Like Icarus, the brave and foolish bird-boy of Greek mythology, Dean Potter lives to fly. He has already set the world record for height, distance and duration in a wingsuit, a nylon outfit that allows BASE jumpers to soar like flying squirrels over great distances and to land by deploying a parachute. Potter’s record flight was from a 9,000-foot drop off the Eiger, a 13,000-foot-high Swiss alp. Reaching a speed of roughly 120 miles an hour, he landed nearly four miles away and was in the air over fields and towns almost three minutes before he glided in safely under his chute.
It was an astounding flight, but it was just a first step in Potter’s audacious ambition, the dream he is working toward, which suggests that, had he been Icarus with his feathered wings melted away by the sun, he could have survived a landing. Potter intends to fly his body in jeans and a shirt – without a wingsuit, without a parachute – and walk away from the landing.
“Part of me says it’s kind of crazy to think you can fly your human body,” he has said. “Another part of me thinks all of us have had the dream that we can fly. Why not chase after it?”
Nothing about Potter seems crazy on sight. He’s a wire-taut six-five with brown eyes on an open and friendly face under shaggy brown hair, and he speaks in a way that is somehow intense and laid-back at the same time. He weighed 190 pounds when we met last spring but works himself down to 175 for his flying projects. “One hundred ninety is fine for climbing,” he said, “but the difference between that and 175 is like carrying two gallon jugs of water on your back.” We met on the deck of a Yosemite Valley cabin with a view of El Capitan, more than 3,000 hulking feet of sheer granite shoulder, and beyond that the dish-flat face of Half Dome – two of the valley’s emblematic cliffs, both of which he has climbed, one after the other, in a single day. Before Potter began flying he was one of the most accomplished rock climbers in the world. He climbed into his red-and-purple wingsuit and spread his arms. The suit was sewn of parapac, a strong waterproof fabric, and had flaps to catch the air under the arms and between the legs. “There’s elegance to it,” he said, standing in the wings-out position. In fact, it had the look of ecclesiastic robes, as if he ought to have been the bishop of something, His Insane Excellency, perhaps.
As he began to describe his record-setting record-setting flight, he arched his shoulders and held his arms in a parenthesis to demonstrate the wing shape he has to achieve and hold as he soars. While he spoke I remembered the Internet video I’d seen of the amazing event.
He is standing in his flying-squirrel suit on a finger-shape outcrop on the craggy face of the Eiger. The shot is from an overhead helicopter. By the time he stands at the edge he has meditated and is thinking about contorting his body in the perfect flight shape, which he describes in “Embracing Insanity,” an article he wrote for Alpinist magazine:
“When I step off the edge dozens of thoughts come together for the perfect wing shape. Eyes on the horizon, arms to the side, chin down, head poking forward, angle of attack, concave the chest, arch the back, feel the air, listen for the wind speed, point the toes, concentrate on the suction lifting off my back and reach for the pilot chute before impact.” As he leaves the rock he seems to hesitate in an almost upright position, leaning slightly forward. “The moment you take off there is this hyper-alert awareness that takes hold,” he said. “Your first feeling is to stay in control, not tumble and not hit the walls, which at the beginning are close on both sides.”
As his body pitches forward his arms extend into a full wingspan; he hunches his shoulders and becomes what looks like a big red bird but is really a flying human seen from above, sailing over jade-green fields and farmhouses. “Once you start flying you loosen your body and take this wing shape, which is okay for a while, but when you get up to about 150 miles an hour it becomes an endurance and power game because it’s hard to hold your body in that unnatural way, scooping your underside and bulging your back. Then your arms get pushed back, which is not too bad at one minute but after two minutes starts to burn and you begin to question your ability to reach back and pull the pilot chute. Then it’s a big head game. At the end you’re trying to match the slope of the ground, and you want to be at least 300 feet up when you pull because the chute could snivel or be slow on deployment. A lot of people die in those last critical seconds.” Then, after almost four miles and two minutes and 50 seconds in the air on his record-setting flight, his parachute blossoms and he touches down – safely this time, but in the hundreds of flights he has made developing his technique, he has crashed and hung himself from trees more than a few times.
