Dean Potter: Daredevil record-breaking rock climber and BASE jumper acclaimed for his ascents, descents and wingsuit flights

His apparent frivolity was shot through with discipline and competitiveness

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The Independent Online

The rock-climber Dean Potter took both his dog and his greatest fear up mountains, telling himself that if he fell, he could fly. He broke records for speed and daring on the world's sheerest slopes, performing "free solo" unaided ascents, traversing gorges barefoot on bouncing slacklines and, in the final years of a 20-year reign as one of the world's wildest mountaineers, hurling himself off mighty granite formations in a wingsuit. "Miss Whisper trusts her papa," he would say, of his miniature Australian blue heeler cattle dog, strapped in a bag on his back, as he engaged in an intense quest with the vertical, and with empty air.

"My three arts are climbing, flying, and walking lines", the 6ft 5 in, tousle-haired free spirit told the many who fell spellbound under his influence. One of the world's most accomplished alpinists, he pursued a fitness regime that kept his arms sinewy and his fingers strong enough to grip backwards-overhangs thousands of feet up, his concentration honed to keep moving on and up, over every seemingly impossible edge.

Nicknamed "the Dark Wizard", he free-climbed the terrifying "Nose" route up the monolith El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California in three hours 24 minutes in 2001. The following year he became the first person to free-solo El Capitan and the distinctive Half Dome together in less than 24 hours.

In 2008 he made the first free BASE climb of the Deep Blue Sea route up the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland – unprotected but for a parachute on his back – and in 2009 from the same place set a record of 2 minutes and 50 seconds, and four miles, for the longest and farthest swoop from it by wingsuit. For his prowess National Geographic made him Adventurer of the Year.

In 2012 he line-walked across the Enshi Grand Canyon in Hubei, China, and in earlier this month reached the top of Half Dome in one hour 19 minutes, making the round trip, including descent, in under 2 hours 18 minutes, considered a record.

He inspired films and music, including the 2014 feature Valley Uprising and "Not All Roses", a rap song by Odub (fellow climber Kris Hampton), which irked him, about his controversial 2006 climb of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah – which some said had left grooves in the fragile sandstone, a charge he denied. He also line-walked between the Three Gossips summits close to the roadside in Arches National Park, and in Yosemite line-walked to the Lost Arrow Spire.

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Potter walking between two peaks in Hubei province, China (EPA)

It was on Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia in 2002 that he decided to take up BASE jumping, after a rock struck his leg and slowed his descent to 36 hours, despite his having reached the top in 10: "There has to be a better way," he noted. "That's when I realised BASE jumping is the way to get off these walls."

He had learned line-walking a decade before, in 1993, when on first embracing the outlaw lifestyle of the climbers who hang out in Yosemite National Park, he met Grandmaster "Chongo" Chuck Tucker, a homeless some-time climber, who also wrote about quantum physics.

In Yosemite the bandana-ed Potter showed himself, friends said, to be "king of the dirtbag ethos", sometimes living in his van, sometimes a cave, sometimes behind someone's sofa, sustaining himself on salt sandwiches and by menial jobs such as making golf bags.

By climbing, he said, he sought to decipher the ending of a childhood dream in which he sprouted feathers on his arms but began to plummet out of control and woke up, heart pounding. His motto became: "Go towards your fears". Recently, despite the illegality of BASE jumping in US national parks, he claimed: "I'm pursuing the legalisation of human flight in our National Parks," and insisted: "I'm working with a scientist and we're developing a safer system for wingsuit flying."

Nevertheless his apparent frivolity, whooping with glee when reaching a summit, was shot through with discipline and a competitiveness which, though he denied it, carried him to stardom and commercial sponsorship, which was generous until the undue risk of his climbs made some backers withdraw.

"My dad was in the army for most of my youth. He was very regimented and I learned to train from him," Potter said. His mother, a yoga teacher, taught him about breathing and concentration. He was born in Kansas and grew up in New Boston, New Hampshire, then, for three years, Israel, where a priest called Father Jerry often took groups including Potter to caves and mountains. Back home, while at high school in New Boston he practised illegally on the granite cliffs of Joe English Hill, which a US Air Force satellite tracking station had rendered out of bounds.

At the University of New Hampshire he did rowing, but abandoned it – and his studies – to seek his fortune in California. In 2002 he married the climber and wingsuiter Steph Davis. They divorced in 2010, and he later lived with a girlfriend, Jennifer Rapp, her children, and his beloved dog Whisper, the subject of his 2015 film When Dogs Fly. Whisper survives: she was not on the jump from Taft Point, Yosemite, on which he and colleague Graham Hunt hit a ridge and were killed.

Dean S Potter, rock climber and BASE jumper: born Kansas 14 April 1972; married 2002 Stephanie Davis (divorced 2010); died California 16 May 2015.

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