Dean Potter: Mountain Freak

Dean Potter climbs El Capitan, Yosemite, California.
Dean Potter climbs El Capitan, Yosemite, California. Jimm Chin / Aurora

Pouring down from the glaciers of Argentina’s mount Fitz Roy, a granite fang in the western sky, the cold creek gurgles for two miles before funneling into a notch between two cliffs and spilling into a 500-foot vertical torrent. It is here, 40 feet above the waterfall’s precipitous tongue, that Dean Potter has stretched a length of narrow nylon webbing, called a slack-line, over the falls. On a nearby rock, a dozen or so scruffy, unwashed climbers loll in the December sun, playing conga drums. Throughout the day Potter coaxes one after another climber out onto the slack-line, first tying a single safety leash around their waists. But as soon as they take their first steps over the roaring abyss, feel the sudden downdraft, and glimpse the specklike tourists far below, the climbers slip from the line and, bouncing at the end of their safety tethers, flip and whirl into space in such a terrifying manner it makes me sick to my stomach — and I’m just here to watch.

Traditional tightropes are made of steel cables held rigid by guy wires, and tightrope walkers use flexible, weighted poles to lower their center of gravity. Strip out the guy wires and balance poles and you have slack-lining. The slack-line has become popular in climber subculture as a training tool to help improve balance. It is little more than a one-inch strand of red nylon bound to a climbing rope and secured to steel bolts at either end; in the case of the waterfall the bolts were driven by Potter himself. The nylon strand bounces and vibrates when you stand on it. The game is hard enough on short spans close to the ground in, say, a national park campground, which is how climbers usually practice slack-lining. But high-lining a 40-foot span above a 50-story drop, miles outside a dirt-road village that is, in turn, four dirt-road hours from the nearest hospital, is nearly impossible.

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After each climber’s valiant attempt, Potter says, “Great job” — and he seems to mean it. Potter is one of the world’s premier slack-liners. He loves it, and he loves connecting with people by sharing it. As he prepares for his turn, his excitement is palpable. 

There’s a sprawling awkwardness to Potter’s six-foot-five physical self. He has wild brown hair and huge brown eyes that sit unnaturally wide on his oversize head. His prominent hawklike nose bends hard to the left, the result of a childhood injury. There’s an oddly cubist quality to his handsome face; think of a Picasso, with one eye here, the nose over there, arms and legs at all angles, and some unsettling power implied by all the disorganization. Potter’s personality is equally disjointed — at once angry and mellow, prickly and warm, brash and shy — and yet as he finally approaches that high-line, not using the safety leash at all, simply walking unprotected onto the line, everything chaotic about him seems to reorganize itself. By the simple, stunning act of walking into space, his splattering death only a breath away, Potter wills coherence into every fiber of his being: His long gangly arms float gracefully in balance and his gnarled fingers brush the air in gentle curlicues.

His size-14 feet slip fluidly toward the middle of the span and his wiry torso hardly moves. Even his facial features acquire a new nobility, taking on the hyperconfident intensity of the hypnotist or magician, as if mortal danger were the unifying catalyst of this fractured self, the only force capable of quieting his inner landscape.

And then he falls.

Dean potter has been known as one of the world’s finest climbers since the late 1990s, when he pulled off a string of solo climbs in Yosemite and Patagonia that were so bold, they heralded the arrival of a new sport: a light-and-fast alpinism in which the unroped climber moves with lightning speed at the outer limits of technical difficulty. The first of these climbs was on Yosemite’s Half Dome, in 1997, when Potter was a penniless unknown living out of his van. At the time, the two cutting-edge developments in Yosemite climbing were the push for new speed records on big walls and the lunatic fringe of free-soloing — climbing without ropes, usually on lesser cliffs. Potter began articulating his own style by integrating these two approaches on Half Dome’s 2,500-foot northwest face — free-soloing most of the route, occasionally uncoiling a rope to self-belay. The resulting speed-solo technique let him smoke the climb in an astonishing four hours and 17 minutes, 16 hours faster than the previous solo record. Cedar Wright, an athlete sponsored by the North Face who clashed badly with Potter in that period (neither will say why), describes Potter as a master of mind control: “He has this ability to flip the switch and not let the fear take over. He’s a genuine megabadass.”

