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Alpinist 51

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Going Home

Posted on: August 14, 2015


The late Dean Potter (1972-2015), meditating atop the Rostrum, Yosemite, California. In November 2008, Potter soloed the Alien Roof (5.12) on this same formation, wearing a parachute as a safeguard in case he fell, a style of climbing he called FreeBASE. [Photo] Shawn Reeder

One after the other, their toes compress then release from the cliff's edge. Shoulders hunch forward, chins are tucked in. Toes are pointed. Legs are spread apart, holding their wingsuits open. Streaked granite surrounds them: El Capitan, the 3,000-foot wall they've climbed for years, its golden polish framed by ponderosa pines. Rushing air fills their ears. They thread a channel that opens toward the Cathedral Spires across the valley floor. The orange sky feels thick, heavy.

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Because their activity is illegal in Yosemite, they often flew during first and last light, when the atmosphere's static blues mixed with grey, shrouding them from sight. The last time I saw Dean jump, I watched his figure, wrapped in black, leap from the rim of El Cap, then fall as if endlessly, his charcoal chute popping open against the sky. He landed, gently, in the meadow by us. And then he disappeared.

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ON MAY 17, 2015, I heard the news that Dean and Graham had died the night before, during a wingsuit flight in Yosemite—a year, two months and three days after Stanley crashed in Zion. Although I hadn't met Graham, I knew Stanley and Dean. We were part of the same community, one that extended from the far end of the Valley floor in Curry Village to Yosemite West, Foresta and El Portal. Memories flickered in my mind: black, gold and white granite walls; mist rising from El Cap Meadow; the silhouettes of friends. The way I mistook the BASE jumpers for swifts, their shadows flitting past me while I climbed.

I've never flown in a wingsuit, but I've tried to understand the lure. During my late teens and early twenties, I often free soloed flowing slabs and flared cracks. With practice, I found I could approach my limit, summoning my will to live. Once high on El Cap—roped up, but dangerously runout and exhausted—I knew I had to stop clenching the shallow piton scars; letting go of my fight was the only option left. Instead of falling, I began to climb from a different place. It was as if I barely needed to touch the stone, as though my body transformed into something almost weightless. I believed that wingsuit flyers found such moments along Yosemite's vast walls, when the choice to hold on to anything vanishes. I wasn't willing to join them, because I was afraid to die.

"It's incredibly beautiful—the walls and big waterfalls, and the valley itself. Then you jump off...and you have a moment of quiet peacefulness," a wingsuit flyer, JT Holmes told me. "You're going really, really fast, and you're boom, back at the car. It's like a magic porthole."

Yosemite is a place of overwhelming beauty. It's also a place of death. Over 600 pages, Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite tells stories of the lost: drownings, falls on rock, parachute failures. Days after Dean and Graham's accident, I take a plane from Vermont to California. Under the moonlight, I drive from Fresno toward the Valley. And as the farmland rolls into steep, winding roads with dark oaks and rippling grass, I only know that I need to be back in my community.

For more than a decade, this was my home.

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STANLEY

THE NEXT AFTERNOON, I sit with an old friend, Julia Reardin, by the Merced River. Damp greenery surrounds us. A smooth rock digs into my ribs. Julia and her roommate let me sleep on their bodywidth cabin floor for many seasons over the years. Once again, I'm staying with her, this time at her rental in El Portal.

Earlier in the day, we followed the narrow passage of Incline Road, along repurposed railroad grade, to Stanley's place. The slackline was still set up in his yard. A blue crash pad perched against the trailer. I peered through the windows: carabiners spilled from the lid of a haulbag. Aside from the river, all was quiet. Julia leaned against me, her tears absorbed into my shirt.

Below us, now, the water funnels ceaselessly around river stones. I think about the gear inside that haulbag, collected for adventures that he'll never have. What death leaves behind.

