As you’ve probably heard, legendary climber and mountain athlete Dean Potter died recently while wingsuiting off a cliff in Yosemite at the age of 43. It’s tragic, but if you’re familiar with his mind-melting exploits—BASE jumping, highlining without protection, and free climbing 3,000-foot cliffs with a parachute on his back—it’s not surprising. Nor was the chorus of condemnation from outraged people sitting at computers that soon followed. I’ll never stop defending Potter’s right to jump off mountains if that’s what made him feel most alive—even if it killed him. But this isn’t about how Potter died. It’s about how we choose to live.
Dean Potter, Photo Christian Pfanzelt (might include color photo, talking to photographer)
They say Potter was crazy for jumping off mountains. The funny thing is that plenty of people say the same about me, and I’ve never even seen a wingsuit in real life. Sure, I’ve spent the past two decades traveling to unruly, off-the-grid locales on skis, bikes, and boots, but the only parachute-like piece of nylon in my backpack is a tent. I don’t feel compelled to jump off mountains, but I love sleeping on them.
Even the most listless, couch-craving people come alive in these untamed places, where there are often several toothy links above us on the food chain. We’re not in control here, we might not even be “safe” in the stiflingly overprotective, modern sense of the word. Personally, I strive to be “safe-ish,” whether I’m in a carnivore-infested wilderness or a street market in Guatemala. These places are so vibrant and vital they make classrooms and offices feel like prison cells. I don’t call exploring places like this crazy, I call it living well. You can be sure Potter felt the same way.
Enough with calling Dean Potter crazy. Enough with being ruled by fears and disguising it as practicality. We live in bubbles of security and comfort that would be the envy of royalty from centuries past, yet we still find countless things to fear. We’re afraid to travel. We’re afraid of wilderness. We’re afraid to quit unfulfilling jobs and do what we really want to do with our lives. Not Potter. He ate fear alive.
You know what’s truly crazy? Trying to spend your whole life in well-cushioned, climate-controlled “safety.” We can’t outrun our mortality, but we can sure make getting there a bore. Personally, I’m more afraid of not living well than I am of dying, because what’s the point of being so afraid of dying that we can’t enjoy being alive?
—maybe include one of the ambassador photos here, would be more influential than the base jumper–
Take my friend, Ron, from New York City who, like a lot of New Yorkers that travel to my home state of Montana, is terrified of grizzly bears. What’s great about Ron is that he still comes out here every summer to backpack with me into mountains thick with bears. He’ll carry bear spray with him at every moment like his life depends on it—eating breakfast, fertilizing the flowers, in his sleeping bag at night—but he’s out there, and the trips are some of the greatest, most memorable experiences of his life.
Just the other day I was climbing a mountain with skis strapped on my pack in Glacier National Park. As I kicked toeholds into the snow near the summit, I looked down 2,500 feet of plummeting snow and cliff beneath my feet and felt a surge of fear. A fall here could be fatal. So I focused really, really hard on not falling. Buddhists talk about single-mindedness and the present moment—I could not have been more present in that moment if my chest hair was on fire. The Universe was reduced to each intense step up that wild mountainside.
When’s the last time the outraged internet people felt something like that? Maybe that’s why they’re so angry.
We’ve got one shot at this life and I’m going to spend mine climbing mountains—external and internal—and staring down my fears. I hope someday to see my hair gray, but I’d rather die at 43 having lived adventurously than live a timid, “safe” life to 100. I wish Dean Potter hadn’t died when he jumped off that cliff in Yosemite, but I understand why he did it. It’s just like summiting that mountain in Glacier Park. On top of the world, peaks spilling away in all directions like shark’s teeth, I clicked into my skis and dove into gravity’s embrace. Carving glorious, flowing arcs down the mountain’s exposed face, I whooped and laughed—my fear transformed to jubilation.
Photo by Jesse Levine