Why I Can’t Stop Thinking About Potter and Hunt

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

It is not just their unusual manner of death, flying near 100 mph headlong into a granite massif, hundreds of feet above the iconic, beautiful and serene Yosemite Valley, the two men each in a silky synthetic wing suit and a parachute folded on their backs, that keeps me thinking about Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. They died a week ago Saturday after a fatal impact with the rock during what was their final wing suit flight from Yosemite’s Taft Point.

Their manner of death is by any definition, extraordinary.

But what will not leave my mind is the fact that how they died is so entwined with how they lived. They died while trying so hard to live.Yet since our Western society places the value of life above all other values, it is difficult for me to fully embrace these men’s life choices. But at the same time I can not diminish their achievements.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about his own life that he went to the woods near Walden Pond so he would “not when I came to die discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau though, was never too far from civilization and his yearning for life was hardly a dangerous proposition. Not so Dean Potter, a pioneer not only in the rock climbing community but in the field of human powered flight, sailing off cliffs wearing a suit that made his arms and legs wing-like, then deploying his parachute to land safely. His most celebrated flight was flying off the Eiger mountain in Switzerland after climbing that mountain unaided, a feat in and of itself heavy with risk.

I am conflicted about Potter’s choice of lifestyle, activities which flirted with death and feel the need to explore his choices since for a reason that may seem irrational, his death is making me think about how best to “suck out all the marrow of life”, as Thoreau wrote.

Let’s assume that Potter felt the need to push the boundaries of the possible to satisfy his own thirst for life and let’s assume that he accepted that the risk was death. He is not the first to take this path. As a kid I remember the thrill of watching the daredevil Evel Knievel sail his motorcycle over more than a dozen cars on one jump and thirteen Greyhound buses on another, sometimes crashing in similar attempts, not dying, but breaking dozens of bones. I remember watching him try to fly his specially made one man rocket over the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho in 1974, crashing into the far side of the canyon, and surviving. And I watched all this on the ABC television network, one of only three major television networks of the time. A man testing himself, coming to the edge of death was public spectacle and entertainment and one that is repeated again and again in many different ways even now: race car driving, free diving, a matador facing a raging bull.

People take many roads to make peace with their lives and find success. But even the most seemingly successful men and women of our day often crash and burn despite great objective success, actors and musicians taking their own lives, successful politicians making stupid and illegal choices, ruining their careers. So, can Potter be faulted for living his life to what for him was the life he needed to feel fulfilled, even if that life carried the price tag of death? What’s a person to do if the only way he feels alive is by staring death full in the face, “to slip the surly bonds of Earth…to touch the face of God”. words written by English test pilot John Gillespie McGee Jr. after flying to 30,000 feet during a test flight in 1941. McGee died in a plane crash months later at the age of 19.

Pilot McGee was serving his country in war time. We mourn his death but accept it as the inevitable cost of war. But how do we respond to Dean Potter’s death, and similar deaths that have come before and those that will surely follow? Should we as a society openly tolerate activities that are a clear and present danger to their practitioners. Should we stand in the way of those who’s struggle to feel alive takes them so close to the edge? Should we support companies, like Red Bull and GroPro, that sponsor adventurers taking possibly fatal risks, like Jeb Corliss, another wing suit flyer, or Felix Baumgartner, who sky dived from 126,100 feet high falling faster than the speed of sound during a live-streamed event in 2014. We watch knowing they can die and they jump knowing the same and their sponsors who enable their efforts stand to profit the most. Even Corliss conceded after his successful wingsuit flight through a keyhole formation in Tianmen Cave that “my time on earth is limited but what I do with that time is not”. Like Knievel, Corliss has also returned to his sport after suffering serious injury.

We regulate other activities that are deemed injurious such as alcohol and drug use. We have an ongoing robust debate about about assisted suicide and the right to die. So, as a society, we do cherish life. Yet, we do not prohibit people from taking great risks with their lives. We do not outlaw cave diving, a notoriously dangerous activity, nor BASE jumping, although jumping off of public buildings and in National Parks is usually prohibited. Should we outlaw these activities because they have a high mortality rate? Should we ban flying in a wingsuit?

