This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 228 (August 2015).
In memory of Dean S. Potter—fly free.
Dean Potter said he could fly.
That was 10 years ago.
Maybe he could fly.
He made so many spacey statements and did so many dreamy things they could seem as natural as a flower opening its petals.
For those 10 years I meant to write a feature profile on Dean. We e-mailed and talked, and one idea was to use a séance as the device for the story. We’d
go to a medium in San Francisco (he knew a few) and filter the questions and answers through the spirit world.
“Cool,” Dean said, “I’m into it.”
Of course he was.
When Dean was a child living in Israel he fell off the roof of the family house, hitting his head on the patio. Bedouin women rushed to his aid. They chanted
a magical song and to cast out evil spirits, tossed salt on his bleeding head. After that, Dean said he lost his fear of heights. In 1993 at Hueco
Tanks, a series of visions told him of the innovations and failures he would have in the coming decades. In 2003, when he began skydiving and BASE
jumping, he realized that the winged beings that had appeared in his dreams when he was an infant had been teaching him all along how to align his
body in the air for flight.
He was superstitious, part Schaghticoke (a northeastern tribe), and believed he had joined with the spirit of a dying swift he saw on the floor of the
Sotos de las Golondrinas, a pit cave in Mexico so deep a person without a parachute would fall 10 seconds before impact. When Dean, with parachute,
had jumped into that hole, his chute famously tangled around a free-hanging rope a photographer had fixed. Dean saved himself by grabbing the line
and riding it 300 feet straight down to that dying bird.
Wind blowing the wrong way could spook him.
[Also Read The Great UnKnown – Graham Hunt]
The séance didn’t happen and the years dragged on and Dean might have become frustrated at my inaction. Sometimes, when we spoke, he wouldn’t shut up
and sometimes he would hardly say a word. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, being cosmic or avoiding the media. He’d become reticent after his free solo of the Delicate Arch in 2006 when the press, sponsors and nearly everyone had burned him. His ascent of that
little span of sandstone, which is to Utah what the Statue of Liberty is to Americans, really chapped a lot of people. It took him years to recover.
But it wasn’t because of Delicate Arch that the interview didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because
I kept waiting for him to do his next bigger thing, the career capper. Since Dean never said what he was up to, it was impossible to know when he had
finally done the Big One, something bigger than free soloing Separate Reality five times in a row, bigger than free soloing all but about
100 feet of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, bigger than wearing a parachute to solo the Alien Roof on the Rostrum and a .12+ on
the North Face of the Eiger and inventing FreeBASE along the way. Bigger than, in three weeks, setting the speed solo record for climbing Cerro Torre,
and doing the first solo of Super Canaleta on Fitz Roy and establishing, solo, California Roulette (VI 5.10+ WI5). Bigger than climbing
El Cap, Half Dome and Watkins in a day. Bigger even, than establishing the Nose speed record or the longest wingsuit flight record or walking,
untethered, the Lost Arrow slackline or that even crazier one in China.
Man, how do you go bigger than all that?
Dean practiced a magical realism of his own brand: slacklining, free soloing, BASE jumping and wingsuit flying all bundled into a single life designed
to lead him to mastery of the physical and spiritual worlds.
When he made the first free solo of Heaven, that lofty 5.12d roof in the Valley, it seemed as if he had achieved complete control, and maybe that
was the Big Thing, but with Dean how could you ever know?
Earlier this year he did say that he had “something big in mind. Come to the Valley and you’ll see.”
A free solo of Free Rider on El Cap seemed possible. Already he had down soloed the top 600 feet of Lurking Fear then soloed back up
the Free Rider exit, a circuit he called Easy Rider. Maybe he would wear a parachute. Or maybe not.
Or, was he really going to fly? It might sound crazy— Dean’s words—but he believed that by studying birds and practicing, he would someday
fly and land, unaided. No wingsuit or parachute.
Imagine that. Free soloing El Cap and swooping away like a swallow.
Only Dean could.