Famed rock climber Dean Potter was always open about the dangers and also his passion for extreme sports.
“When I was a little boy, my first memory was a flying dream. In my dream, I flew — and I also fell,” he told Outside magazine last year. "I always wondered as I got older if it was some premonition of falling to my death.”
Potter was one of two men who died Saturday in a BASE-jumping accident at Yosemite National Park.
The Times once called him “the reigning prince of American rock” with “a near-mystical reputation for ropeless ascents.”
By his mid-20s, Potter, a college dropout, had solidified his reputation as one of Yosemite’s finest climbers. He was the first person to free climb three-quarters of the way up the face of Half Dome, a feat that took him just over four hours, shredding the previous record by more than 16 hours.
He later became the first person to free climb in less than 24 hours both Half Dome and the towering granite monolith El Capitan, scaling both with only his hands and feet, using ropes to prevent him from falling. This year, two men became the first in history to free climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
Off the rock, Potter continued to test boundaries and draw controversy. He was kicked out of Yosemite several times — for staying beyond the park’s two-week maximum, for sleeping in the meadows and, The Times reported in 2001, for snapping the stems off a head of broccoli in the park’s Village Store.
He also sometimes clashed with park rangers who tried to rein him in.
“We call the rangers ‘the tool,’” Potter told The Times in 2005. “They’re just kind of a tool of the government machine. They don’t use their own mind.”
In 2001 interview with The Times, he spoke of his Zen approach to the dangerous sport.
“This is a high-risk activity in the extreme despite the safety leash he wears around his ankle, but the danger of it, he says, puts the rest of what he does “into perspective,” The Times reported.
His 2006 ascent of Delicate Arch, the most recognized natural landmark in Utah’s Arches National Park, led clothing company Patagonia to drop its sponsorship of him.
And just last year, Clif Bar ended its sponsorship of Potter and other extreme athletes after renouncing activities like BASE jumping that were “taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go,” according to a company statement.
Potter’s death left fellow climbers stunned.
“We as climbers are really good at justifying what we do. And those of us who push the safety aspect convince themselves that they are invincible,” climber Tommy Caldwell told Time magazine. “I definitely felt Dean was invincible and when something like this happens I get shattered and it makes me very introspective and makes us pause and take a reality check.”
Climber Doug Robinson told the BBC: “We’re very sad about Dean Potter’s death, but not very surprised. He was pushing the envelope all his life.”
“He always recognized how dangerous the sport was and at the same time how magical it was — the tension between those two things,” climber Chris McNamara told Associated Press.
Authorities are trying to sort out what happened Saturday in Yosemite.
Potter and Graham Hunt jumped around nightfall from Taft Point, an overlook about 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, said park spokesman Scott Gediman.
Neither responded to radio calls or arrived at a preset meeting point in the park, and around 9 p.m., their spotter informed park officials of their disappearance.
A search-and-rescue operation was launched early Sunday morning, with up to 100 people, including park rangers and volunteers, surveying the park for the men, Gediman said. Crews in a California Highway Patrol helicopter spotted their bodies at two locations along a wall of rock in Yosemite Valley, and both were flown out, Gediman said.
Potter was 43. Hunt was 29.
It was not immediately clear whether either man had deployed his parachute, and Gediman said a full investigation by park officials into the deaths was underway.
On Monday, an official said the pair were attempting to clear a “notch” on the mountain but slammed into the rock instead, an official said Monday.
Mike Gauthier, chief of staff for Yosemite, described a notch as a steep and rocky ridgeline that is “spiny like a stegosaurus.”
Potter had jumped from the same point at least 20 times, and Hunt may have too, Gauthier said.
Both were well known within the tightknit climbing community that has proliferated around Yosemite, and their deaths struck a blow.
“I can’t emphasize enough how tragic this is,” Gediman said. “Dean just loved Yosemite. He loved the park and everything it stood for.”