-do pumped full of the gas of bravado, lifeless in the putrid water. The pressure of intestinal gasses farting out the same yarns time and time again.
“And then I … And then I …”
Let’s face it, if you’ve climbed long enough to have gone through your first block of chalk then you’ve heard all these stories and you’ll know how they work out. They’re too fat to have any truth or magic left in them.
They are dead behind the eyes. Good night.
But the little stories, they are a different matter. Stories that at the time you hardly noticed but years later you reflect on, seeing small signs in them that pointed in the most curious directions. That gave you insights into other people, other ways, that perhaps might shine a light into your own life.
Kevin was the perfect partner inasmuch as he was desperate enough to climb with just about anyone, as was I. I had been set adrift in Zion. Chance in a million, the coffee-shop owner replied to my inquiry that there had indeed been someone hanging around who was looking for a partner. Kevin appeared some time later and, his cut-off denim shorts notwithstanding, I asked if he would want to form a rope. He did. Result.
Through Touchstone Wall, Iron Messiah and Moonlight Buttress (with a rope, and aided, just so you can rank us in the grand scheme of things and relax into the story), we became friendly, and in the end I joined Kevin and his pickup truck to go on the road. Weeks of fantastic sandstone followed. From Zion we headed toward the Canyonlands, Fisher Towers and Indian Creek. I can’t recall the details of what we did but there was definitely something involving a parallel-sided crack. The town of Moab was the center of our travels.
Sometimes we treated ourselves to a night in a hostel, and frequently we punished ourselves with one-dollar hamburgers from McDonald’s.
Sometimes on slack mornings Kevin and I would make our way to a particular coffee shop on the south side of town that was the hangout for the local climbing scene. At least that’s how it appeared. It may just have been a congregation of badly dressed men without jobs who owned trucks, but every now and again a rope would appear from the back of a vehicle or a crux would be mimed. We went there neither for the coffee nor to rendezvous, more just to be there. For despite the fact that Kevin and I enjoyed each other’s company, something about the wide desert left us, both social and chatty types, with a hankering for more conversation every now and again.
We seldom found it. We would arrive at the coffee shop just as trucks were leaving, irrespective of what time we actually got there. If we coincided with some of the climber-style people, we failed to join great interactions. We often sat consciously on a table slightly within their personal space and tried to make eye contact. We were generally ignored. Not that I blamed them, however. Kevin was still in his denim shorts and I had a very tourist tan, my white Celtic skin reddened on one side of my head and my big sunburned nose peeling. In my desperate need to shade my skull from the sun I had taken to wearing one of those hats that pedophiles wear. We both wore office-worker-style glasses. I wouldn’t have spoken to us either.
One morning we must have mistimed it completely because the parking lot was filled with people, girls included. We found a spot, parked and tried to mingle. I joined the queue while Kevin went to the bathroom and I came out with two coffees. Kevin appeared from within, took his coffee and we both relaxed in the shade of the shop to observe the crowd.
“Shit me!” Kevin said, springing out of his slouch into an upright alertness. “It’s Dean Potter.”
A truck that had been in front of us moved off and there, revealed, was indeed Dean Potter. One of the jokes Kevin and I shared was pretending that we were into spotting climbing celebs, and we would make up over-the-top stories of what we would do to meet them. Classically, it was funny because it was true. I did indeed know who was who in the climbing world and the vast collection of climbing mags that Kevin toted around in his truck identified him as a true train spotter.
I had seen Dean Potter in the mags and on videos and he seemed like a true ancient spirit. I loved the whole thing he had about being the bird and how different he was from all the other climbers. I thought he was great, still do. He was obviously hot property here, for he stood ridiculously tall in the center of a small group arranged around him protectively. He was like a big scruffy lighthouse with wave upon wave of hangers-on breaking onto his rocks. We were psyched.
We waited around for some time, conspiring strategies for approaching him, all the while drinking more and more coffee in our rising excitement. Eventually the backed-up caffeine imploded onto my intestines and I excused myself to go to the bathroom. After a rapid evacuation, I was on the brink of leaving the cubicle when I heard the main door of the bathroom open. I don’t like meeting people in that space so I sat down again momentarily to allow him to himself but the door to the cubicle beside me opened and the person came in. I looked down and in the gap under the partition I could see an enormous left foot: bare, tanned and streaked with street dirt. I recognized it. It was Dean Potter’s foot. Dean was in the cubicle beside me.
