They call him “Dark Wizard,” and for good reason. Dean Potter always seems to escape the worst fate at the very last possible moment. He first made a name by climbing many of Yosemite’s baddest walls without a rope, but he has since transcended the climber label (his term for himself is aerialist). He has even transcended climbing itself, by coming up with a new sport that fuses free solo climbing with, wait for it… BASE jumping.
A New Sport
Potter’s ultimate brainchild is this fusion of climbing and flying, and he is the only person to pull these sports together. When Potter scales difficult routes way off the ground, he wears only his compact parachute on his back. If and when he falls, he pushes himself away from the cliff and pulls the rip cord. His objectives for these climbs are purposely at his limit, unlike routes chosen by most other free soloists, who choose climbs on which there is no chance of falling, barring catastrophe. Potter wore his parachute on Deep Blue Sea, a 5.12+ route on the Eiger. When he reached crux moves he could not negotiate with the heavy pack, he kicked off, turned around and glided safely downward.
Lost Arrow Spire, Sans Leash
Potter has pushed slacklining into the public eye with his ever higher, harder, and more frightful feats. Partly, he has been able to do advance the sport by parachuting down from botched attempts, like his free-solo BASE jumps. Before he started adding his parachute to the mix, however, he simply untethered from the safety leash highliners typically wear. In 2010, the Dark Wizard accomplished one of his darkest, most wizardly lines ever: one he rigged between the Lost Arrow Spire, a freestanding pillar, and the rim of Yosemite Valley, 2,500 feet off the deck. No one had dared try it without a leash before, but Potter crossed the line out to the spire, turned around, and walked back.
Photo Credit: Daveynin / Flickr.com
The Delicate Arch, centerpiece of Arches National Park, is a picturesque, 60-foot-tall ribbon of sandstone in the Utah desert. It is also off limits. While technically legal to climb, it was considered too pretty, too unique, perhaps too delicate to scale; the rock is very soft. Potter, however, is not much for convention (that much should be clear by now). In 2006, inviting along a camera crew, he climbed it several times, a feat met with a firestorm of criticism and a fevered debate about whether he or his crew left grooves in the arch from ropes used to get up and down. Potter denies the charge, claiming others had stood on top of the feature long before he did. Every time the media asks if he would do it again, his answer is the same. Yes, he would.
Dark Wizard On Heaven
You don’t earn the moniker “Dark Wizard” without having a few tricks up your sleeve. When Potter applies his unparalleled mind control to super hard climbs, the result is nothing short of sorcery. Free soloing Heaven, a 5.12d/13a situated a half mile above the Yosemite Valley floor, was one of those moments. This ethereal — and wicked hard — climb is aptly named: only the clouds ever get higher. This thin 40-foot crack splits a streaked wall atop Glacier Point, a 2,000-foot sweep of steep granite. Until last year when Alex Honnold soloed it, Potter’s 2006 ascent was the only to tackle Heaven without a rope.
Potter endured repeated 50-foot falls to achieve this final first — a free ascent of Tombstone. Along with his then-wife Steph Davis, Potter climbed this formation in the Utah desert from ground to summit in 2003. Two years earlier he had free climbed it using existing anchor stations for rest spots. But the route had not been free climbed in its entirety. For this remarkable ascent, one of Potter’s best all-time coups, he bypassed the belay stations, risking enormous falls. For decades, the Tombstone was an obvious jewel waiting to be plucked. It took the Dark Wizard a decade of work and earned him and Davis climbing’s highest honor, the Golden Piton Award.