It is probable that you know about Dean Potter’s death this past weekend; flying into a cliff while wingsuit flying in Yosemite.
Like most attentive climbers in the 90s, I first heard the name Dean Potter in a tiny Wild Things ad in either Climbing or Rock and Ice, showing the above photo (or one close to it) with a small notation that Potter was doing the first ascent, free solo, of the 5.13 King Tut. Soon after came a series of Prana ads during that brands golden age, including a particularly striking one of the very lanky and ripped Potter spanned out on King Cobra in Yosemite, and soon after that came speed soloing in Yosemite and then Potter’s 2002 season in Patagonia, which cemented his status as one of the most influential climbers, ever. In many ways the Delicate Arch controversy, base jumping, untethered slacklining, and wing suiting have all been afterwords to five-odd years of phenomenal climbing around the turn of the century.
M and I lived in Moab for most of 2004, and saw Potter around town occasionally. Out of all the several thousand Moab residents, and the endless tourists passing through, he was by far the most easily recognizable in the grocery store, just as impossibly tall and chiseled and wild-haired in real life as in print. 2004 was the end of my serious involvement in climbing, and I had enough fitness and skill left to attempt to follow the inspiration Potter had given me. I climbed the Crackhouse in 2 segments, free soloed the Owl, never got past the third move on King Cobra, and onsighted Coyne Crack . These days I climb a few days a years, and my fingers can never keep up with residual skill, strength, and muscle memory. I followed Potter tangentially over the past decade, more than well enough to be saddened by his death.
The front page of Potter’s website says “Let go, when I do this whole new world opens up…” And this is the real value he leaves behind. The sudden death of such a defiant figure has brought more than the typical number of armchair critics out of the shadows, with the usual cries of a selfish and myopic life life ill-spent. Apparently Potter leaves behind no children, and thus in my mind public comment is out of bounds. What does seem relevant is the vigor of the vitriol, and the great extent to which it is detached from reality. The people most critical of Potter are not climbers themselves, almost without exception, and I do not think this is a coincidence. Ours is a society constantly looking for ways to let go, while at the same time being terrified of actually doing so, and lashing out at people like Potter who demonstrate that actually letting go could be a daily event. There are many ways to let go which do not involve a reasonably high probability of death; I’ll never base jump, and had an early retirement from ice and alpine climbing, precisely because the numbers were so bad. All paths to letting go do not involve unusual exposure to death, but they do without exception involve exceptional exposure to failure. This, and the challenge to social appearances it inevitably entails, is why our society would prefer to put letting go off on drugs and media experiences in private, dark rooms rather than on small, daily choices.
Dean Potter, and his life and death both, remind us that we all want to let go and exceed our present selves. The only ambiguity ends up being what we want to let go, and how.