Was this my chance? Should I wait till he was finished and deliberately open the door at the same time, and swan into a fulfilling conversation about the desert towers I had already done? No, this space was no place for conversation. Perhaps I could just speak to him from here, call under the partition and ask him about BASE jumping or slacklining, or whether he had ever climbed in Britain. What could I ask him in this situation that would be appropriate?
“Excuse me,” I called out. “May I have some toilet paper, please?”
I stuck my hand under the gap and waved my fingers around like a nude glove puppet. I heard a grunt, a turn of a roll dispenser, and something was pressed into my hand. I pulled it back and there in my grasp was a sheet of soft white paper. I had spoken to Dean Potter. I panicked now, reflushed the toilet, exited the cubicle and quickly left the room, leaving Dean famous and alone. I ran into the light.
“Kevin, Kevin, I spoke to Dean. I spoke to him and he gave me this.”
I waved the sheet like a flag of surrender.
“He gave you that—Dean did?”
“Yes, he was in the cubicle beside me and I asked him for it, and he passed it to me.”
“Is he still there?”
“Yes. Go and get yourself a sheet.”
Kevin had turned toward the entrance when Dean burst out of the building, veered sharply right, got straight into a truck and drove off. Another truck followed. In no time the crowd that had hummed in the parking lot seemed to evaporate, and we were left, as usual, alone.
We went climbing again that day and in the days that followed, and I think it took Kevin a day or two to get over his jealousy of me, especially as I continued to describe being within Dean’s aura and how sublime that had been.
“I can’t describe it, Kevin. Only those who have been there would understand.”
The sheet of toilet paper itself got lodged onto the dashboard, one corner under an air vent. It became the subject of some discussion and we were curious if it had been imbued with some of the aura, soaking it up like acid onto blotting paper. A concentrated super-hit of Dean-ness.
In my Catholic past my mother would sometimes produce little medals from religious-holiday destinations. These had small glassy centers and set in the glass were squares of frayed cotton. I was told they were cuttings from the cloak of Saint Anthony or from Saint Christopher’s trousers. A piece of wood maybe, chipped from the One True Cross. She would wear the medals and make me kiss the glassy bits on Sundays or other feasts. They were called relics, although I’m pretty sure she got the joke.
Dean Potter relics. There could be a profit in that. I suggested we chop the paper up into 200 pieces, set it in resin and sell it in Moab at $20 a hit to Potter Pilgrims. Four grand, I said to Kevin. Four grand.
But ultimately, like most failed businessmen, we never got round to it. Our time together was nearing an end and we had lined up Primrose Dihedral as our last climb. The big one. Kevin drove his truck down the roughshod trail late one desert afternoon and we camped that night under the mighty totem of Moses. That morning we looked at each other and knew what we must do.
I went to the dashboard, freed and halved the sheet, handed Kevin one of the magical gossamers and took the other myself. We both went off behind our respective rocks and with my eyes on the summit I carried out my ritual, and wiped. I then took a lighter from my pocket and, holding the relic by a corner, set fire to it. A small blackened ghost left the earth in the desert wind.
The climb. Intense. We both struggled on the first three pitches. I felt awkward and lacked commitment but on the fourth pitch I started coming up. A new flow came over us both whereupon corners, cracks and walls went flapping by no harder than feathers. Such things as belays seemed tiresome chores. We summited and looked out, or in, at the world and its great forces, at the patterns in the cosmos.
Magically, a black bird appeared and circled the tower. In its caw I heard the fabric of everything and understood where we fit.
“The air,” the bird said. “Not only mine. Yours, too. Come.”
Perhaps. Mundanely, we rappelled Pale Fire back to the red ground.
I have lost touch with Kevin and hope he’s doing well, but still there was one part of the episode we didn’t touch upon at the time but on which I often find myself reflecting today. It remains the true fascinating jewel in the whole thing and through it I fancy I see into another life. It is this:
When I asked Dean to pass me some toilet paper he passed me one sheet. One single sheet no more than five inches by five. I think that’s fascinating. What did he think I could do with one sheet of toilet paper in that situation? Is that all he needs? Or did he have me figured as a goon and was tossing the gag back at me? Did the bird tell him? Was he actually telling me I shouldn’t waste so much and this one square would suffice? A metaphor? Did he think I was wasting my life? Am I still wasting it, Dean?
Niall Grimes was born in Northern Ireland but now lives in Northern England. He’s thinking about moving to Northern Scotland.
RECOMMENDED READING: DEAN POTTER ON FREE SOLOING THE ROSTRUM ROOF
This article was first published in Rock and Ice, September 2011.