Dean Potter’s death raises unwarranted criticism

Bryan Palacio / Staff Writer


Some people die and become legends. Others become legends even before they die. That’s what Dean Potter was to the rock-climbing and base-jumping world – a living legend. For over 20 years he didn’t just rule the outdoors world, he transcended it. He pushed the limits further than anyone else and his impact on everyone who met him is much more than any of his records could ever say about him.

But, Dean Potter also became a victim of his own ambition. Potter and his friend Graham Hunt died May 16 in a wingsuit base-jumping accident in Yosemite National Park, the place Potter called home and where he set many of his records. Base-jumping is illegal, but still, it was no surprise when National Geographic decided to do an article praising the life and achievements of Potter. Considered a man amongst men, he was widely regarded as single-handedly changing both of his choice sports with his accomplishments, including being chosen as Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic. But what was surprising to me was the reaction to this article by people online.

Potter was a polarizing figure. Well known for recording many of his jumps for the world to see, he garnered a lot of praise when these high-flying videos went viral. But along with this attention came a lot of scrutiny. Potter was known to, and even recorded himself, performing base-jumps with his dog, Whisper. Obviously he received backlash, and even I myself was very disapproving of this. If you want to illegally jump off of a cliff, that is your choice, but to strap an innocent dog to your chest and force him into your death-defying act is completely irresponsible. However, I can disapprove of his actions while still understanding and appreciating that this man was who he was, a thrill seeker with absolutely no boundaries.

The internet can be an ugly place. Aside from sharing cat videos with friends and family on Facebook, we all know that it is just as easy of a place to find racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of hate speech. One of my favorite things to do on any website is to scroll through the comment section. It is all but a given that there will be someone “trolling,” but even still I was surprised at the reaction from people. Many couldn’t believe that National Geographic put out a story praising this “reckless criminal.” They called him a child or said he wanted to die. They even went so far as to say he deserved what he got.

I was appalled.

Was Dean Potter a saint? Of course not. Did he break the law? Definitely. But did he want to die? Probably not. He had a girlfriend and was a father figure to her kids. He had parents, family and friends. Maybe to us he was reckless, but not to others who understood him. To some of us, jumping off of a cliff is a sure way to die. But to Dean Potter, jumping off a cliff was the only way to live.

We as humans have an affinity for judging others. We want to categorize them and remind ourselves that we are better every chance that we get. Potter dying was a tragic event. There are many mourning his loss, including many people he never even knew he inspired. I will never understand why someone would want to throw dirt on a person who has already paid the ultimate price with his life. Why people feel the need to decide what others do with their lives is beyond me.

Dean Potter never hurt anyone with is career. He did what he loved and lived his life to the absolute fullest. He experienced more of life in his years than many of us would have in one hundred. The only life he ever risked was his own, and I believe we all have the right to choose for ourselves what we want to do with our existence. It says something about a person who isn’t afraid to chase their dreams – when the world tells you that you’re wrong and you still strive to do what makes you happy. Too many people, and I’m sure many of them the same people who went out of their way to badmouth him, spend their lives inside bubbles, always scared and playing it safe until they’re too old and miserable to do anything about it.

Many people said he was a terrible person for leaving his family behind. I don’t agree with that at all. He doesn’t owe his life to them. Because his parents created him doesn’t mean that he is endowed to live the life they wanted him to live. In fact, by giving someone life you give them the opportunity to do whatever it is that they want with it. As for his girlfriend, she knew who he was and what he did yet she decided to be with him. Again, it’s all about choice.

Potter never pretended to be something he wasn’t. He was a son, friend, life partner and many other things, but these were just subcategories. He was one main thing: a thrill seeker. He was a rock climber. He was a base jumper. He devoted his life to being outdoors and pushing the limits of these sports more than anyone ever has. He did what many of us are afraid to do and more. He didn’t just follow his dreams, he crushed them.

Moments like this are great measuring sticks. Potter’s death doesn’t define him, his life does. But the way I have seen others react to this story says more about them then it does about him. If we are ever to cross the barriers we have as a society we need to be more empathetic toward each other. Just because you don’t understand someone’s lifestyle doesn’t mean that you are any better or worse than them. We all live life according to what we think is best for ourselves, but some aren’t scared to follow their dreams and be happy at all costs.

Dean Potter lived his life that way. Maybe the rest of us should, too.

Photo by Paul Hessels

About the Author

Sam Smith
The Beacon - Editor-in-Chief

11 Comments on "Dean Potter’s death raises unwarranted criticism"

  1. How do you feel about indifference to his death? It’s also beyond me how anyone could rejoice in such a grim event, but outside the climbing world people are asking themselves, "well, what did you(he) expect?" Surely those closest to him are devastated, and it is certainly a sad thing to see. But I think many in the "I-told-you-so" crowd see him as a guy whose arrogance finally caught up with him. And that is not to say he was an arrogant man, not an arrogant personality, but to take the kinds of risks he took on some level he must have thought he was invincible, and that perception is projected onto him by people who never knew him. His death is certainly a sad thing, but the way I see it is–well, this is the choice he made and it killed him. He wouldnt be dead but for decisions he made. Only he knows if it was worth it.

    • Jeff S, I will tell you one thing, and everyone else listen to this: In this life, NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE!!

      Steve Jobs imprinted in my head that i have to remind myself EVERY DAY that i will be dead soon. The Earth has been here for 4.5 billion years and the 40 or 80 (not really that big of a difference) or 100 years we are here is nothing. This life is a gift. The only risk in life, is not taking one.

