This interview with Dean Potter was recorded on April 2nd, 2015. The conversation lasted 20 minutes and we connected while he was mid-climb on El Capitan. What struck me most about Dean was his calm, soft-spoken nature, which put us both at ease and allowed me to conduct one of my most memorable interviews. I’d like to thank the Clymb and the Discovery Channel for allowing me this extraordinary opportunity to conduct one of the last interviews with a climbing legend and one of my most cherished role models.
“I’m on El Cap right now. The signal’s not too good up here so if you lose me, just call me back.”
That was how my interview with Dean Potter started and it’d be strange to expect he’d be anywhere else. Potter, 43, is an icon among a generation of climbers who arrived in the Yosemite Valley in the early-1990’s. His life’s philosophy was finding freedom however possible, and if he wasn’t free-soloing or pushing the time record on The Nose, you’d find him on a slackline across Lost Arrow Spire or diving off the Swiss Alps in a wingsuit. Potter described himself as an artist, and he practiced like one, ascending in a calculated, flowing, free-form style unmatched by any other climber. Dean sat down with me to talk about his memories of the Yosemite Valley, his method of assessing risk, competition, and the future of climbing in the Valley.
The Clymb: What first brought you to the Yosemite Valley?
Dean Potter: Back in 1992 I started traveling as a climber and wanted to do nothing else but rock climb; so I left New Hampshire with a couple hundred dollars in my pocket and wanted to go to the world center of rock climbing: Yosemite National Park and the Yosemite Valley. But what I found here was that it wasn’t just the world center of rock climbing, it became the world center for everything that I do. Yosemite is the birthplace of big wall base jumping, the very first one was here in 1964, and it’s the birthplace of slacklining, the first one being done by Scott Balcom in 1985 on Lost Arrow Spire. People have climbed here since John Muir in the late 1800s. What I sought was to climb walls and what I got was an extreme mind opening.
The Clymb: How did you go from climbing into discovering free soloing and highlining?
DP: I taught myself to free solo when I was 13. I didn’t have any instructors. There was a big cliff near my house called Joe English that my parents forbid me to go to, so from the very beginning, climbing was forbidden and like I said, no-one taught me and I just climbed naturally without ropes. Then, during that first road trip in the early 90’s, I climbed too much and I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I was drinking beer and coffee and not really hydrating and I hurt my tendons in my hands. And then luckily, I met this homeless man called Chongo Chuck. I hung out with him, and I couldn’t really use my hands because I had bad tendon problems even though I was pretty young, and he taught me how to slackline. This was really key for me and I started realizing that I could do more with my mind than I could with my body. That perception change was all that was necessary and for the next 20-something years living in Yosemite, most of my major breakthroughs were mental shifts, not increases in strength or pushing numbers. It was a new way of doing things.
The Clymb: When you’re free soloing or highlining, how do you keep your focus?
DP: My mom was a yoga teacher back in the 1960’s, so I was born in 1972 to a well-established practice. Yoga wasn’t the norm and my mom didn’t teach me yoga, but I observed her doing her breathing exercises from as early on as I can remember. Then at a very young age, I realized the power of focusing on the breath. My dad, who was a colonel in the army, was really into distance running and so I learned to run with my dad at a very early age and running with the recruits when I was in first grade. I was already a good runner at that time, and the only tip my dad gave me when I was running was to focus on the breath. All the pain and all the cramps went away from that focus. From the military background and the yoga background, both were saying the same thing: When things get hard, you focus on your breath. That’s all I’ve done when I’ve climbed. When I climb, or wingsuit, or slackline, it’s nothing too amazing or complex.
The Clymb: Before you take off, get on the wall, or step on the slackline, do you have any mental rituals beforehand?
DP: I have this very rudimentary basic yoga practice. I’ll go through sun salutations over and over and hypnotize myself into the zone that I’ve found for the last 30 years, and then I focus on my intention whether it’s moving upwards or across a line, or down. The primary necessity in life, which is living, burns and sears into my consciousness and opens up these pathways of thinking that precedes of the danger that exists in everyday life.
The Clymb: How do you calculate risk?