“I’ve had a lot of close calls,” he said, “usually when desire was stronger than reason. One time off the Eiger I was pushing to reach farther down this seven-kilometre gully than I ever had. I was about three minutes into the flight, going 150 miles an hour, really tired, and I saw the ground about 300 feet below me – which isn’t that much – and trees right there. I said ‘Fuck!’ then opened the chute, and I was having these super-slow-motion thoughts. My body turned exactly as I didn’t want it to, and a second later I was boom – 50 feet up in the trees. But I wasn’t hurt and got down okay. So lucky.” Potter tells his stories without the whooping bravado that seems to be in the DNA of most edge athletes, though his history on the edge was long and full even before he began flying.
He grew up an Army brat. His father was a colonel in the paratroops, his mother a yoga teacher, and they lived around the world until settling in New Hampshire, where Potter went to high school. In what he calls “magic days,” he ran cross-country, played basketball, baseball and soccer, and began climbing a small nearby cliff with a friend. After hanging on academically for three semesters at the University of New Hampshire, he dropped out to become a dedicated climbing bum and eventually fell in with the lost-boy climbers in Yosemite.
“My first time here,” he remembered, “these cliffs scared me. I climbed pretty well by then, but these climbs with their off-width cracks were just kicking my ass.” He stayed four months that first trip, sleeping in Camp Four, the climbers’ camp, then staying among the boulders that border the camp. He has lived in Yosemite off and on ever since. I’ve gone into the valley many times over the years, writing stories about the legendary rock climbers, learning to climb, learning to fall all over this cathedral of stone. I was here this time hoping to watch Potter climb into his wingsuit and soar like a falcon from the top of El Capitan. The weather was looking chancy: Rain was forecast for all but one of the days I would be there. And that wasn’t the only problem. “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” said Potter, who had suggested that although BASE jumping was illegal in Yosemite, he might make a clandestine flight. He seemed to be changing his mind. “I’m already on the edge with the rangers, and the penalties if I get caught are serious.”
BASE jumping (BASE stands for the takeoff points: buildings, antennas, spans and earth) has a deadly history. The sport came to wide attention after the 1977 James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, in which Roger Moore’s stunt double, Rick Sylvester, skied off a high cliff, took several seconds of free fall, then opened a parachute with a Union Jack on it. There are no official figures, but it’s estimated that since the early 1980s about 150 people have died BASE jumping. The history of the sport in Yosemite is typically bloody.
The first jump off El Capitan, an ideal BASE-jumping cliff because of its sheer face, was in 1978, and the park service quickly banned the sport. It did, however, allow limited hang gliding off the cliff under certain conditions and at certain times of day and in 1980 relented and allowed BASE jumping under similar restrictions. But because BASE jumpers tend to be an ornery, free-swinging bunch, they flouted the regulations, and the sport was banned again later that year.
To date, as if to validate the rangers’ concerns, at least five BASE jumpers have died in Yosemite. I knew one of the dead. His name was Frank “the Gambler” Gambalie and he was one of the most experienced BASE jumpers in the world, with 600 jumps including New York’s Chrysler Building. He’d been part of a story I’d written years earlier about a different kind of jumping death in Yosemite. Dan “Dano” Osman, another Yosemite climber, had begun jumping from great heights tethered only to climbing ropes that he rigged to catch his falls just before he hit the ground. In November 1998 he called Gambalie on his cell phone as he jumped from the top of Yosemite’s 1,100-foot Leaning Tower. His rope broke, the phone went blank and Osman died on impact with the forest floor. Potter, a friend of Osman’s, was working with search and rescue that day and was called to sit alone with the body through a rainy night so bears and coyotes wouldn’t get to it before rangers retrieved it in the morning. While covering that story I talked with both Potter and Gambalie, who by then were good friends. In fact, years earlier Gambalie had introduced Potter to BASE jumping.
“I was kicking hacky sack in Camp Four,” said Potter, “when Frank and a guy known as Randy Ride approached me, saying they were photographers and wanted to take an early morning picture from the Rostrum, a pillar with an overhang and about an 800-foot drop straight down. You can walk down to the top from the road, but there’s about a 50-foot climb to get to the overhang. They wanted me to guide them up there at first light. I was broke, so I said sure. When we got to the top they said, ‘We’re not photographers. We’re BASE jumpers, and we want to huck this thing.’ It was amazing to watch. They landed on a sandbar in the Merced River and made a getaway in a white pickup truck that was waiting for them.”