      I’ve been following Dean for a few years and i google him often to see if he had died yet. Was hoping all of his precautions would prevent it, but HE PAID FOR IT, we didn’t.

      What we got was a man who pushed the boundaries, a man who can be modeled after all the great pioneers. He was a great man who I admired. "Only those who risk going to far…can ever find out how far one could possibly go…"

      I am not a climber and would NEVER take those risks (even though i dream about it), but i am an entrepreneur and have been chasing my dreams since I was 5. I’m much older now, and there are no guarantees, but it’s paying off. I work ALL THE TIME. People often ask me, what if what you are doing doesn’t work, what if you die before its finished?

      My response: What if it does?

      And i respected Dean so much because one of two things will happen in my personal life, i will achieve the goals i have dreamed of my entire life…or i’ll die before it happens. WHAT WON’T HAPPEN, is that IF i’m fortunate enough to live a long life, NO ONE can ever say i didn’t go for it every fucking day…and what the author is saying is how many of you can say that?

      If you can, then keep doing it, that is what built this great country!

      Great article and RIP Dean, the Dark Wizard.

  2. "Base-jumping is illegal, but…."

    Actually, BASE jumping is NOT illegal. BASE jumping in National Parks (and off of various other structures) is illegal. There are even festivals in the United States that celebrate BASE jumping.

  3. Personally, I think the armchair warrior who pays to go to a gym is sitting behind their computer screen trashing Potter because they are jealous that they are busy working 40 hours a week to drive a nice car, have an iPhone–and pay their gym membership while Potter is out there living the dream. To make themselves feel better, they have to berate him. I think he was pretty amazing. That being stated, I, myself, am much more content living my boring (by his standards) life, continuing to volunteer my time and energy helping animals and, hopefully, falling to sleep 40-50 years from now and never waking back up. We all have different view of the perfect life. And, the author is right that no-one has the right to tell someone else how to live theirs.

    However, BASE jumping in the National Park System is illegal. I have heard from many people this week that say, "Yeah, but rules were meant to be broken" and "He never hurt anybody." Would they say the same thing about a drunk driver who never hit, hurt or killed anyone or anything BUT, got pulled over for speeding? I mean, just because there is no victim, do we just let them go? No, they get prosecuted and punished. And, hopefully, LEARN from their mistakes. Decisions have consequences: Potter realized that after he climbed Delicate Arch in Utah a few years back. And, despite the fact that he loved Yosemite (which I have no doubt he did), he still broke the rules over, and over, and over. He got kicked out of the park at least three times. There are plenty of places he could legally go in the US to BASE jump. It’s a shame he didn’t do that and use Yosemite for his climbing addiction. I think it would have given outsiders a better image of him.

    Peace to his family, Jen, her three children, Whisper and the countless others that love him.

  4. A truly remarkable documentary on the equally remarkable life of a man of true courage and an equal dose of what many others might see as insanity. Dean Potter was a fascinating person who truly understood and reflected honestly on the very tenuous balance/nuances between life and death. Sadly for many of us, after only 43 short years on this planet he died May 16th along with his friend doing what he loved to do in the most beautiful place he had ever been or seen and where he currently lived the last twenty years of his life, Yosemite. An introspective documentary of a very introspective and kind human being. I wish all of us had 1% of his unwavering courage along with his acute insight to at least face life’s fears and/or challenges head on. Rest in peace, Dean! The world just became a little bit darker!

    • Eric Thompson | May 21, 2015 at 6:28 PM | Reply

      The only reason base jumping and other sky sports are illiegal in National Parks is its bad for business.
      The NPS makes its living peddelig the Nations most beautiful places to the rich white old motorhome and luxery hotel crowd.
      If the rich people don’t want to see it its illegal.

  5. beautifully written and well said. Dean is an inspiring person indeed and his way of life motivates me to push myself a little more than I normally would. I love seeing people live to their fullest potential and he seemed to have done so.

  6. i Understand some of your feelings. My advice is forget the Naysayers. Many stand behind some ridiculous national park law, Wonder if the Native Indians, who had the park land stolen from them, would agree with what US. gov says is legal or not?
    All that matters is Dean Potter. If any naysayer watches his speed ascent on El Cap on You tube and doesn’t marvel, well then eat more carrots cause your blind.. And if they only listened to so many that are speaking out about how Dean inspired them to unimaginable heights….then they will be a Yaysayer. Dean we thank you for every one you touched…Even me, who never met you!

    What you teach me the most is show Love now, because all of us will one day have out last flight just like Dean and his best friend.

  7. Well written. I agree 100%. I admire Him. I Wish I was as brave as He was.Everything was His choice.We can not criticize Him. I cry over His death.RIP Dean!

  8. Sad For Whisper | May 25, 2015 at 7:05 AM | Reply

    Yes, it’s all about choice. Dean chose to take on the serious responsibility of adopting an innocent animal and being a "pet parent" to it. Dean then chose to repeatedly risk abandoning that sweet, loving, innocent animal so he could experience a few more thrills and prove what an awesome, "boundary-pushing" BASE jumper he was. The odds were bound to catch up to Dean eventually, and unsurprisingly they did. Whisper didn’t choose to be adandoned. Dean was a terrible parent to Whisper, constantly risking both Whisper’s life and his own. I feel bad for Whisper and wish she had been adopted by someone more caring and less selfish.

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