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Photos of Potter’s Half Dome ascent ricocheted around the climbing world and brought him his first sponsorship, from the Patagonia clothing company, which also sponsored the climbing team of his then ex-girlfriend Steph Davis, whom he’s since married. Mark Galbraith, who oversaw Potter’s Patagonia deal before leaving to start his own company, admits that he worried about Potter’s risk-taking. “It never came from upper management or lawyers,” Galbraith says. “It was more of a marketing question: Are we allied with someone so cutting-edge that it feels less like cutting-edge and more like moving into reckless behavior?” But overall, Galbraith says, Potter was exactly the kind of talent the company wanted to support.

Potter’s most overtly competitive period came in 1999, when he hurled himself into a speed duel on El Capitan, beating the long-standing record of four hours, 22 minutes set by Hans Florine, a former world speed-climbing champ who has scaled El Capitan more than 100 times on the 3,000-foot Nose route. When Florine lowered the time further still, Potter pushed it down toward three and a half hours. “Every time I go out and do something, Hans panics and starts trying to beat me,” Potter told a reporter at the time. “He’s like a dog humping your leg.” But Potter wasn’t one to talk: Having heard that Florine would try soloing Half Dome and El Capitan in less than 24 hours on July 28, 1999, Potter jumped on a plane from Colorado to Fresno, California, on the morning of the 27th, paid a taxi to rush him 85 miles up to Yosemite, and beat Florine to the punch.

Florine eventually beat Potter’s fastest time, reclaiming the record. But in 2002 Potter made the El Cap speed race look like a sideshow by taking his act to Argentina. In the words of Rolando Garibotti, a prominent Italian alpinist with extensive Patagonia experience, Potter redefined what soloing is: “Not since the mid-1980s had people done such significant stuff.”

“That first year I came here, the only thing on my mind was I wanted to solo Fitz Roy,” Potter said later. Situated where the spine of the Andes divides the vast Argentine pampas from the Patagonian ice cap, Fitz Roy and its sister mountain, Cerro Torre — 11,070 feet and 9,800 feet, respectively — rise in steep and narrow towers rivaling Yosemite for sheer acreage of granite. They also have year-round what Yosemite lacks: the snow, ice, and savage weather that climbers respect. In January 2002 Potter free-soloed the so-called Supercanaleta on the west face of Fitz Roy — a climb vastly more serious than El Capitan and three times as long. He blazed through 4,000 feet of sustained 70? to 80? ice climbing, 2,000 feet of steep technical rock climbing, and 700 feet of mixed terrain, all in an astonishing six and a half hours, obliterating the previous record by the better part of a day. And he did it with an almost frightening level of commitment: no tent, no food, and — get this — no water.

“I’ve told a few friends or whatever,” Potter explains, “but, okay, I drank my piss. It’s weird, it might freak people out, but it’s about not being held back.”

Only days after that Fitz Roy solo Potter took the same approach to the Compressor route on Cerro Torre in a blistering 11 hours. (Cesare Maestri, the route’s first ascender, who used a compressor-powered drill to drive bolts into the rock, took 80 days.) Then he turned around and free-soloed a longer version of Fitz Roy’s Californian route in less than 10 hours.

In the years since, Potter’s act has become still more extreme, as he has taken to walking high slack-lines without a leash and BASE jumping off cliffs to free-fall in a winged birdman suit that lets him soar and turn before opening a parachute. His contradictory personal reputation — for being both savagely competitive and genuinely encouraging to others, brutally blunt and disarmingly warm, spectacularly good at attention-getting and yet clearly driven by a mile-wide spiritual streak — has also grown. As a result the nagging questions about Potter have grown more tempting: Soulman or stuntman? Lunatic or seeker? And what about the real goal of this trip to Patagonia? Although he says high-lining that waterfall means as much to him as any climb, his central dream on this expedition is to climb ropeless up Cerro Torre, one of the more challenging rock climbs in the world, leap off, fly to the bottom of a nearby rock tower, climb ropeless again, and then leap off once more.

Potter survived his fall on the high-line that day in Patagonia. Sensing that the next step might put him in a checkmate situation, too out of balance to grab the line if he fell, he simply dropped on purpose, hooking the line with one leg and both hands. Spinning a full revolution before righting himself, he then remounted the line and walked back and forth, still without a leash and over that waterfall, for two straight hours, resting at times on a single foot, hands as if in prayer.

