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