For climbers, Yosemite Valley is Mecca, the most legendary venue for rock climbing in North America, if not the world. I would compare it to the North Shore of Hawaii for surfers. It’s a place where dreams are made and legends are born.
When I arrived in Yosemite in early 1998, wide-eyed and possessed by lofty dreams of climbing El Capitan and Half Dome, two of its largest formations, Dean Potter was one of the first guys I met. At the time he was a scrappy, unkempt, sinewy, ripped, crooked-nosed kind of guy, clad in haphazardly cut-off shorts and a torn, dirty t-shirt. He was living in a tent in the historic “Camp 4” climbers’ campground and making a small pittance by working occasionally for Yosemite Search and Rescue.
In climbing we have a unique tradition of quitting our jobs, moving into our vans and tents and living on next to nothing so that we can climb every day. Climbing is not a sport that can be excelled at by training in your spare time. It requires an immersive lifestyle, absolute commitment. Perhaps no person at the time embodied the dirtbag ethic more than Dean. He was like a climbing monk and his dedication to pushing the limits of the sport even early on was religious in its fervor, sometimes bordering on zealotry. Dean and I were similar in a lot of ways. We both were firmly of the disestablishment, semi-anarchist soul searchers whose tendency towards mild depression required steep rock faces and difficult all-day climbs to hold the foreboding at bay. I was living out of the back of my truck, and we became fast friends—or, more than that, members in the same tribe.
I joined a small clan who called themselves the Rock Monkeys. Over the next few years, a band of us would quietly write new history on the walls of Yosemite. If the Rock Monkeys were a tribe, Dean became our chief. I had the extreme good fortune to have Dean take me under his wing, teaching me the finer aspects of speed soloing on routes like Royal Arches and Snake Dike, and eventually full-fledged speed climbing on El Cap. We shared a frenetic impatience that made us fast, if not reckless. Dean also introduced me to slacklining, and soon we were walking huge exposed lines far above the valley floor together. Looking back, we really were living an absolutely unorthodox, but close to utopian, lifestyle.
Dean had earned a reputation in our community of being the valley’s boldest climber, but beyond our granite sanctuary no one really knew who he was yet. I remember even then having this sense of inevitability about Dean. He was just too exceptional for obscurity. His dreams were too big. Where a lot of us saw danger and impossibility, Dean saw challenge and opportunity.
Everything changed for Dean in the late nineties when he speed-soloed Half Dome in just a couple of hours using a revolutionary new style of climbing that is best described as “Gladiator-style.” It’s super high-risk, anything goes, balls-to-the-wall solo speed climbing. The world had never seen anything quite like it, and Dean became an undeniable magnetic force in the international climbing media. Some people thought he was insane, and they were half-right. Dean was this weird mix of calculated athlete and impulsive, tortured artist. He earned the name the “Dark Wizard” because his feats seemed magical, but also because at times he could be an intense, brooding guy.
There was a lot of duality to Dean, and the notoriety magnified this side of him. He signed with corporate sponsors, but he hated everything corporate. One moment it seemed like Dean could care less what people thought of him, and then the next he seemed deeply concerned how he was portrayed. Sometimes it almost seemed like he was trying to sabotage his career so that he could get back to the ascetic simplicity of his early years, like in 2006 when he caused a huge controversy by soloing the Delicate Arch, a protected rock formation so famous it’s featured on the Utah license plate. He lost many sponsors over that.
But even with his middle fingers up to authority, Dean was too magnetic to lose sponsors for long. New companies washed in to fill the vacuum. Dean went on to establish bold solo first ascents in Patagonia and do rope-less climbs of some horrifyingly difficult routes in Yosemite, including Heaven, a huge roof that—if you were to fall—would send you tumbling thousands of feet to the valley floor. He was the first person to walk many of the highlines in Yosemite without a leash, and eventually he became a prolific BASE jumper.
I don’t know where I would be without Dean. I have always been a little insecure, and during the formative years I spent climbing with him, he consistently believed in my potential more than I did. He had this philosophy that eventually wore off on me, that our attitude creates our reality, that the first step towards achieving a larger-than-life dream is to believe it is possible. I owe Dean one of the greatest gifts I have ever received, the ability to believe in myself.
As I watched Dean, I was excited for him but also jealous to witness his transformation to fully sponsored adventure athlete. I thought to myself, “I’m going to live that lifestyle some day, too.” Every day, I’m grateful that somehow I pulled it off! He influenced me in so many ways, from my early years as a speed climber and soloist, to my pursuit of a life as a professional climber. Dean defined an era and was a huge influence on many climbers. I’m grateful to have known one of the legends, rebels and inspirations of the climbing world, and sad he left so soon.
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