If you’re caught BASE jumping in a national park the punishment is a $2,000 fine and confiscation of your gear, which can cost more than $1,000. In 1999, seven months after Osman’s death, Gambalie made one of his many illegal El Capitan jumps. He was in the air for 16 seconds, made a safe meadow landing, scrambled his equipment together and took off running. Two rangers chased him to the banks of the Merced River, which was roaring with spring snowmelt. He jumped or fell in and drowned. His body was recovered 28 days later.
Yosemite climbers going back 60 years have had a traditionally snarky relationship with park rangers. Potter’s antipathy has been sharpened by rangers “dropping Osman’s body and making jokes about it as they carried him out of the woods” and by the fact that he believes BASE-jumping rules in the valley led to Gambalie’s death. “I mean, what sense does it make to chase him into a river for jumping El Cap?” he said. “This is supposed to be the land of the free. I’m sick of playing cops and robbers with the rangers. I’m a hero in Europe, where it’s often legal to BASE jump, but I’m an outlaw in my own hometown.” “I think of BASE jumping as the most dangerous of risk sports,” I told him. “Many of the best in the sport have died doing it.”
“BASE jumping is very dangerous,” he said. “The best guys who died were putting too much pressure on themselves to be on the cutting edge. The wingsuiters and BASE jumpers who have died made poor decisions because they were pushing themselves beyond a safe pace of practice and experimentation. People misunderstand BASE. They think it’s just leaping off something and falling. They have no idea that if you have the skill and technique you can leap in just a pair of jeans and a jacket and can fly forward two feet for every one foot you drop. It’s really human flying.”
Our view down the valley was in full sun, maybe the last of the week, so I asked again about an El Cap jump. “I’m on the edge with the rangers as it is,” said Potter. “We’re not friendly, and I don’t want to go to jail. But maybe we can go over to the Lodi Parachute Centre and I’ll make a flight out of a plane.”
We met that afternoon at the Rostrum, the partly attached leaning pillar on the west end of the valley. I found his car on the road above and adjacent to the rock top and made a 15-minute walk across smooth granite slabs to the sheer edge of the cliff. Potter and I sat talking on the cliff’s edge. His fingers were heavily taped so he could jam them into small cracks when he moved under the overhanging top of the pillar 900 feet up. It was like watching a spider cross a ceiling. He protected himself with a rope anchored on top of the rock.
“It’s really my favourite place to climb,” he said as we sat on the precipice. “We used to have huge parties out here, climbers, waitresses from the valley, other friends.” He pointed down the face to the treetops along the Merced. “This is where Frank and Randy made the first jump I ever saw. Back then I wasn’t in any particular hurry to try it.” In fact it was seven years before he made his first skydive. His hesitation was born of the fact that by then, to the astonishment of the climbing world, he’d been completing long and dangerous routes alone and with no protection in Yosemite, Patagonia and other risky locales. “When I began jumping I was more nervous than most people because I’d been climbing free solo, and falling meant dying,” he said. “I’d seen friends die. On my first free-fall skydive I was a mess, very unstable. I had a coach with me. I went out at 13,000 feet and was potato-chipping around. We got down to 5,000 feet – time to throw the pilot chute – but when I reached back I grabbed my leg loop by mistake. I started yanking, and my mind froze. I panicked, and my coach had to grab my hand to put it on the pilot chute before I could pull it. It was very intense.”
His first BASE jump was in Twin Falls, Idaho, from a bridge over the Snake River. “Of course it was huge to stand on a 500-foot bridge and drop a rock that falls for six seconds before it hits ground. But a whole new world opened for me, from being a solo climber for 15 years, where falling meant death, to falling for fun. Then I started highlining and climbing with a parachute on my back, which no one had ever done before.” Highlining evolved out of slack lining, a Camp Four climbers’ exercise in which a one-inch-wide length of nylon webbing is strung between rocks or trees and then walked like a tightrope. In highlining the web is rigged across chasms between high rocks or across deep canyons. Potter learned it from a climbing hobo named Chongo, and with a parachute on his back he eventually pushed it to a crossing of Utah’s Hell Roaring Canyon, 180 feet across, 900 feet high. “If you fall, you just fly away,” he said in a way that made me picture a bird lifting off from a telephone wire.
