A fall from grace in the wrong place

 

Just as day turned to dusk May 16, 2015, Dean Potter jumped off Taft Point in Yosemite National Park.

Graham Hunt jumped right behind him. Both were well-known BASE jumpers. ("BASE" is an acronym that stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans, i.e., bridges, and Earth, meaning cliffs.) Both men wore wingsuits to help them steer as they flew through the air at around 100 miles per hour.

They "contoured," flying as close as possible to the terrain to intensify the sensation of speed, but during their dive, some tiny miscalculation or whiff of wind — something — happened, and both men smashed into a rock outcropping above Yosemite Valley. Their deaths sent shock waves through the extreme-sports community around the world.

Because of its dangers, BASE jumping is banned by the National Park Service. In other words, Potter's jump was illegal, though he had made that same jump at least 20 times before.

Dean Potter, often accompanied by his small crew, also basically made Yosemite his home, ignoring the rules, camping in caves, and exploring the granite monuments in ever more challenging ways. Potter became the first person to free climb three-quarters of the way up Half Dome, and he did it in just four hours. He saw BASE jumping, rock climbing and slacklining -- walking across a chasm on a nylon rope -- as art forms and dedicated his life to living dangerously, jumping at dusk to avoid being caught.

Jumpers caught and cited in national parks can be fined $5,000 and have their gear confiscated. Yet even a Yosemite official spoke well of Potter, describing him as a sweet, caring and incredibly kind man. Friends say he jumped not because it was illegal but in spite of it; his actions were a form of spirituality, not sport. As the story goes, his senses were so attuned that, once as he walked a slackline, he sensed a butterfly as it flew behind his back.

But there are two ways to see Potter's story. When it comes to landscapes, we humans inevitably need to mar some of them to build our communities, dig for minerals, grow crops or just ride our ATVs. That is why we have the foresight to set aside certain landscapes as too special to spoil for profit, or even for pleasure.

Some of those landscapes are contained within our national parks. It is illegal to rock climb on or rappel off Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park. But Dean Potter did it anyway. He scaled the arch — many say he desecrated it by doing so and that his rope left visible grooves in the rock. He also documented his climb. Why? So he could be one with nature? I don't buy that for a second. He did it to thumb his nose at the National Park Service, and to draw attention to himself. His sponsor, the clothing company Patagonia, severed its ties with him after that stunt. Clif Bar dumped him, too.

There are plenty of beautiful landscapes where Potter could legally climb. Last year, I rappelled off a huge natural bridge just a few miles away from Delicate Arch, outside the park, in a place where it is legal to do so. As I stood on top of the arch with no safety lines or nets, my feet felt light and my senses were acute. Pushing over the edge with 120 feet of air below me was a highly charged moment.

I have watched BASE jumpers dive off Perrine Bridge over the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho, where Potter originally learned to jump. It's legal there because you won't hit anything (or anyone) before you get to the bottom.

So we don't need people jumping off cliffs in our national parks. Our rangers have their hands full enough already keeping visitors safe and protecting park resources. I know how a brush with death makes you feel acutely alive. As a pilot, I've had a few of those. I also understand the desire to be free to roam, or to seek solace in silence. I have hiked red-rock areas and rested on sunny rocks. Sometimes it is so quiet I swear I can actually hear clouds passing overhead. A raven's wing beats are positively deafening. It's a privilege to enter such a landscape. It wasn't put here for me. It simply is.

I love my time outdoors. And Potter and Hunt surely loved theirs. But if you need places to go to flirt with danger, you can always find them without breaking the law. It's a big world. BASE jumpers need to find their bliss where it's legal, not in our national parks.

Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She writes for a variety of aviation and wildlife publications from her home in Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.