“They’re missing,” Charley Kurlinkus, a BASE jumper and friend of Dean Potter’s told me over the phone at 11 p.m. on Saturday. Dean and Graham Hunt had jumped from Taft point, a promontory 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. They’d been gone for over three hours.
Charley had called me a year before when I was in Zion National Park. Sean “Stanley” Leary had also gone missing. I began searching for Sean the next day and a few hours later, Potter flew in from British Columbia, where he’d been wing suit jumping, to help with the search. His emotional arrival caused a groundswell among the other climbers gathered, rallying everyone to action.
Dean and Stanley had agreed over a brother’s bond that they would find each other’s bodies before the authorities. Dean needed to beat the park service. He raged up “Gentleman’s Agreement,” an 800-foot 5.13 route up the steep south face of the Third Mary, where Sean had crashed wing suiting.
We recovered Sean’s body, acting as pallbearers. Dean had come to Zion in a wave of emotion. He left tired. This was Dean’s typical course of action. He would come into problems charged with emotion and then simmer quickly. He took some time off BASE jumping, but soon returned to what he called his “dark arts.”
But when Charley called this year, I knew. Dean and Graham had attempted a difficult BASE jump, one they’d done before but still required precision to make it through a small notch.
Graham hit a side wall. Dean had cleared the notch and then crashed. They both died on impact.
Wind, low visibility and the close proximity of the men may have caused the crash. We can only speculate at the actual events. A photographer watched from the base and hoped that the men had somehow survived. NPS attempted an on-foot rescue. The following day, a helicopter recovered the bodies.
Dean, at six-foot-five and 180 pounds, loomed larger than life. When we bouldered in the Valley, he could pluck me out of the air. He had been a staple in the Yosemite climbing scene for decades, spending time in the boulders and on the walls. Potter arrived in Yosemite in the late ’90s, working Yosemite Search and Rescue for years before purchasing property in Yosemite West, where he was building his home. He’d settled into a life in Yosemite with his life partner, Jen Rapp. He spent most of his free time hiking, climbing and BASE jumping often with his constantly barking dog, a blue heeler named Whisper. He was working on his house and enjoying the Yosemite spring this year.
“You've done all this rad stuff. You've speed soloed, high lined, climbed hard, BASE jumped. How do you do it?” a Yosemite kid once asked Dean.
“Well, you know that feeling you get when you’re lying in your sleeping bag and it’s warm and cozy and outside is cold and dark, but you’ve really got to pee?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” The kid said.
“Well,” Dean said, “I just get up and go.”
I had been hiking to the top of El Capitan for over a year, trying to just “get up and go.” I’d had some success on free climbing El Capitan in a day, but my spirits had grown weary.
“Often the turning point is not the send, but beforehand when we realize it’s possible,” Dean once wrote me. His words lifted me. Dean had as much confidence in the ability of his friends as he did in himself. He made me believe it was possible and I realized my goal.
I hiked to the top of El Capitan at 6 a.m. Dean’s words echoed through my head. He inspired a generation of climbers with his Yosemite feats. He held the speed record on “The Nose” of El Capitan for a number of years. He free soloed “Astroman.” He established hundreds of boulder problems, routes and big walls across the U.S. He invented the sport of freeBASE, free soloing with a parachute on.
For years, I followed his Yosemite exploits. He had free climbed El Capitan in a day, a dream I’d held onto for years and the reason I rose before sunrise. I recalled Dean’s words whenever I hiked. For many rock climbers Dean was an inspiration. For the luckiest, Dean was a friend.