The world of climbing lost a daring innovator Saturday when Dean Potter, 43, died during a wingsuit flight from Yosemite National Park's Taft Point. Potter was killed along with Graham Hunt, 29, as they attempted to soar above Yosemite Valley and El Capitan.
The pair attempted their wingsuit flight on Saturday around dusk — a time that National Geographic says many athletes choose for BASE jumping, which is illegal in all of America's national parks. They were found Sunday by a search and rescue helicopter.
BASE jumping is the sport of parachuting from a fixed point, such as a cliff or structure. The acronym stands for the leaping-off point: a building, antenna, span or the Earth. It has also gained a reputation for being deadly. Since the early 1980s, 256 people have died while taking part in the sport, according to Blinc magazine.
Potter was both an experienced jumper and a trailblazing rock climber, famous for figuring out ways to ascend cliffs quickly with only the minimal use of gear. He was also adept at walking slacklines, often crossing wide spans without a safety harness, including a famous 2011 crossing with a rising moon as his backdrop.
From National Geographic:
"He was a larger-than-life character," says Mike Gauthier, the chief of staff in Yosemite National Park. "His role in the community in Yosemite Valley, and the climbing world—he's just in the pantheon of great athletes that people idolize and look up to."
Potter's partner on Saturday's flight was Hunt, who had previously done wingsuit flights in Europe. The two lived near each other in California's western Yosemite Valley.
Outside magazine also quotes Yosemite's Gauthier:
"Potter and Hunt had been attempting to fly along terrain that required them to clear a notch in a rocky ridgeline. "It's kind of a trickier flight to go through this notch," Gauthier says. On Sunday morning, a state police helicopter was able to spot both bodies from the air. No parachutes had been deployed. Two rangers were then airlifted to the site to perform the recovery."
Potter attracted notoriety for his climbing skills and ingenuity — and also for his willingness to take chances. He was widely criticized in 2006 when he climbed Delicate Arch, a sandstone landmark in the Arches National Park in Utah.
And last year, he set off a different type of safety debate by releasing When Dogs Fly, a video in which he straps his dog, Whisper, onto his back for a wingsuit flight.
In that video, Potter said: "Life isn't that easy or that straightforward. First you have the vision, and then you make it possible. The joy we have is just off the charts. We love it up there."
He followed that statement with a question: "Will this joy lead to harm or death?"