Stanley took his nickname from the hardware-store claw hammer he carried on his first El Cap nail-up, Zodiac. He lived in an orange-brown trailer with peeling paint. He loved the location, but the trailer felt confining so he sometimes slept in a tent in the yard. Eventually, he and his wife, Annamieka, bought a yurt. It stayed folded up until his death, when his friends erected it in his memory.

Originally from Pine Grove, California, Stanley guided for the Yosemite Mountaineering School in the late 1990s. Later, he rigged vertical camera systems and orchestrated stunts for film and TV. In 2003, on a trip to Mexico, he found a mutt with her neck slit, covered with flies in a garbage heap. He nursed the dog back to life, named her Nexpa and brought her home.

Sean "Stanley" Leary (1975-2014) [Photo] Alastair Lee

We sometimes bouldered together in Camp 4, rolling from tall, blank slabs to sharp aretes. Lanky, he moved softly over the rock, stepping high and slapping his hands on single-pad edges, jeans gripping his knees as he rocked over his feet. When we climbed the North Face of the Rostrum, he chimneyed, jammed and crimped for 800 feet in near-perpetual motion.

One day, Stanley and I sat with a group of friends outside Degnan's Deli. Lost Arrow Spire poked out of the Yosemite Falls Wall like a candle high above. Stanley began talking about Roberta Nunes, a Brazilian climber he'd met in the Valley. They'd fallen in love. As they drove to Moab to visit the house they planned to buy together, Stanley noticed their truck drifting across the center line. Nunes, who was driving, overcorrected and went off the road. Stanley spoke in circles, blaming himself for her death.

BASE jumping forced him to choose between living and dying, between pulling his chute or crashing to earth. He pulled his chute. In 2008 he started dating his future wife, Annamieka, then a medical student from Oregon. "There was an intensity to everything Sean did," she recalls, "whether it be climbing, making coffee or growing tomatoes in our garden. The sense of adventure and passion he brought to each day was truly inspirational."

His sense of urgency intensified in his final years, as if he wanted to live every moment as fully as possible, his friends tell me. Stanley broke the Nose speed record with Dean in 2010, clocking in at 2:36. For The Asgard Project, Stanley and Leo Houlding jumped out of a plane over Baffin Island wearing parachutes. As soon as they touched down, they ran to each other laughing.

Friends say Stanley was hard to keep up with. He tried to cram so much into a day that sometimes he ended up jumping in the dark, instead of at twilight.

He dreamed up increasingly technical flights, gliding close to cliffs, darting over ridges and shooting through waterfalls. His last jump was by moonlight in Zion. Before he hiked to the rim, he called Jeff Shapiro, a falconer and mountain-flying partner. "The wind was blowing a bit," Jeff told me. "I could hear it in the phone."

BASE jumpers launch from Half Dome, Yosemite. Deploying a parachute is illegal in the park. In Alpinist 27, Potter wrote, "We're too heavy and weak to soar on our own like birds. At the same time, we're doomed to long for that freedom.... When I step off the edge, dozens of thoughts come together for the perfect wing shape." [Photo] Fred Pompermayer

Stanley aimed toward a notch that led out of the park so he could land legally. Narrow gullies often have higher gusts than vast clearings. He might have been lower than usual—during a previous flight from this exit, he'd cleared the notch by 100 feet or more. But there are downdrafts at night. And darkness makes it hard to navigate. He struck the cliff edge. Dean, who joined the search party, sat with his body before the helicopter arrived.

Soon after Stanley's death, I hung a photo from his wedding on my wall. He was dressed in a dark-grey suit, his hair trimmed. His broad smile pushed his cheeks back toward his ears. I felt as though I was back below the boulders with him, standing on red piles of soft bark.

A few months later, Annamieka gave birth to their son, Finn. "I imagined growing old with him," she says of Stanley. "I'm a single mom now." Finn squints his eyes when he smiles, just as his father did. "It's like he's still with us. It's the greatest gift I could ask for. It's too bad he can't share it with us," Annamieka says.

