Dean Potter: Yosemite’s Elder Madman Speaks

The new documentary film Valley Uprising offers more thrills and chills per minute than most Hollywood action movies. Mind-blowing footage shows free-solo climbers dangling ropeless over the void, masked men in superhero suits BASE-jumping illegally off Yosemite cliffs, and one particular long-haired wild-man balancing barefoot on a so-called slack-line — a tightrope, in essence, over a thousand-foot drop. That wild-man turns out to be Dean Potter, a. k. a. the Dark Wizard, the only man on earth pushing the outer limits of all three of these iconic high-risk pursuits. With Valley Uprising set to air on the Discovery Channel at 8PM this Saturday night. We caught up with Potter to make sure he was still alive.

You set a world record back in 2011 for the longest-ever wingsuit BASE-jump flight, off the Eiger. Now rumor has it that you're all about BASE-jumping with your dog Whisper. Is that for real?
That is true. Whisper has jumped off the Eiger and El Cap with me, in a pack on my back. We made a movie about jumping together, it's called When Dogs Fly.

Isn't BASE jumping illegal in all the National Parks?
The very first big-wall BASE jumps ever were done in Yosemite, when two guys jumped off the Dawn Wall on El Cap in 1966. They were free-falling until they reached terminal velocity and they had round parachutes they couldn't steer, so they had to calculate the wind to carry them away from the wall. And some of the world's best BASE jumpers still fly daily in Yosemite. It's got the best weather, 350 days a year at least, and it's so accessible, with big landing zones in huge meadows all over the place. But I also find it really compelling that some of the world's best jumpers have to refine this art at a world class level in the shadows.

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Okay, how about slack-lining? Valley Uprising has crazy footage of you walking that line over the void to Lost Arrow Spire. How on earth can that be safe?
I'm 43 years old and I've never been injured doing any of my arts. I've made the safest slack line ever using Vectran. It's the strongest flexible fabric in the world. And I'm usually wearing a tether that connects me to the line, or else a parachute.

But you didn't have either, for the Lost Arrow Spire high-line. No tether, no parachute.
I was up there camping with my friends for about a month, working the line every afternoon when the winds calmed, just soaking in the lifestyle and going above Yosemite falls and bathing in the creek and picnicking, living the full John Muir lifestyle and focusing really hard on this idea of walking this long gap unprotected. My thought there was that, if I fall, I can catch the line. I have this unbeatable move where no matter what happens I can catch the line — it's the number one thing I practice — so my philosophy there is martial arts based, never putting myself in a position where I can receive a lethal blow. I haven't missed catching the line for over fifteen years.

You have a history of clashing with the Yosemite rangers. How's that relationship going?
I'm trying to not be so hostile against the authorities and to work with them more. We used to clash really hard and they'd treat me poorly and I'd treat them poorly, but now it's matured. I've been in the park twenty-two years doing my arts. They see me working hard every day, up early in the morning. I've actually made a couple friends that are rangers. Some of them would still like to catch me, but other rangers told me they love Valley Uprising — they're like, "We had no idea some of the things that go on!"

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You and Alex Honnold have both talked about free-soloing El Capitan some day. Is that still on your radar?
I do have an El Cap route that I'm very focused on, that I climb over and over again, hoping that one day I'll feel the lightness and the finesse and the confidence to go for it. But even if I don't, I love having these ultimate goals out in front of me that I may or may not achieve. The number one goal being — out of concern for self and family but, also the representation of my arts — that I don't ever get taken out by fucking up. It's going to hurt if I fall. I don't want to deal with that, I want to prove that it can be done for a long life, until I'm an old man.