Over the weekend, the worlds of rock climbing and BASE jumping were in mourning after news broke that a celebrated figure in their sports had died attempting a wingsuit flight in Yosemite National Park.
Dean Potter and his protégé, Graham Hunt, perished after leaping off a 3,000-foot-tall overlook called Taft Point. The two were trying to clear a “notch” along the cliff wall, and instead slammed into it.
The two were expert BASE jumpers and rock climbers. Potter, 43, was known for his extremely dangerous free-solo climbs, which are done without any safety ropes, as well as for slack-lining over thousand-foot chasms, often without a tether.
For Porter, whose audacity and creativity influenced a whole generation of rock climbers, what he did wasn’t “extreme sports,” but a form of spirituality. He called his three pursuits – BASE jumping, climbing and slacklining — “dangerous arts,” and he was meticulous and calculating in his approach to his chosen disciplines.
And he didn’t kid himself. It’s reported that Potter’s greatest fear was falling to his death. Yet, by practicing his three arts, he wrestled with that fear regularly, bravely striving to be closer to the mountains he loved and experience them in new ways.
That he died was tragic. Yet, his life will continue to be an inspiration to countless people, because he continually looked his greatest fear in the eye and did battle with it.
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Another photo of Dean doing what he did best: being badass. It's been weird reading all the commentary on his life and seeing the big divide between those he inspired and those who think that risk taking is a selfish waste. As much as his death hurts his fiends and family, it's hard not be be inspired by the fact that he spent 43 year having the biggest adventures on earth. We're all going to die eventually, and it will always hurt for our loved ones. But at least Dean fully lived. Respect. Photo: @jimmy_chin
Below is a look at the lives of other great athletes who died pursuing their passions.
Considered the father of BASE jumping, Carl Boenish was a geyser of infectious enthusiasm and an evangelist of the power of the human spirit. A longtime skydiver, he worked in Hollywood, capturing skydives with a camera strapped to his helmet. With his proto-GoPro, he made films to show the amazing things humans could do. He wanted to inspire people, and that got him wanting to jump off cliffs.
So he went to the Yosemite Valley – a place central to the intersecting galaxies of rock climbing and BASE jumping – and jumped off the granite monolith El Capitan. Eventually, he and a group of other jumpers came up with the acronym BASE, which stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth.
Boenish died soon after completing a record jump on Norway’s enormous Troll Wall. The day after the big jump, which garnered international media attention, he died while attempting another jump on the Troll Wall. He was 43 years old.
Competitive snowmobiler Caleb Moore was the first fatality in the nearly 20-year history of the X Games, an annual action sports event put on by ESPN. In January of 2013, Moore attempted a backflip in the freestyle competition at the X Games in Aspen. On landing, his machine’s front skis hit the ramp, sending him flying forward. The 450-pound snowmobile rolled over him, and the 25-year-old was rushed to a hospital. He died a week later.
According to CBS Sports, Moore’s fellow snowmobilers described him as a “fierce competitor.”
“I’ve watched him try some crazy, crazy tricks and some of them were successful, some of them not so much,” said snowmobiler Levi LaVallee. “But he was first guy to get back on a sled and go try it again. It shows a lot of heart.”
Moore, from Texas, hadn’t ridden a snowmobile until he was in his teens. Before that, he road ATVs.
A premiere professional skier, JP Auclair helped forge a new style of skiing called freeskiing. Instead of sticking to the mogul courses, he took his skis to the terrain parks then ruled by snowboarders. The new terrain encountered there prompted a need for new skis, which he helped develop, allowing freeskiers to jump better, slide on rails and ski backwards. Creativity ensued.
Later in his life, the Quebec-born skier got into back country skiing, exploring wild mountains and cutting new routes. Last September, Auclair died in Chile alongside another celebrated skier, Andreas Fransson. The two were climbing up Cerro San Lorenzo to ski its couloir as a highlight to a weeks-long trip. But during their ascent, an avalanche fell on them, knocking them thousands of feet down to a glacier below. Auclair was 37 years old.
Part of the revolutionary 1970s group of Yosemite Valley climbers known as the Stonemasters, John Bachar was renowned for his skill at free soloing. When other climbers were focused on free climbing, in which ropes are used to catch falls, Bachar was dedicated to the pure and extremely dangerous practice of climbing long routes with only his rubber shoes and chalk.
In July of 2009, after a long and storied career, Bachar fell while climbing alone near his home Mammoth Lakes in California. He was 52.
A five-time Winter X Games gold medalist, Sarah Burke was a champion freestyle skier, especially when it came to riding halfpipe. The Ontario-native was a pioneer in freeskiing, much like her countryman Auclair above. She was expected to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
But during a day of regular training in January 2012, something went terribly wrong. She was attempting what for her was a routine trick, a 540 spin, and suffered a fall toward the end of the halfpipe. She hit her head, tore an artery and went into cardiac arrest. A little over a week later, she died at the hospital. She was 29 years old.
A memorial service was held for her a week after her death at the 2012 Winter X Games. Her friends and rivals glided down a darken halfpipe in Aspen, carrying candles.