900 Feet Up With Nowhere to Go but Down
MOAB, Utah — He had learned this extreme form of tightrope walking from a homeless man who wrote books on quantum physics. But that was years ago, while goofing around on a flexible piece of nylon webbing tied close to the ground between a tree and the bumper of a Chevy van.
This was something else entirely for Dean Potter, one of the world’s best climbers, barefoot in the dying sun last Friday, walking between ledges of a U-shaped rim above Hell Roaring Canyon, a 400-foot sheer sandstone wall on his right, a 900-foot drop to a dry riverbed on his left. No leash tethered him to the rope. Nothing attached him to earth but the grip of his size-14 feet and the confident belief that, if needed, his parachute would open quickly and cleanly and not slam him into the canyon wall.
At 6 feet 5 inches and 180 pounds, wirily strong, Potter dressed in jeans and blue T-shirt emblazoned with a hawk. He wore a wide headband over unruly hair, gaining the appearance of a less gaunt and reckless Keith Richards as Alpine daredevil. As Potter stepped onto the 180-foot rope — a strand of iridescent blue against desiccated canyon shades of brick and tan and coppery green — he was believed to be the first person to combine the adventure sports of highlining and BASE-jumping.
He was also taking another stride toward his longing for avian flight, not as a birdman in a nylon wing suit or squirrel suit, which he had tried, but as a soloist who could jump off a cliff in a way that he did not yet understand, with a strength and concentration that he did not yet possess, and simply fly. Trance music pulsed from speakers on the canyon ledge with knowing lyrics: “Sometimes I think my dreams are wild.”
Highlining was a high-wire version of slacklining, an extreme cousin of tightrope walking in which no pole was used for balance and the rope was elastic, allowing for various tricks involving walking, sitting, lying down, flipping, even spinning hula hoops. BASE-jumping was an acronym used to describe parachuting from objects like buildings, towers, bridges and cliffs.
At 35, Potter had long stirred wonder as a climber. Six years ago, in Yosemite National Park, he became the first person to free climb El Capitan and Half Dome together in less than 24 hours, meaning he used ropes only for protection in case he fell, climbing only with his hands and feet for a vertical mile. It was an effort requiring remarkable concentration and speed that would be unthinkable for an average weekend climber, who would need gear and most or all of a two-week vacation to make a similar ascent.
In 2001, Potter climbed the famous Nose route on El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical wall with a fierce overhang, in 3 hours 24 minutes. It was a feat stunning in its economy, considering that, in 1958, the renowned climber Warren J. Harding led the first team up the route in 45 days. Often, Potter has climbed thousands of feet carrying no ropes at all, nothing to aid his grip but shoes and a bag of chalk.
“Sport is all about being in the zone, when time and space stop and everything goes away,” said Beaver Theodosakis, the founder and president of prAna, the climbing apparel company that sponsors Potter. “Dean holds that zone for hours on end, when the mind can’t wander, when you can’t second-guess, when you have to be so confident and deliberate in your moves. Imagine in everyday life, if we could go to the office like that and not be distracted.”
If he was awe-inspiring, Potter was also a polarizing figure in the climbing world. In 2006, he climbed Delicate Arch, the revered 60-foot sandstone structure located near here that is featured on Utah license plates. Technically, it was not an illegal ascent, but Potter came under ferocious criticism, accused by others of slicing grooves in the structure (which he denies) and of betraying the soulfulness of climbing with self-promoting news media attention.
“Do what you want, but don’t make it a spectacle,” Cory Richards, a Moab photographer and climber, said.
In the uproar, Potter lost his sponsorship with Patagonia, the environmentally sensitive clothing and apparel company.
Still, he said he had no regrets about climbing Delicate Arch. “I know we totally respected that place,” he said. He continues to climb with ambition. At the same time, rock climbing has become so mainstream that gyms invite children to scale indoor walls at birthday parties. In the way surfers branched into skateboarding in the late 1950s, Potter was now pushing the envelope in the emerging sports of highlining and BASE-jumping.
“I think that partly has been a motivator for Dean, to keep pushing into the unknown and getting a little more fringe as things are getting more homogenized,” Steph Davis, a top climber and Potter’s wife, said.
Potter, an Army brat who grew up in New Hampshire, began slacklining in 1993 under the tutelage of a Yosemite character named Chongo, famous among climbers for his itinerant lifestyle and his obsessive musings on theoretical physics.