About a year into his BASE-jumping career Potter nearly killed himself. He was in Mexico being filmed highlining across one of the country’s deepest open-air pits, known as Cellar of the Swallows: 1,200 feet deep, 170 to 300 feet across at the top. “Every morning 50,000 swallows would fly out of the hole, then return in the evening,” Potter told me. “It was raining, so the highline broke as we stretched it. Meanwhile I was making as many BASE jumps into the pit as I could, and when we finally gave up on walking the line, I decided to make one more jump. I’d been rigging and jumping, rigging and jumping, and I was frantic, trying to do too much.”
His parachute had been in the rain and was half wet, making it asymmetrical. “I knew it wasn’t safe, but I ignored it and rushed – another mistake. I was breaking too many rules. I took off, held the free fall for five or six seconds, threw my pilot chute to deploy my main and immediately started spinning out of control. The parachute wrapped around my head, and I knew I was dead. We’d fixed a static line from the top to the bottom for rigging and ascending, and at about 300 feet from the ground – two seconds – the parachute lifted from my face and I grabbed the rope. At first I couldn’t hold tight enough to stop the fall, then I used every muscle in my body and stopped myself for just a second. My hands were shredded, and I couldn’t hold it. I heard a friend yell that I was near the ground. I slid the last six feet and collapsed, safe, on the bottom. It was some time before I could use my hands, and I’d torn a lot of muscles in my body.”
Before we left, Potter used his cell phone to check the weather at the Parachute Center, a skydiving training centre in the central valley outside Lodi where he often practiced jumping from planes in his wingsuit. “Rain tomorrow,” he said, “just like here.” Potter saw his first wingsuit flight in Yosemite while he and his then-wife, Steph Davis, a renowned climber herself, were climbing Half Dome. The two were married for more than seven years. Their divorce became final the week we met. “That day we were near the top of the route on the northwest face. It was sunset, and there was a beautiful red light. Two guys came to the edge, looking really calm. They jumped, opened their wings, and it was magical. They were in the air 60 seconds or so, long enough that Steph started crying because she thought they were falling to their deaths. That’s what crystallised it for me. I knew I had to do it to fulfil a dream I had when I was five years old.”
Potter gestured with his gnarled hands as he described the dream he had had many times since childhood. “It’s one of my earliest memories. I was probably about four or five, maybe younger. I was falling out of control and some beings were flying next to me. They were human. They didn’t have any wings, but there was a bright light around them, and they were smiling and gesturing but not speaking. I was freaking out, really scared, and they showed me how to arch my back. When I did it I felt the sensation of flying, as if I was being grabbed by the back and pulled up. When I did my first skydives they were again teaching me how to get forward movement, showing me where to put my hands and hunch my back. And when I did it right I could feel the vacuum form on my back like someone was grabbing my shirt and pulling me up. That’s when I really started believing I was meant to fly. It was too powerful to have had this dream since I was a baby and then to feel it in reality.”
The next morning we sat out a heavy rainstorm in a small valley café. Several locals stopped by to congratulate Potter on his record flight. “You know that stuff is insane,” said one of them. Potter smiled, shrugged and nodded yes. In fact, he often muses on the sanity of his ambition to ultimately fly and land without wingsuit or parachute. He wrote about it in the “Embracing Insanity” essay. It’s a long story, well written, that talks about the death of his father some years earlier, about his time waiting out summer rainstorms in a cave on the Eiger between jumps, about exactly how to put his body into the perfect wing shape to solve what he calls “the landing problem.” “My brain is flawed,” he writes. “I have compulsions I cannot control… Defects veil creativity. Minute glitches displace us from the norm. Innovation or insanity, blue sky or buoyant liquid, infinitesimal changes in the [body] curve turn impossible to reality… Maybe I’d watched too many cartoons, but ever since I saw Randy and Frank on the Rostrum, I truly believed I would one day fly like Superman.”
Writing about the landing, he remembered his two dead friends. “Frank also believed the landing problem could be solved. He named it the ultimate stunt. He dreamed about controlling his rate of descent by tracking, subtly re-forming his mass and modifying his angle of attack and body position in the air until he could slow enough to glide down on the perfect slope, without ever deploying his parachute. Our mutual friend Dano Osman laughed and called it ‘wicked rocket scientry.’ Neither of them ever got a chance to try.” Six months after Potter started BASE jumping he bought his first wingsuit, for $1,200. He made his first flights out of an airplane at the Parachute Centre outside Lodi. His first BASE jump in the wingsuit was off an illegal cliff. “I remember being at the top sweating profusely, barely able to get into my suit, but when I got into the air this calm feeling took over. That’s true to this day. I almost crashed into a hillside on one of my first jumps. I was barely 100 feet above the ground when I pulled my chute.”
