Wingsuit fliers knew they were cheating death
and Kristin J. Bender
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Two extreme athletes in wingsuits who leaped to their deaths from a cliff in Yosemite National Park were trying to fly through a notch in a ridgeline and were airborne for about 15 seconds when they slammed into a rocky outcropping, a friend said Monday.
Dean Potter, 43, and his climbing partner Graham Hunt, 29, were both experienced at flying in wingsuits — the most extreme form of BASE jumping, which is itself a sport so dangerous that enthusiasts keep lists of the dead.
Professional climber Alex Honnold, who knew both men, confirmed Monday that their bodies were found in the notch they were trying to fly through on Saturday after jumping off Taft Point, a promontory about 3,500 feet above the valley floor.
Honnold called Potter an inspiration and a leader in the climbing community.
“It’s more of a calling or a vocation. He considered himself an artist. It was almost like a spiritual pursuit. He definitely wouldn’t call it a job,” Honnold said.
Hunt lacked the sponsors Potter had, and made money cleaning the park, but “was a good climber, a great base jumper and he was maybe the most prolific base jumper in the valley right now,” Honnold said.
With webs between their outspread arms and legs catching rising air currents, wingsuit fliers have learned how to glide silently downward just beyond the face of cliffs. As if that doesn’t pump enough adrenaline, they also try to zoom through rocky outcroppings and just over tree tops.
BASE-jumping — a renegade sport which includes jumping off buildings, antenna, spans (such as bridges) and Earth (in this case, the cliffs over Yosemite Valley) — is illegal in national parks. Most people who attempt it use parachutes. Doing it in a wingsuit is even more dangerous.
Potter knew the risks, and relished the feeling of cheating death.
“I love the idea that I can change the worst possible thing to the best possible thing: dying to flying,” Potter says in “Fly or Die,” a documentary about his wingsuit jumps that can be seen on National Geographic’s website.
“The wingsuit is basically the flying squirrel suit,” Potter explained in the video. “Everyone kinda fantasizes about it — flying. And it’s an amazing place in history right now, that man actually has the skills to pull it off.”
This time, their skills weren’t enough. When they didn’t soar into the valley, friends alerted park rangers to begin searching — the same authorities both men had sought to avoid when they prepared for the illegal jump.
Park ranger Scott Gediman said a helicopter crew spotted their bodies Sunday morning. Both wore skintight wingsuits with batwing sleeves and a flap between their legs. Neither deployed parachutes, Gediman said.
Friends remembered how Potter spoke about the death-defying nature of the sport at a memorial service last year to a friend who died in a BASE-jumping accident.
“He always recognized how dangerous the sport was and at the same time, how magical it was — the tension between those two things,” fellow climber Chris McNamara said.
At least five people have died in BASE jumping accidents in national parks since January 2014, including the most recent deaths at Yosemite, said Jeffrey Olson, a National Park Service spokesman. Two of those were at Utah’s Zion and one at Glacier in Montana.
“BASE jumping is the most dangerous thing you can do … every time you jump it’s a roll of the dice,” said Corey Rich, a photographer who documented some of Potter’s feats. “The odds are not in your favor, and sadly, Dean pulled the unlucky card.”
Potter pushed the boundaries of climbing by going up some of the world’s most daunting walls and cliffs alone, using his bare hands and without ropes. Then he took to highlining — walking across a rope suspended between towering rock formations, and deploying a parachute if he fell.
Potter was to blame for a park service ban on climbing any of the named arches or natural bridges in Arches National Park. After his solo ascent of Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch in May 2006, the agency rushed to preserve the arches, and outdoor clothing company Patagonia stopped sponsoring him, saying his actions “compromised access to wild places and generated an inordinate amount of negativity in the climbing community and beyond.”
Potter defended that ascent as an attempt to inspire people to “get out of their cars and experience the wild with all their senses.”
Clif Bar also withdrew its sponsorship of Potter and four other climbers last year for taking risks the company said it couldn’t support.
But Potter held onto other sponsors, even after he packed his miniature Australian cattle dog, Whisper, on his back for some of the jumps, drawing criticism from animal rights groups. The dog was not with him on Saturday’s fatal jump.
In 2009, Potter set a record for completing the longest BASE jump, from the Eiger North Face in Switzerland, by staying in flight in a wingsuit for 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The feat earned him the Adventurer of the Year title by National Geographic magazine.
Potter wrote about the inherent dangers. He was among those who recovered the body of his friend and climbing partner Sean “Stanley” Leary, who died in Zion National Park in Utah after apparently clipping a rock outcropping during a BASE jump.
“Though sometimes I have felt like I’m above it all and away from any harm, I want people to realize how powerful climbing, extreme sports or any other death-consequence pursuits are,” he blogged on his webstite in October 2014. “There is nothing fake about it whether you see it in real life, on YouTube or in a glamorous commercial.”
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