On his Web site, chongonation.com, Chongo warned that even for rock-climbing experts and extreme sport professionals, a misstep while highlining could result in serious Newtonian consequences of action and equal and opposite reaction.
Last Thursday at Hell Roaring Canyon, Potter believed he was finally ready to walk the 180-foot rope while tethered to a leash around his waist. During a couple weeks of rehearsal, he had felt exposed on the rope, with a touch of vertigo. A parabola of sandstone curved off to his right, never more than 60 feet away. To his left, the gorge yawned a half-mile wide. Straight ahead, the rope was anchored to a narrow promontory that seemed to hover, drawing his vision a mile down the canyon.
“When I get in the middle, an emptiness takes over,” Potter said. “I felt a little helpless.”
On his first few attempts at sunset, the temperature dipping into the 30s, Potter straddled the rope as he fell, barrel-rolling into a sitting position and scooting back to the ledge. And then with impeccable balance and concentration, his arms waving in smooth, swooping motions, he reached midway and beyond. The rope was more taut than a regular slackline. Still, it gave about two feet in the middle and moved a foot from side to side. Potter kept his equilibrium. The leash’s metal ring dragged behind him, giving a reassuring scrape along the rope that was amplified by the canyon’s acoustics.
He secured the rope between his two biggest toes, focusing on a yellow flag hanging from the outcropping at the end of the line. He grew more confident and his breathing became shallow and loud and when he covered the distance Potter let out a whoop.
It was at times like this, full of calm and terror, Potter said, that he felt most connected to himself and his surroundings.
“When there’s a death consequence, when you are doing things that if you mess up you die, I like the way it causes my senses to peak,” Potter said. “I can see more clearly. You can think much faster. You hear at a different level. Your foot contact on the line is accentuated. Your sense of balance is heightened. I don’t seem to feel that very often meditating.”
From the time he was a boy, Potter said, he had a recurring dream. He was in the air and people were giving him instructions in high-pitched squeaks, teaching him how to fly. At the end of his dream, he began to fall, dropping toward a dead tree, and then he awakened. As a climber, he came to believe that he might be seeing his own death. But as a highliner and BASE-jumper, he said, he had come to view his dream as an affirmation of flight instead of a portent of mortality.
Potter’s whole career has been moving toward a moment of detachment, said a friend, Brad Lynch, a filmmaker who has spent two years on a film about him called “The Aerialist.” First, Potter climbed with ropes, then only with his fingers. Now he held on by the clutching of his feet.
“How little can you be attached to the earth by?” Lynch said. “How thin you can you make the veil?”
Last Friday morning at Hell Roaring Canyon, the sky was cloudless. The wind calmed as temperatures rose into the 50s. The leash was gone. Now Potter would rely on a parachute for safe passage to the ground. If he slipped off the highline, he would have four or five seconds to open the chute before he hit the broken rock below. It was imperative that he jump away from the sandstone wall so that he could float safely to a sandy wash on the canyon floor. The landing zone was marked with a circle on the river bed. A yellow flag signaled the wind direction.
As Potter stepped onto the line, he seemed not yet comfortable with the 12 pounds of extra weight from the parachute. When he fell and straddled the rope, it became more difficult to roll back into a sitting position. His movements, fluid without the chute, were jerky now, less certain.
After a few tries, he said he needed a break then changed his mind. He walked 15 feet or so along the line, lost his steadiness, stuck his left leg out as a counterbalance, windmilled his left arm, then bounded on both feet off the rope, dropping into the canyon. He chute opened with a popping sound and he wafted toward the river bed, overshooting the landing zone in his bare feet, cutting his foot slightly on a rock.
“It’s still intimidating” without a leash, Potter said after climbing back to the canyon rim. “There was no noise from that steel ring holding me onto the earth.”
Still, he clearly relished the liberation of his brief free fall from the line.
“I flew a little, oooh, yeah, pretty nice,” Potter said.
At sunset, he gave it another try, but his second parachute was a pound or two heavier. Potter seemed tired and wobbly, sticking his left leg out for balance, then his right.
Again he hopped off the rope, gliding toward the river bed, landing this time like a leaf on water. In a week, he thought he would be able to walk the entire line. Already, he felt one step closer to flying.
“Part of me says it’s kind of crazy to think you can fly your human body,” Potter said. “Another part of me thinks all of us have had the dream that we can fly. Why not chase after it? Maybe it brings you to some other tangent. Chasing after the unattainable is the fun part.”