DP: There are two ways: the intuitive way and the intellectual way. First thing I do is I am rationally thinking, whether in any of my arts, is it safe? If it’s a BASE jump: Is there a big enough drop to start my wingsuit safely? If it’s a slackline: Is my slackline rigged properly? Will it break? Are all the carabiners shut? Is it the strongest material? That brings me to gear development. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always made my own gear, so I’ll improve on existing gear with my own improvements and systematic checklists. Then, I’m a very intuitive guy for better or for worse really, and I’m controlled a lot by my emotions. Before I go to do anything I’m still in control of them. Sometimes they’re powerful and lean me forward. Other times being the strange artist that I am, I’m stuck in bed the morning that I’m supposed to go do something rad and I can’t get up or out of bed. I’ll feel sick or have physical symptoms. I used to think that I was only getting sick, but it’s more that my emotions are telling me to not do it. So I listen strongly to my emotions as well as my systematic checklist.
The Clymb: You used to row in college. How do you view competition, especially regarding the Race For The Nose?
DP: I’ve always struggled with competition. That’s what drove me away from rowing. In college, I had a strict rowing coach, and he drove in the idea of destroying our opponents. Even if it was our teammates in practice, we had to watch them vomit after we beat them like “That was great! You made him puke!” I hadn’t climbed for a year and a half after I started rowing, and one day I went climbing with my friend, Charlie Bentley. It was wonderful. Charlie and I pushed each other on these boulder problems and short free solos, and there was never a moment of me wanting to beat Charlie or wanting him to do poorly. So that’s why I started climbing. I dropped out of college the next day. Competition has always made me uncomfortable. But then, I came to Yosemite, and found there was competition climbing. I got lured back into it. I enjoyed many parts of the race, but still I haven’t been racing for years now, because I do find that the way I push myself to my highest form isn’t with competition. That’s a lower level for me. Pure inspiration and artistic creativity bring me to the highest level. As much as I have competed, especially with The Race For the Nose record, I do find that as a lower energy. It doesn’t bring out the best out of me, it’s just one-upmanship instead of pure creativity.
The Clymb: What do you feel that you’re still learning as a climber?
DP: I’ll be 43 on April 14th and I’m psyched. For a lot of athletes that’s considered pretty old, but somehow I feel like I’m definitely progressing in all my three major arts, and I’m doing them at a higher level than I’ve ever done. What I’m learning about myself for one, I’ve never injured myself seriously and so I’ve seen that it’s a gradual progression of never taking myself out of the game and I just keep on getting better. I’ve learned to operate below my max and never injure myself, mostly because I never want to feel that pain, but also I don’t want to be taken out and not practice my arts. The main thing I’ve learned is problem solving through open-mindedness. Because faced with these objectives, looking at the beautiful walls around me, I’m finding something that I need to do that is somewhat beyond my current limitations. Instead of taking it straight on and attacking it with everything I have, I try to take it on in another way by attacking it slowly with things I don’t have yet. All these new ideas arise out of need: to do this climb, to walk the empty spaces between the walls or fly the human body in one of the world’s premier climbing spots.
The Clymb: What do you think the next generation of climbers will bring to the Valley?
DP: That’s a hard question. In Europe and in the Alps, climbing, mountaineering, and alpinism is a big part of the culture. Those mountains, people have climbed them for hundreds of years. In the United States, the focus was more on team sports. Slowly, climbing is now becoming more and more a part of the social norm as far as understanding it and realizing the intricacies of our art and our sport. As that happens, younger and younger people got into it as well as it’s becoming more regimented, as in the 70’s and my era, it was more about a lifestyle of freedom and this new way of doing things without a systematic method of training. So I think one thing the new age will bring in are better athletes and in one way I’m like, “Oh that’s great,” but in another way, “I don’t like that it’s the athleticism improves.” So what I hope happens, and if you watch the film, you’ll see that I strongly speak about freedom, that constant feeling of freedom and the necessity for people to be free. I want them to explore themselves by going into the wilderness and venturing up these rocks, so what I look for, and my hope is, is for a more unified voice in all the outdoor arts, not just climbing, and people start realizing the similarities in all the outdoor arts from water sports to air sports to climbing to trekking to dog walking, on and on and on, and we all have a more unified voice that screams freedom.
On the evening of May 16, 2015, Dean and his wingsuit partner, Graham Hunt, 29, took flight from Yosemite’s Taft Point and never returned. His loss has left an irreplaceable hole in the climbing community. While Dean was often controversial, he was bold, innovative, and pushing boundaries further than ever before. At the time of his passing, Dean was collaborating with NASA to invent lighter, stronger, and safer wingsuit materials, and dreamt of attempting the world’s first unassisted parachute-less landing from human-powered flight. He will be sorely missed.
“The last rays of the day’s sun warm my back and my stare locks onto my own shadow. I follow the lines of my body on the stone in front of me, spreading my arms as wings, and bathe in the beauty of existence.” –Dean Potter