On Saturday evening, BASE jumpers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt died in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite National Park. Potter, 43, and Hunt, 29, jumped from Taft Point on the south rim of Yosemite Valley. Early reports suggest the two collided with a rocky ridge.
A California state police helicopter located the bodies on Sunday morning. Neither jumper had deployed their parachute. The intended flight would have been a 3,500-foot descent to the valley floor. BASE jumping is illegal in all national parks.
Potter was a leading personality among climbing and BASE jumping athletes, if a controversial one. In the late '90s he emerged from the climbing scene in Yosemite Valley. He pioneered a minimalist approach to high-risk climbs, often combining his love of climbing with flying. In 2008, he climbed Deep Blue Sea on the north face of Eiger, Switzerland without ropes but with a five-pound parachute on his back. He jumped from the summit and recorded the longest wingsuit flight in history at two minutes, 50 seconds. Potter also spearheaded a form of tightrope walking known as slacklining and eventually took the practice to an extreme level, crossing voids as deep as 5,900 feet.
"Dean was a renegade," says Sam Elias, a professional climber for The North Face since 2010. "He was a passionate, unapologetic follower of his own self-determined destiny. I loved that about him. But it caused him to clash with a lot of people."
In 2006, Potter free-climbed Utah's Delicate Arch, a highly visited landmark in southern Utah pictured on the state's license plates. After the climb, Patagonia withdrew its sponsorship of Potter.
"Patagonia had no prior knowledge of his climb, nor did we 'sponsor' his activities," the company wrote in a statement issued through Outside in 2006. "Sadly, his actions compromised access to wild places and generated an inordinate amount of negativity in the climbing community and beyond."
BASE jumping has continually brought counterculture athletes into conflict with law enforcement in Yosemite National Park. Potter lead the charge against the ruling establishment but in recent years had softened his hardline stance. He had become friends with park rangers and staff and viewed those relationships as opportunities to improve the climbing climate within the park.
In the film Valley Uprising, Nick Rosen and Peter Mortimer of Sender Films document the Yosemite climbing culture and Potter's role in it.
"More than anyone I know, Dean was guided by an internal compass—he was leading, not following," Rosen says. "And he had a pretty fierce attitude toward anyone who would put limits on his freedom."
Potter will be remembered for his unwavering dedication to human excellence in the vertical realm. He pushed limits wherever he found them. He inspired, angered, and paved the way for other athletes.
"Sometimes he lost personal relationships, sometimes he lost sponsors," Sam Elias says. "Now he's lost his life. Sometimes that's the cost of doing business when risk and danger become a part of your spirituality, and when the only thing worse than following your heart, is living with yourself having not followed it."