"Not all those who wander are lost"

Heroes and Dark Wizards Never Die

Entranced by the flight of a raven, I watch its shadow move effortlessly against golden, shimmering granite. I long to be that free, flying above the cluttered world of normalcy, where so many are half alive.

-Dean Potter



A masked “unknown” climber decked out in Adidas gear pulls up over a roof, presses down the rail and extends up for a crimp at the edge of his reach.  The camera cuts to a close up of calloused, cracked finger tips touching a granite crimp and sliding off.  The man jumps away from the wall as begins to plummet to the ground hundreds, if not thousands, of feet below.  A plume of chalk trails him as he waves his arms and legs to stabilize himself.  He gains composure and flies for several more seconds before deploying the BASE rig on his back.  The last words of Valley Uprising still resounded in my mind: “but in an era of increasing good will, there remains at the heart of Yosemite climbing, a spirit that’s not so easily tamed.”

I never met Dean Potter.  But that’s far from saying he never affected me.  I may be naïve and I may attribute qualities based on media representation, but I don’t think that’s important.  To me, Dean wasn’t a person; he was a hero and heroes don’t need to be real.

Dean captured the essence of what I considered climbing and did so in a larger than life way.  He was never just out there climbing hard, he was the one out there climbing bigger, scarier, faster and then maybe soloing those routes and hucking himself off the top.  Dean challenged the world to keep up as he pushed climbing to explore new possibilities and new concepts.  He pushed soloing and speed climbing harder and was ok with “no gear, don’t fall” when it came to pushing the limits.  Limits are broken when someone challenges the way they approach them and that’s exactly what Dean did.  When climbing wasn’t enough he took on highlining, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying.  Whatever the discipline, he pushed the boundaries of imagination, literally flew in the face of danger, and embraced it all with the mentality that “with everything I’m doing, I’m trying to become more free.”

Dean took risks, pushed boundaries, and stepped on toes of those who got in the way.  Whether it was speed climbing, BASE jumping or climbing, Dean’s approach was: “it’s just about doing my art and being free.  And unfortunately that means that I need to evade the law.”  This is exactly what’s lacking in today’s world.  In our gym-breed climbing culture, where kids can climb V10 before they have ever set foot outside a gym, it’s easy to forget or bypass the heritage that brought us to where we are today.  Climbing was forged in dirt and grit.  While popularity and mainstream attention is making climbing into a polished, viewer friendly sport, we need to remember that our tribe came from the outlaws and outcasts.

In a world moving toward luxury, excess, and soft, Dean stood fast as a hard man.  From living under a boulder in Yosemite to honing his skills while on a diet of free crackers and ketchup packs and embraced the true meaning of the word dirtbag.  He came off as a wild man, a bit coarse, and never false.  He always seemed to me to be the new type of cowboy.  Not all about spurs and show, but wild, free, and uncaring about how society judged him; willing to go where few else dared, and live by personal ethics not by the dictates of others.  He described living in camp 4, saying “It was just all about now.  Enter into the freak show and be free.”

Late Thrill Seeker Dean Potter…, Dean Potter’s Final Flight: One Risk Too Many, In Defense of Thrill Seekers like Dean Potter.  The names of the articles alone are enough to annoy the hell out of anyone with an inclination toward sports more active than watching golf.  The slew of articles and comments after Dean’s death questioning or justifying “thrill seekers” fail to grasp the very heart of why climbing and BASE jumping are so integral to the lives of some people.  In every video I’ve ever seen, Dean mentions his pursuits, not as the next thrill, but the drive to be free.  I imagine the ideas of freedom, moving unhindered up rock, and flying back down are equally indescribable as to the pains of child birth or loss of a loved one.  If you haven’t experienced it, you really can’t understand the feeling.  I think we all, or at least most climbers I know, have the same pull toward beautiful, pure movement on rock and in the air.  The difference is that Dean was the one bold enough to act out his dreams, while the rest of us cower in our mediocrity.  I guess in the end, Dean was acting out the truest life anyone from New Hampshire could: “live free or die.”  He did both.

I don’t think that everyone should be just like Dean, frankly most people don’t have the commitment and care too much about norms to even come close, but I do think that as with any great person, there are a lot of good things to take away.  I just hope that when people see that a climber or BASE jumper died, they don’t just shake their heads and say “there’s another pointless death,” but take the time to think about the legacy build by lives in pursuit of passion.  We live in a dangerous world and you could die any day.  I for one would much rather die doing something I love than exist without it.  William Wallace said “Every man dies.  Not every many really lives.” By any measure I use, Dean lived more than anyone else I can find.  Today, his bio on the Five Ten website still reads “Claim to fame: I haven’t died yet.”  That must be because heroes and Dark Wizards never die.


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