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

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On the trail: Retreat and the edge effect

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

I finally turned back.

Perhaps my plan was ill advised from the start. To run and hike in two feet of snow without the aid of snow shoes or skis. Or even boots. Just La Sportive Wildcat trail shoes and a plastic bag I had slipped over each of my feet before I put my shoes on. But I really thought the snow would have been tamped down already by other hikers with their snow shoes or cross country skis or boots.

Apparently very few people had been out and the trail was covered with thick pillowy snow, softening in the warming temperatures. But on I ran, counting on my Kahtoola Microspikes to grab the ice and hard packed snow and prevent slipping. They were no match for today’s conditions. In some cases I crashed through the top layer of hard packed snow. But in other spots I post holed, my foot slipping into a cauldron of cold. After thirty minutes I finally accepted that I was neither trail running nor hiking, but rather slowly and inefficiently slogging my way uncomfortably through a forest blanketed in snow.

It was time to retreat, that moment when hope collides with reality.

Mountaineers must deal with the quandary of retreat. If a mountaineer advances to a summit when the odds are against her, she risks her life. Yet if she retreats she will have spent thousand of dollars and weeks or months on an unsuccessful expedition. Successful climbers, however, succeed in part because they know when to advance and when to retreat.

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

American mountaineer Ed Visteurs, the first U.S. climber to ascend all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (and without the use of supplemental oxygen), offered realistic advice about success in mountain climbing. “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”, he said. Each person who sets out on an adventure, be it large or small, must respect his own limits, his own edge of ability.

During my retreat I noticed that snow that had settled around the edge of the base of the trees was now melting away from those same trunks, leaving a ring of snow. And that ring forms a thin edge. The snow was disappearing gradually from around the trunks. The edge where the two had coexisted was the first spot to melt away.

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Snow always begins its retreat at the edges, where it abuts a fencepost, or sidewalk or stone wall. The edge is a fragile place. Retreat for humans also occurs at the edge, the edge of ability or mental discipline. And when retreat comes, it starts with just one foot step, one step back. But that one step may be the difference between adventure and misadventure.  When you are standing on the edge, knowing whether to walk forward or back is one of life’s great challenges. But do not mistake turning back for defeat. Retreat is simply an opportunity to try another day.

Howard E. Friedman

Walking with the wisdom of the crowd…

My son and I set out to explore a rock climbing crag nearby, recently approved by the municipal land owners and sanctioned for climbing. The area is an otherwise unused strip of land, long with several undulations of granite cliffs no more than 100 feet tall with several smaller rock formations at its base. The most prominent feature of this wooded land however is a series of towering power lines. The land is actually a power company right of way for high capacity electrical lines. Indeed, if you listen carefully it is possible to hear a faint crackling of electricity traveling through the lines at the top of the steel super structures which stand guard on otherwise undeveloped woodlands.  images

No formal trails lead to the rocks but faint foot paths have stomped down tall grasses. In some areas a dirt path has emerged but no blazes mark the trail. Leave the parking lot, look for a faint trail and walk. Look for a stream and cross by a  fallen log the instructions explain. Pick up a trail on the other side, faint as it is. Finally crossing a dirt road one sees an official sign at the informal entrance to this newly opened rock climbing area.

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Neither my son nor I are real climbers. We have climbed in indoor climbing gyms which simulate some of the athletic moves needed for outdoor climbing on real rock slabs. And we have climbed once in the famous Shawungunk climbing area in New Paltz, NY under the supervision of a watchful and well trained guide. So we were just scoping out this new venue to see if we and the rocks made a good match.

By the time we started hiking into the woods we did not have too much time to explore but did have enough time enough to spot a flock of goldfinches dressed in their bright summery ellow and black plumage flying in and around some low brush.

imgresOn the way back we lost the trail, with no supplies, lights or even water. We were never more than half mile or so from the car but with dusk approaching the thought of stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar woods was unappealing. While we lost the main trail, faint as it was, we picked up several other ‘herd’ paths – that is, trails going this way and that left by the footfalls of previous hikers. On some summits a herd path usually leads to a great view, or short cut to the trail’s continuation. The herd path deviates from the main blazed path, placed purposefully by the trail maintainer. White rectangles 2 inches wide and 3 inches long mark the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Herd wisdom, or the wisdom of the crowd, has been around for eons. Thompson’s Gazelle‘s use the wisdom of the crowd to turn tail and bolt in the opposite directions from a prowling lion. Schools of fish do the same. And now a days humans ‘crowd source’ using the collective information gathering skills of hundreds to pull resources together to yield new information hitherto not easily knowable.

But walking in the woods in the waning light, pushing away boughs of thorn bushes obstructing the faint herd paths we had little choice but to follow the foot steps of walkers before us, and hope that their intentions in walking this ground were our intentions, that they were going, or coming, from the direction we sought. It felt comforting to embrace the wisdom of the footsteps of the crowd which indeed led us back to where we started.