Later, while strolling into the town of El Chaltén for dinner at his favorite local restaurant, Patagonicus, Potter seems elated. He slips into a comfortable corner booth and orders sirloin with chimichurri sauce. Then, in a room brimming with fit young climbers — including several famous ones, such as the Austrian Huber brothers — Potter does his best to explain what makes him the way he is.

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Born in a Kansas military hospital in 1972, Potter was the youngest of three children of Anthony Potter, a career officer who served in Vietnam and later ran UN operations for the Middle East, and Patricia Dellert, a sometime yoga teacher. A seemingly obvious narrative, about tensions between a Great Santini father and a spiritual mother, doesn’t ring true in this case; Potter’s father appears to have been an unusually warm man. But it’s clear that something went terribly awry in the Potters’ marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, and that the boy, partly as a result, had a difficult childhood. He grew up in rural Massachusetts painfully shy, spending much of his time at his grandmother’s place, hunting and fishing with his uncles. Potter says he felt like a misfit in school, and that he had no real friends until he and a neighborhood boy discovered a 200-foot cliff called Joe English inside an air force surveillance area.

Trespassing on federal property, Potter proceeded to start climbing without ropes, gear, or his parents’ knowledge. Climbing, Potter tells me as his steak arrives at the table, was “the only place I really felt good. No one else was there, it was my place, it was safe.” He even left his high school graduation to go free-soloing before his parents could congratulate him. Facing their fury that night, he says, “only reaffirmed that whenever I was climbing was the only time everything was perfect, golden.”

Potter did make an effort to go straight, enrolling at the University of New Hampshire and joining the heavyweight rowing team, but that backfired. “I didn’t fit in,” he says between bites of Argentine beef. “I wanted to destroy everybody on my team and establish my dominance, and that’s all I cared about.” So he simply dropped out of college and hit the road to go climbing.

“We’d lose track of him for long periods of time,” Potter’s mother told me later in a phone call. “He’d disappear on us. Then he’d call and we’d ask where he was living and he’d say, ‘Oh, you know, Mom, under a rock.’ Not what a mother wants to hear.” But when asked why she thinks her son does the things he does, she said only, “All of us have demons to conquer.”

Combine jack kerouac’s peripatetic wanderings in On the Road with the trippier spiritual seekings of Carlos Casteneda in The Teachings of Don Juan and you’ll get the flavor of Potter’s own journey of self-discovery: living primitively in New Hampshire forests, scaling the cliffs of North Conway while earning enough money to drift out west. He landed work at a Mexican restaurant, near the great bouldering fields around Hueco Tanks, Texas, and soon after discovered his totem animal while hallucinating in the wilderness.

“With pharmaceutical assistance?” I ask.

“No pharmaceutical assistance.”

“Why do you think you were hallucinating?”

He lets out a disarming laugh. “I had this trip. I’m standing there in the sun and I see my shadow and I’m holding my arms out and I look like a raven. And shortly after that I found this mummified raven’s head that still had the black feathers around the beak and eyebrows.” The image figures prominently in Potter’s adult persona: A raven hangs from the rearview mirror of his car, he has a stuffed toy raven in his home, he painted a raven on his climbing helmet, and until recently his outgoing cell message said, “Hey, this is Dean Potter, and I’m out flying with the ravens in Yosemite.”

Joshua Tree came next, and an encounter with a crazy homeless man named Chongo Chuck, who taught Potter to slack-line (and who later signed Potter’s marriage certificate as a witness, and who got prosecuted for 25 years of living illegally in the Yosemite forest). After Joshua Tree, Potter’s story rises to the level of farce. Hitching a ride to Yosemite with another climber, he got locked into a nasty dominance struggle with a macaque monkey named Fred that had recently been rescued from a woman being committed to an asylum. Fred, Potter insists, vacillated between masturbating in the back of the car and fighting viciously with Potter and his climbing buddy, even drawing blood. Still in a perfectly straight voice, Potter confesses that his friend began beating the monkey to dominate it, but swears that he himself took a nonviolent approach. The monkey’s weakness, Potter says, was its short hair, which made it eager to cuddle for warmth. So Potter drew Fred close on an especially cold night, pinned the monkey’s arms and legs and put its head in his mouth, scaring the monkey so bad it pissed and shit itself and became forever submissive.

