Dean Potter, Pioneering Extreme Athlete, Dies In Wingsuit Flight Climber Dean Potter died this weekend while BASE jumping in Yosemite National Park. NPR's Melissa Block talks with his friend, the photographer Dean Fidelman, about Potter's life and work.

Dean Potter, Pioneering Extreme Athlete, Dies In Wingsuit Flight

Dean Potter, Pioneering Extreme Athlete, Dies In Wingsuit Flight

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Climber Dean Potter died this weekend while BASE jumping in Yosemite National Park. NPR's Melissa Block talks with his friend, the photographer Dean Fidelman, about Potter's life and work.


Here are just a few of the things extreme athlete Dean Potter did in his 43 years - he walked barefoot on a rope - highlining - hundreds of feet above Utah's Hell Roaring Canyon. He free soloed up El Capitan in Yosemite, climbing with just his hands and feet, using no ropes at all. He flew in a wingsuit off the Eiger in Switzerland, nearly 9,000 vertical feet, a wingsuit base jump that lasted nearly three minutes. In the end, it was a wingsuit flight that killed Dean Potter. He died on Saturday in Yosemite National Park along with his friend and jumping partner Graham Hunt. They were jumping from a cliff thousands of feet up and smashed into the rocks.

Dean Fidelman is a longtime friend of Dean Potter and photographed many of his jumps and climbs. He joins me now from Yosemite. Welcome, and we're all so sorry for your loss.

DEAN FIDELMAN: Thank you, Melissa. It's nice to be here.

BLOCK: Was this a day that you expected - knew would come at some point, knowing what you knew about Dean Potter?

FIDELMAN: No, actually, it's not a day that I would expect it to come. I was just talking to a friend of mine a moment ago, and I said I never really expected this. I expected Dean to grow into old age and take care of me.

BLOCK: Despite the risks that he took in all of his activities.

FIDELMAN: Yeah, despite that risk because if you knew Dean then you knew how he approached everything he did. He was an extremely disciplined athlete and a very intelligent, calculated performance artist.

BLOCK: Did Dean Potter talk to you about his move from climbing to base jumping? Because it's so interesting to think that climbing is all about, you know, holding on and doing everything you can not to fall. Jumping - base jumping in the wingsuits - it's all about letting go. It's all about falling.

FIDELMAN: Yeah, exactly. The initial inspiration comes - when he was a child, he had dreams that he was flying. They were really very, very, very strong dreams to him. And then when he was a climber in Yosemite many years later, he was climbing on Half Dome when he heard some noise above him and he thought it was a rock fall, so he sort of sucked into the wall all to avoid the rocks hitting him in the head. And he looked out and he saw two guys in wingsuits, and they jumped from the top and they flew all the way down to Mirror Lake and they deployed and they ran into the woods. And he was completely enraptured by it and I think probably because of the early dreams.

BLOCK: Dean Potter and a few other wingsuit jumpers lost their sponsorship from Clif Bar last year. I know they were - the company said they were taking the element of risk to a place where we, as a company, are no longer willing to go. Is there a point, do you think, when the limits are being pushed just way too far and the risks are getting just too high?

FIDELMAN: I - I'll tell you something. I swing back and forth on this whole subject because I've had a bunch of friends taken away from this - a bunch of climbing friends that got into this in the last 10 years that have died via base jumping. And there's times when I hate it, but I love my friends and I have to support my friends and I can't put that vibe out there.

BLOCK: I wonder if I could play you a little bit of tape. This is an interview that I did with Dean Potter back in 2006. And it was after he had made a controversial climb of delicate Arch in Arches National Park, and he was describing what the pull was for him to do that.


DEAN POTTER: More so than I want to be on top of that or I want to conquer that. It's I want to be a part of that. I want to touch and feel and breathe that. I want to become one with that.

BLOCK: Does that sound very much like the Dean Potter that you knew for many years?

FIDELMAN: Yes, that's extremely Dean Potter.

BLOCK: Was it the same for him, do you think, in the air as it was for him on rock, that same sensation?

FIDELMAN: Very much so, very much so, yeah. He always used the word fly. He never used the word fall.

BLOCK: Well, Dean Fidelman, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FIDELMAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's photographer Dean Fidelman, a longtime friend of the world-renowned climber Dean Potter. Potter and Graham Hunt died during a wingsuit flight in Yosemite this weekend.

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Correction May 18, 2015

A headline on an earlier version of this story gave the wrong age for Dean Potter. He was 43.