Or are these men and few women who takes these great risks really our own proxies for living life on the edge? Do their successful wing suit flights and leaps from space give us a unique moment of satiety about all that life can be, and than when they die, their death coaxes a hushed sigh of relief from deep in our throats that, “yes” we were right to avoid risk, to continue in our quotidien lives, lest we end up in pieces on the valley floor?

Unlike Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, who have now passed on, and others like them still alive (the free climber Alex Honnold comes to mind) and many others out of the public view, few among us have a passion we are willing to die for. I am envious of the person who has a passion so fierce he will follow it at all costs. But even if I had such a calling I would deem it unfair to heap that cost on family and loved ones who ultimately and for the duration of their lives will pay a big part of the price. It certainly seems unfair, selfish actually, to bequest that burden on one’s young children.  But at the same time, it is not in the purview of society to forbid people from exploring their limits as long as they are not actively doing harm to others.

But Potter’s life and death at the very least should cause us each to seek out passions in our lives, be they great or small.  And hopefully they are passions we are willing to live for and passions which ennoble the spirit and soothe the soul.

Howard E. Friedman

-30=

Trailer for Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco

Born to Run, the best selling book by Christopher McDougall, published in 2009, introduced readers to the enigmatic Caballo Blanco (the White Horse),

 Caballo Blanco in the CopperCanyon. Photo by Leslie Gaines.

aka Micah True who lived and ran in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He was inspired by the native Tarahumara people who lived there and ran long distances just for fun. Micah True went on to host races in the Copper Canyon to bring revenue and support to these indigenous people. He died in 2012, while running in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.

A documentary is making its way across the festival circuit this year about this inspiring person who required little for himself all the while working to make the world better for others. The trailer has been released.

Trailer | Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco.

Off the Trail: The Anthropocene is here to stay.

The term Anthropocene is starting to appear more and more frequently. The “cene” ending of the word is familiar from any number of geologic epochs such as Holocene or Pleistocene. But in the case of Anthropocene we humans are the subjects, not dinosaurs, or glaciers or seismic events of unimaginable proportion.

Scientists continue to try and understand how we humans, the “anthro” in Anthropocene, are impacting our planet. Are we causing irreversible changes with development? Or over-population? Or did we start to irrevocably alter the planet when we began agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, deforesting and tilling the earth?  And anthropology professor Dr. John Hawks has written about some anthropologists who wonder if we should capitalize the word at all or refer to our epoch with a little ‘a’ just to signal that this time period is currently unfolding and its full details can not yet be known.

Read below for two scientists thoughts on this topic after convening an expert panel to think and write about our current geologic era and try to determine where we can go from here in understanding the “Anthropocene” and the impact we are having on what is for now, at least, our solar system’s only known habitable planet.

Below is the beginning of the article which was published in theconversation.com and which I saw re-posted on earthsky.org. I encourage you to read the entire piece, written by Professors Ben A. Minteer and Stephen Pyne, both of Arizona State University.

HF

What does it mean to preserve nature in the Age of Humans

“Is the Earth now spinning through the “Age of Humans?” More than a few scientists think so. They’ve suggested, in fact, that we modify the name of the current geological epoch (the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago) to the “Anthropocene.” It’s a term first put into wide circulation by Nobel-Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in an article published in Nature in 2002. And it’s stirring up a good deal of debate, not only among geologists.

The idea is that we needed a new planetary marker to account for the scale of human changes to the Earth: extensive land transformation, mass extinctions, control of the nitrogen cycle, large-scale water diversion, and especially change of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases. Although naming geological epochs isn’t usually a controversial act, the Anthropocene proposal is radical because it means that what had been an environmental fixture against which people acted, the geological record, is now just another expression of the human presence.

It seems to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for nature preservationists, heirs to the American tradition led by writers, scientists and activists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. That’s because some have argued the traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.

Given this situation, we felt the time was ripe to explore the impact of the Anthropocene on the idea and practice of nature preservation. Our plan was to create a salon, a kind of literary summit. But we wanted to cut to the chase: What does it mean to “save American nature” in the age of humans?”

(the rest of the article can be accessed here)