He returned to Lodi and the airplane wingsuit flights, then went back to jumping off cliffs. “For that first year I sucked at it. I was dropping like a rock. I could never reach what I was shooting for. I kept landing in trees. I needed to push my head down to increase my angle. It’s counterintuitive, but if you want to fly forward farther, you have to point your head toward the ground. It took hundreds of flights, but I eventually got better and better, improved my technique. And the wingsuits got better when I started working with designer Tony Uragallo. We designed the one I have now, and it’s radical.” “I’m his tailor,” said Uragallo when we talked. He’s a transplanted cockney whose company, Tony Suits, has been making about 300 wingsuits a year for four years. They cost from $650 to $1,500.
Uragallo flies wingsuits himself, including in European competitions. “Wingsuit flying is very popular in Europe,” he said. “For the competitions you jump from an airplane carrying a GPS and are judged on distance, time and speed over the ground. I placed first in a distance competition last year with a glide ratio of 3.588 metres forward for every one metre I dropped.” He estimates there are 3,000 to 4,000 wingsuiters flying today. “Dean’s a delightful guy, full of ideas,” Uragallo said when we talked about Potter. “I’m going out West to fly a big cliff with him next month.” When I asked about Potter’s ultimate goal of flying without a wingsuit or parachute he said, “No, you mean with a wingsuit and without a chute.” “No wingsuit,” I said. “Really? I’d get confirmation on that. What if he misses the landing? I’ve never seen him fly except on Internet video, but he’s still alive after doing all that crazy stuff, so somewhere in among the madness he must be careful.”
An almost biblical rain was still coming down as we finished lunch, and I was trying to accept the probability that I would have to settle for watching Potter fly on video. He checked a connection to the weather in Lodi that he had programmed into his phone. It was storming there too and was forecast to be storming the next day as well. He left to spend the afternoon at what he calls his “ups.” To keep his body grisly and his mind sharp he does a total of 700 sit-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, crunches and back arches. That afternoon he ran seven miles down a hill and seven miles back up. In the rain.
My last morning in Yosemite I woke to the sound of frogs. I heard the croaking as the final song of despair for any chance of seeing Potter fly. In person, anyway. His videos are all over the Internet: climbing, highlining 3,200 feet up with no tether or parachute, and wingsuit flying, including his record-setting flight.
We met on the deck of my cabin during a brief letup in the rain. The view down the valley to El Cap was slowly getting lost in lowering clouds. He was coming from the small rented house he calls a shack. He makes a good living from half a dozen equipment and clothing sponsors, including the Five Ten shoe company, which had just bought him a Mercedes van. Over the years he has made several hundred thousand dollars – extraordinary for a climber, highliner and BASE jumper. “I’m happy with what I make,” he said. “I’m not superrich, but I have a lot of free time.” “Dean’s not cheap, but he’s well worth the money,” said one of his sponsors. Just before I left, I asked him, “How can you possibly imagine making a flight without a wingsuit or a parachute, in jeans and a shirt, and land without killing yourself?”
“It doesn’t seem that big a leap to me,” he said. “You have to remember that with the right body position you can not only fly fast, you can fly slow. I can fly with a 25-mile-an-hour down speed and a 60-mile-an-hour forward speed in a wingsuit. Then what you do is match the angle of the slope as you come in, and if I can find the perfect snow slope I can survive the hit. Speed skiers wipe out at over a hundred miles an hour and are fine. It’s just a matter of taking little steps forward and putting them together in a breakthrough. All the breakthroughs happen that way. It’s just a matter of taking one thing at a time and creating a hybrid. I think it’s the same with landing the human body. I’m not going to do anything where I think I’m going to die.”
I sat trying to imagine him standing up unhurt out of a violent splash of snow somewhere on his perfect slope. “Do you wonder why some people think you’re crazy?” I asked. “Insane or enlightened,” he said, “it’s all pretty close. But something in me has the will to stay alive, which is stronger than anything else.”
by Craig Vetter
Photography by Dean Fidelman
Published in PLAYBOY South Africa March 2012