Sean Jones met Graham Hunt in a Sacramento climbing gym about a decade ago. He quickly felt a strong rapport with Hunt, then only in his early 20s, and encouraged him to stay with him in El Portal, Calif., and climb in nearby Yosemite.
“We did everything together and I showed him every possible thing I could, which connected him to Yosemite and to the people,” said Jones, 45. “Graham just took off in climbing. At the end of the year, I couldn’t keep up with him, which was awesome. His climbing got better and better.”
Even after Jones moved from El Portal to Kansas, the two stayed in touch. Hunt, he said, became like his brother.
Jones said Hunt remained devoted to climbing, but in the last few years got into flying in wingsuits, along with others like Sean Leary, who died BASE jumping last year, and Dean Potter.
“Those guys were like the gurus, definitely the best of the best,” Jones said of Leary. “That was the one comforting thing for me. That at least Graham was in there learning from the best and that had Graham becoming the best.”
Hunt died with Dean Potter on Saturday in a BASE-jumping accident at Yosemite National Park when the pair, clad in a wingsuit that allowed them to zip through the air at great speeds, failed to clear a “notch” in the mountain and slammed into rock instead. Potter and Hunt jumped around nightfall from Taft Point, an overlook about 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, said park spokesman Scott Gediman.
Though Jones said he had confidence in Hunt, he said he would on occasion slip him warnings during conversations, telling him to learn from those who died before.
“This sport takes even the best of them down, because those guys are pushing the limits. They’re on the edge of exploration of this sport,” Jones said. “They’re pushing it to the limit the most, seeing what they can get away with the most and that was the worry.”
Despite his words of caution, Jones said he didn’t want to discourage Hunt.
“There’s still the fine line where you never want to stop people that are so passionate,” he said. “Maybe 30 years in the life of Graham was better than 60 in the boring life of someone else.”
Hunt’s father, Cliff, said his son was “very well-liked. He was a hard worker and just a pleasure to be around.”
Hunt grew up in Shingle Springs, Calif., where he was an outdoorsman and a sports fanatic, his father said. The two would go hunting, camping and fishing together.
When Graham Hunt graduated from high school, he went to Butte College for the fire academy. Afterward, he joined a hotshot crew up in Northern California, fighting fires with them. Cliff Hunt said his son spent most of his time in Moab, Utah and Yosemite, doing rock climbing.
Although he said he never went out rock climbing with his son, he watched him scaling El Capitan through binoculars from a meadow below.
“It’s surreal in the sense that he’s accomplishing something a lot of people can’t or don’t,” Hunt said. “At the same time, being a parent, you’re always hoping nothing goes wrong there.”
Graham Hunt lived in El Portal for the last three or four years, where he was neighbors with Potter, said his father. Potter and Hunt went to Switzerland together, jumping while wearing wingsuits in the Alps a couple of years ago.
“Dean was his mentor,” Hunt’s father said, adding that he saw flying as “graduating from one step to another.”
“It’s just more extreme and more extreme,” he said. “But it’s what he enjoyed and I supported him.”
Jones said he initially couldn’t believe that his friend was dead. After Potter’s death was confirmed, he still clung to the slim hope that Hunt was alive. Then reality began to sink in.
“I’ve just been devastated,” Jones said. “The lesson you take from this and the message you give out is don’t waste time … make it count.”
Jones said he last saw Hunt about three weeks ago in Utah with Shawn Reeder, a longtime rock climber who had been friends of Hunt for nearly a dozen years. While in Utah, Reeder said he had talked to Hunt about his plans to jump with Potter.
Hunt would describe the feeling as “flying” and as a sort of “alternate freedom,” Reeder said.
“They were very well-aware of the risks but they chose to live life fully and completely … looking death straight in the eyes,” Reeder said. “I just can’t help but want to celebrate what these two men did. They lived life to the fullest and that’s inspiring.”
But when he heard about Hunt and Potter’s death, his heart just sank.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my God, no please,’” Reeder, who lives in Nevada City, said Monday. “Losing two people at the same time, it’s hard to even put words to what it feels like.”
Reeder said Hunt was a “little bit of a vagabond” but that El Portal had become his home base. He said Hunt was careful, choosing not to jump if conditions weren’t ideal.
“Graham definitely was very aware of what conditions he needed and if they weren’t right, he wouldn’t jump,” Reeder said. “He loved adventure, but he was a pretty even-keeled person. Very calculated, very methodical. He wasn’t an over-risk-taker.”
Following Hunt’s death, Reeder shared a tribute to his longtime friend on his Facebook page. He included photos of climbing in Colorado and in Yosemite, with a message about wanting to “celebrate Graham’s incredible life.”
“I knew Dean was going to get worldwide attention and there’d be no lack of images celebrating him,” Reeder said. “I also knew not as many people knew Graham and he was really special. Not only to me but to many people his life touched.”
Unlike Potter, who was a superstar in the extreme world that he inhabited, Hunt kept a low profile. He didn’t even have a Facebook account, Reeder said.
“Everything he did in life he was doing because that’s what he loved. He didn’t need any recognition,” he said. “He seemed like one of those rare people that was doing a good job of walking the middle road in life. Even though from the outside it might seem like he was super-extreme. His inner psyche was very much in the middle. He was chill and mellow, but when he’d go out there he’d give it his all.”