Once in Yosemite, Potter chased harder and harder climbs in pursuit of a mental state he describes as “heightened awareness,” in which he sees, hears, and feels with extreme acuity. It’s an intensely important notion to Potter, a grail he seeks in everything he does. “I wish I could have it in all of life, chopping potatoes or whatever,” he says, explaining that he meditates often and studies Buddhism, though finds that to be a far more difficult path. “Right now I only have it doing these really dangerous things, because it makes me focus. A lot of the turmoil ceases, and you do what you need to do.”

Potter won’t name this mysterious turmoil — he dismisses any link between his risk-taking and some buried unhappiness — but he does offer one direct link between his psychological past and his current life, through a recurring dream. “This is when I’m a couple of years old, and these people teach me how to fly,” he says, “and at the end I’m going toward the ground really quickly, and for the longest time I thought maybe I’m falling to my death. It’s scary, but that’s one of my first memories.” As he did more and more unroped climbing in Yosemite, Potter says, “I started thinking maybe it was a falling dream and some sort of premonition of my death. I even thought I’d pinpointed the place: the Rostrum, because it had this dead tree below and I remember falling in my dream and there’s a dead tree.” He says he had to overcome the fear of falling in his dream by free-soloing the Rostrum routes. “Because then that part of the dream wouldn’t mean this was the place of my death.”

In 2003, after a friend fell while climbing and died, Potter became even more preoccupied with confronting his fear of death-by-falling. So he started skydiving, making more than 100 airplane jumps between February and June of that year. Then he got into BASE jumping. The acronym stands for bridge, antenna, span, earth, and refers to parachuting off fixed objects, like cliffs. Potter made his first bridge jump in June 2003, and then ordered himself a custom-fit birdman suit from a small Slovenian company called Phoenix Fly. With baffled fabric wings under both arms and between the legs, these suits have been in development since the early 1990s, and they open up the tantalizing possibility — at least in the hands of the very skilled — of a no-parachute landing. “I know it’s kind of a strange thing I’m talking about,” Potter admits, “but another part of me truly believes I can fly, like somehow my mind can figure it out.”

I meet up with potter at cerro torre during the expedition that is to be the beginning of his climb-and-jump-and-climb-and-jump binge. Conditions on the mountain don’t look stable enough for free-soloing — too much ice and snow — so he joins up with Marko Prezelj, from Ljubljana, Slovenia, and American Stephen Koch. Linking three established routes, they charge up 4,000 feet of hard rock and sheer ice together, but as they approach a snow slope it slides away in an avalanche. Come nightfall, they huddle in a dripping-wet ice cave, and when the wind comes up they retreat to camp. One day later the team charges upward again and makes the summit, but then Potter can’t find a safe BASE-jumping exit. The west face will take him out over the Patagonian ice cap, from which there’s no return, and the three other faces turn out to have huge protruding ledges just below. So Potter decides against it, and the team descends.

I join Potter that night and sleep in a low-ceilinged granite cave at his advanced base camp. The wind blows sheets of rain sideways in 50 mph gusts, like an airborne river rushing beyond the cave’s mouth. But the sun breaks through at noon the next day, so we head back down toward El Chaltén. It’s a long, jarring hike over broken talus and a vast, active glacier — threading around crevasses, hearing the constant squeal and groan of seracs — but Potter seems almost happy, and certainly is not fazed by his disappointment on Cerro Torre. He’ll find another wall to jump from; in fact, he’s heading home to Moab in a few weeks, where he leaps almost daily from sandstone spires, and then he’s off to Europe with a film crew, hoping to capture a series of climb-jumps in the Dolomites. After that he intends to seek out the world’s longest BASE jump, “which probably means climbing the biggest face in the world” — a reference to the great walls of the Himalaya. But for the moment, rambling down through the Patagonian forest, bound for a shower and another steak, he’s just enjoying the ride.

“Most people in my life who didn’t follow their dreams weren’t happy,” Potter says, clearly referring to his parents. “Their lives seem so strange,” he adds with genuine amazement. “I think my dad’s dream really was just to have a good family, treat them well, to keep them together, and he did everything in his power and it just fell apart on him. And my mom? I’m not sure. It’s kind of sad, but it sure didn’t seem like they were leading an inspired life. They both seem really hungry for love, and they didn’t have it from a lover.”

Potter insists that for him, everything positive — love, but also financial stability, joy, and a measure of fame — stems from remaining true to what he calls his “essential nature.” “It’s all about trying to follow beauty instead of the urge to be the best,” he explains, aware that that’s easier said than done.

