Dean Potter

Dean Potter

Author’s Note:
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.

PotterThe 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