A Rare and Confounding Thing

What Dean Potter did with his life was risky. Wildly so, by any average American’s estimation. From climbing without a rope, to highlining without a tether, to jumping from cliffs with a parachute strapped to his back, all of Potter’s passions could reasonably be classified as “crazy.” He knowingly dedicated his life to “pursuing some of the most dangerous endeavors man can undertake,” as he put it in an interview on photographer Jimmy Chin’s website.

But amidst the media hype and the dismissive critics, it’s easy to forget that this pursuit required great skill and intense dedication, applied over years with care and focus. From every indication, Potter’s climbs and jumps and highlines were calculated and considered, executed in the face of deep fear by a disciplined practitioner. I do not think it would be too much to call his actions a form of art (he did). An art with the highest stakes, but an art nonetheless, and one that inspired many… Or more importantly inspired many debates and much reflection in the hearts of those who bore witness.

In his interview on Chin’s site, Potter said:

The common thread in my three 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. … 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.

To access this type of elevated state of awareness, religious practitioners across time have taken to asceticism, self-denial, and self-mortification. They have ingested psychoactive substances, handled venomous snakes, and wandered the desert alone. Athletes of all kinds have pushed themselves to the edge of disaster and beyond in search of the perfect, transcendent moment. Potter was not the first nor will he be the last to seek enlightenment on the razor’s edge.

Some of us are lucky: the life we want can be found in the relatively safe confines of white picket fences, the climate controlled halls of office buildings. I count myself among this group. The styles of climbing I engage in are fairly low on the risk spectrum—probably not much crazier than riding a bicycle on a city street—and my joy for writing has not (yet) put me in harm’s way.

But for others, it seems, the activities that energize and bring life meaning can only be found out on the fringes, past the bounds deemed socially acceptable. This was clearly where Potter needed to be. Whatever you think about him, it’s worth bearing this in mind.

In the final analysis, no one can say for sure what drove Potter. As Andy Kirkpatrick put it, “Dean was ungraspable—the reason being perhaps because his greatest struggle was grasping the contradictions of himself.” Regardless, the imprint left in his wake is clear: like his physical form, it is outsized; like his words and deeds it is awe-inspiring, disruptive, and controversial.

Was he selfish? Reckless? Such judgements, already being bandied about in the comments of popular news sites, seem glib and pointless. Potter’s life, and now his death, deserve more thoughtful reflection.

When considering a man who lived “like plankton” on the rock beneath an overhang of the Eiger, meditating and drinking meltwater for more than a month at a stretch, it’s hard to see Potter as anything less that a human dedicated to the deep exploration of his own being, in all its boundless, ragged, fragile glory. A rare and confounding thing indeed.