Afew months after the cerro torre trip, Potter and his wife, Steph Davis, lead me up a 400-foot rock climb, on Utah’s Castleton Tower, precisely so Potter can leap off. “Dean doesn’t really like the normal mainstream reality,” Davis tells me on our way to Castleton, “and so a lot of it is an effort to get into a different world, and that’s his avenue. You enter this different state — some people do it through drugs, athletes do it through their sport, probably Tibetan monks do it through meditation. We feel the lack of it and we’re trying to find it.”

A self-possessed 33-year-old with an elegant smile, a B.A. from the University of Maryland, and a master’s from Colorado State, Davis also tells me that she harbors no such illusions about her own ability to fly — although she’s every bit the climbing star Potter is. A veteran of first ascents everywhere from Baffin Island to Pakistan, Davis was also the first woman to free-climb El Capitan’s Salathé Wall, meaning she used gear only as a safety net, never to make upward progress. Like Potter, she has brittle moods and can be confrontational, and they seem to have a highly charged relationship, shot through with both friction and affection. But at least in social interactions she has a smooth poise that draws a remarkable contrast to Potter’s unruly impulsiveness.

At the climb’s end, soft winter sunshine gleams off the reddish stone summit of Castleton Tower, a little platform in the cloudless Utah sky, and we can see across the otherworldly monuments of Arches National Park toward Moab, where Davis and Potter own a double-wide on a leafy street. They met in 1994 while both were climbing a Colorado big wall called the Diamond, on Long’s Peak. When Potter appeared on a route parallel to Davis, she says, “I look over and see this guy so close, and he’s like…him, all humongous, with these black tights on his long skinny legs and this carnation-pink windbreaker, and all this hair sticking up and he has red slippers, and he’s all wild and frantic and probably seeing ravens, and I’m this normal girl, but the climbing is nothing for him.”

Mustering the nerve to ask her on a climbing trip, Potter was apparently so excited when Davis said yes that he went sprinting down the mountain and broke his ankle. Steph noticed it only when they started climbing together a few days later: His ankle was purple and so swollen he could barely get his shoe on. She thought nothing of it, though, and she demurred that night on a cold bivouac ledge when he said, “Hey, you look kind of cold. Come over here, and I can—”

“No, I’m fine zipped up in my sleeping bag,” Davis replied.

She finally fell for Potter when he tried to move into her group house in Fort Collins, Colorado. The two spent most of the next seven years living out of cars together, “climbing and dirtballing it,” as she puts it. “Then we split up and he went away. It happened all the time; it was kind of a rough lifestyle, and we both have really intense personalities.” In 2002 they finally married, in an all-night desert rave below Castleton Tower, where we’re standing. Pointing to the exact spot of the wedding, Davis says, “Dean has definitely changed a lot. He used to be totally impossible to deal with, really opposed to anything mainstream — education, jobs. I’m not going to say he’s better now, but at least it’s possible for us to be married, and he has more than $20 in his bank account. When I met him? No way. All that angry young man stuff.”

Leaning over just then, Potter spits a wad of saliva into the abyss below Castleton Tower, watching it fall to gauge wind speed and direction.

“There’ve been times in my life,” Davis says, “when I’ve thought I just want some guy who supports me and takes care of me, but the reality is that I don’t. Because I’ve gone for that during some breaks with Dean, and the reality is that I miss the inspiration that I get from Dean, just from him doing his thing.” Davis and Potter have also been awfully successful as a sponsored pair. In a sport with very little money they’ve managed to live exclusively on endorsement relationships and speaking gigs, and they now own two undeveloped lots in the Yosemite Valley, in addition to their tasteful Moab place, which brims over with free boxes of Clif Bars, climbing gear for them to test, and Patagonia clothing.

And how does Davis handle her man’s constant flirtations with death? “I think he’s pretty careful,” she says, half convinced. “Don’t you? I mean, you should see how retentive he is in packing his parachute.”

We look over at Potter, who’s waiting for the breeze to stop. Smiling over his shoulder at his beautiful wife, he says a soft good-bye and leaps into space.

For two full seconds Davis’s face remains placid, then she smiles at the boom of Potter’s opening parachute and then at his exhilarated hoot. A moment later there’s her man: soaring over the desert, waving at us with one hand, utterly in his element.

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