Photo by Renan Ozturk
Dean Potter has always pushed the edge. Whether that meant free soloing, slack-lining or BASE jumping—the 3 Arts, as Dean calls them—he’s had more than a few ground-breaking moments in his career, and some seriously close calls.
Dean is easily misunderstood if you don’t know him. Some of his peers even refer to him as the “Dark Wizard,” and he’s certainly endured a few controversies in his time. But, I’ve worked with him on a lot of pretty insane shoots over the last 15 years and I’ve always appreciated his strong opinions, unique outlook on life and his passion to get after whatever he sets his mind to. He’s always looking to change the game to the next level.
In an effort to get into his head and understand where his inspiration comes from, I caught up with him recently and got a download on some of his legendary accomplishments, his motivations, his take on life and the pursuit of happiness. Incredible. You can think what you want, but the guy gets it done….
1. You enjoy a variety of pretty intense activities: BASE-jumping, slacklining, free-soloing. What’s the common thread here, besides the adrenaline piece?
The common thread in my 3-Arts is pushing into fear, exhaustion, beauty and the unknown. I willingly expose myself to death-consequence situations in order to predictably enter heightened awareness. In times when I’m going to die if I mess up, my senses peak in order to survive, and I see, hear, feel, intuit in vast detail, beyond my normal, day-to-day consciousness. This pursuit of heightened awareness is why I put myself in harm’s way.
In addition, while doing my arts, I empty myself and function within a meditative state where I focus on nothing but my breathing. This manifests emptiness. This void needs to be filled, and somehow it draws in and makes me recognize the roots of my most meaningful ponderings and often leads to a feeling of connectivity with everything.
2. Much of what you do has been documented in film and photography. What’s it like to do what you do, and also have to perform to some extent?
I used to be uncomfortable with performing my Arts for the camera, and I still far prefer being alone in nature, undisturbed. I have had some very meaningful and fun times on film projects, though. What I’ve found is that filming and my pursuits have fundamentals in common. The primary connection is beauty. Being in a stunning location at just the right moment with the rising or setting sun or moon also brings me heightened awareness. I become overwhelmed with where I’m at, and I lose all else. Good filmmakers are often searching for this exact same thing, so we groove out as we are infused with the light.
I’ve also realized that when working with the right film crew at the right moment, everybody on the team becomes elevated through the group energy. Additionally, we all subtly start communicating on a different level than normal. While free-soloing for the camera, I’ve often found myself reading the minds of the cameramen and understanding that they are reading my body language and thoughts as well. The exploration of these other senses within all of us is one of my primary focuses in life. I feel a connection with the mountains I’m playing with. It doesn’t happen every time, but in the rare moment that I’m with friends filming and making art in the mountains, even more variables line up and we are all lifted higher, even the eventual viewers.
3. What are you reading right now?
I am reading The Life-Giving Sword, by Yagyu Munenori. Translated by: William Scott Wilson.
4. Name your proudest accomplishment as an adventurer.
I still look back to my time climbing solo in Argentina in 2002 as my proudest adventure. During a three-week trip, I speed soloed Cerro Torre and free-soloed Fitz Roy two times, the second of which was a new, 7,000-foot free-solo route that I named “Californian Roulette.”
While descending off of Californian Roulette, I was struck by rock fall and barely crawled out of the mountains. During this time on my hands and knees, I realized there had to be a better way to descend safely. These thoughts led to my introduction to BASE-jumping, and I’ve never looked back.
5. What is your greatest fear in life?
My greatest fears in life are hurting the people around me, and not being true to my calling. The combination of these two aspects of being seems to offer challenges. We should think carefully about this.
6. You and I both played parts in the book The Rise of Superman, which gets into the flow state. What part does fear play in flow, and how do you manage fear when facing a new challenge?
It’s great what Steven Kotler is doing with The Rise of Superman. He is defining emotions and struggles I’ve had for my entire life but have never really been able to articulate within myself and to the masses. In addition, Steven has shown me that I am not alone.
I practice the art of remaining calm. When fear creeps into me, I feel a surge of energy and if I can keep relaxing through this discomfort, a whole new world opens up (flow), and I see, hear, feel, intuit the world more clearly.
7. Do you have a favorite quote or motto?
8. I imagine that your schedule keeps you pretty active, but how do you stay fit physically during those longer stretches of down time?
I don’t really stay physically fit in the short term during the longer stretches of down time, though I’m never totally stagnant. I always go on long walks with my dog, Whisper, and my girlfriend, Jen, and we spend much of our time outdoors. This time in nature – breathing fresh air and drinking pure water and relaxing my nervous system – seems far more important than continuously stressing myself when I’m not inspired. Sure, I could probably climb harder if I trained consistently. Lack of regimentation is a big weakness of mine.
Strength is essential for most of the things I do, and I’m thankful that I’m blessed with good genetics. Listening to the bigger picture of long-term health, motivation and happiness seems to be my higher calling.
I just turned 42 and have remained healthy and injury free for my entire life, so far. Sure I’ve had some sprained ankles and scrapes and bruises but I’ve never been debilitated. I think this is because I take long breaks away from each of my three Arts. For example, when my fingers are hurting from climbing, I walk lines or fly and visa versa. I try to enjoy these long breaks. My Arts are far more mental and emotional than physical. After a long spell of taking it easy, I come back with enormous fire and any physicality eventually falls into place with enough psych!
9. You’ve continued to push the limits of what most would think is humanly possible. What’s next for you?
This past summer in the Alps really changed me.
Close to 30 wingsuit BASE-jumpers died world wide in 2013. I still have never been on the scene for a fatal accident during my 28 years pursuing some of the most dangerous endeavors man can undertake.
Last summer, I started realizing that there is a flaw in the wingsuiting system. I started to become conscious of some basic safety rules that I’ve followed all my life that used to live purely in my subconscious mind. I realized that I haven’t just been getting lucky; there is methodology that has been helping to keep me safe.
I flew more than 200 wingsuit BASE-flights during my stay in Switzerland. One is the biggest wingsuit BASE-flight worldwide that only my partner Graham Hunt and I got to fly together. Many more were with Whisper dog. During all of these flights, I never felt on the edge of death. Many times, I walked or down-climbed out of the mountains and decided not to fly that day.
When I got home to Yosemite, I poured all of my energy into starting to redesign the wingsuiting system. All of my other flying buddies kept pushing it harder and harder. Though I did climb, walk lines and fly regularly throughout the autumn and winter, I definitely reduced my physical pursuits and enhanced my mental outreach with innovations. I tried to caution my friends about the unnecessary risks they were taking and they all looked at me weird and perhaps thought I was losing my grip. This past month, four friends died wingsuit flying, one of whom was my very good friend and wingman, Sean Leary.
I feel fortunate that I listened to my gut and rational thoughts and “looked before I leaped.” I am more psyched for wingsuit flying than ever before. I feel passionate about advancing human performance, technological advancements in gear, safety and predictability. I am also locked onto safely and repeatedly flying and landing the human form.
10. Who is your greatest inspiration and why?
I wouldn’t say that I have one greatest inspiration but I do read and learn a lot from the teachings of Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was the legendary samurai known throughout the world as a master swordsman, spiritual seeker, artist and author of the classic book on strategy, the Book of Five Rings. For Musashi, the way of the martial arts was about mastery of the mind rather than simply technical prowess.
11. What do you think is the most important characteristic in a person?
Being truthful and honorable combined are the most important characteristics in people I like to spend time with.
12. What’s your biggest weakness?
My biggest weakness is my tendency to go very high and then very low. More and more I’m learning to become balanced and more consistent.
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