The loss rippled through our community with an empty darkness. Patti Haskins, an old friend, adopted Nexpa. His partner Leo Houlding gave up BASE jumping. Dean hung up his wingsuit for some time, but the pull of his dreams brought him back. Graham spent three weeks at Jeff's house in Missoula. During the evenings, they sat on the porch. "We talked about life and love," Jeff recalls, "and how we would live our lives in [Stanley's] memory."

Late afternoon on my fifth day back in Yosemite, I wander uphill to the Wine Boulder area. I slip my shoes on and climb a shallow corner with palm-sized holds, a line I frequented since my teens. The summer heat makes the rock feel greasy. This time, I don't trust my balance, and I sway between reaches. Midway, I pause, questioning my path.

On top, I stand above a sea of rolling evergreens. Camp 4 is hidden by branches. I miss the simple entrancement of moving over stone. I miss those times when the feeling of being dangerously high above the ground, but in control, brought out a sense of focus instead of grief.

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GRAHAM

YOU FIND THE YOSEMITE lifers in old El Portal, downriver and several thousand feet lower than the west entrance of the park. Broken pavement snakes past old miners' sheds, upgraded with added rooms or extended porches. Retired climbing hardware hangs from one entryway, bong pitons clipped to Forrest Tetons, aluminum blocks shrouded in cobwebs. A general store, grade school, post office and community center make up the middle of town.

A few miles west, I visit another friend, Alison Tudor, who lives with her fiance uphill from one of Graham's old places, a shanty above the Merced River. Alison tells me how Graham loved death metal and the band Tool. How he would bring her tea when she was sick. She cries.

Graham Hunt (1985-2015) [Photo] Ken Yager/YCA

For a few months, Graham stayed in Stanley's trailer with his girlfriend, Rebecca Haynie. Just weeks before Graham and Rebecca met, her cousin had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Life seemed more fleeting than ever. In December 2014, Rebecca drove out from Moab alone to climb and skydive in California. She stopped at Lodi to make a tandem jump from a plane. There, she learned that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had almost finished the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. She hopped in a car with some people headed to El Cap Meadow to watch them top out.

Soon after, she arrived in Camp 4, and her friends introduced her to Graham. When he told her his name, she giggled shyly. "That's my name, too," she said, referring to her middle name. He laughed, but he was gazing at her so intently he didn't hear what she said.

That night, they walked to Mirror Lake. Four winged figures stepped off the top of Half Dome. Graham and Rebecca watched their chutes gradually sway until they disappeared behind the trees.

The next day, Graham led her up Serenity Crack and Sons of Yesterday, across the valley from the shimmering fan of Glacier Point Apron. "I was afraid of his intensity," Rebecca tells me. "He knew exactly what he wanted. Making myself vulnerable was always hard for me, but he chipped away at it."

Rebecca soon became his ground crew, rising before dawn and communicating by radio near the landing zones. Sometimes Graham jumped with Dean, sometimes alone. She came to know Graham's gentle arcs, impeccable timing and focused grace. Within months, they were talking about building a home together.

Graham had first come to the Valley in 2007, two years after I left. He followed a new climbing partner, Sean Jones, to El Portal. The two friends meandered up climbs with Sean's young son, M'so, taking him up the East Buttress of El Cap when he was only eight. To earn money, Graham worked as a carpenter, occasionally donating his labor to the community. He started BASE jumping under Stanley's mentorship.

Once, Graham leapt in street clothes from the Porcelain Wall, a sweeping, almost crackless wave that glows deep orange during last light. Because he overestimated how long he could track without a suit, he ended up too low. He pulled the chute close to the base of Half Dome, and touched down unintentionally on the Death Slabs. Without a headlamp, he navigated by a slender crescent moon, sliding through a gravelly maze.

Hunt on Close to the Edge (5.12c), established by his mentor Sean Jones at the Nuts Only Cliff, Yosemite. [Photo] Shawn Reeder

I've been lost there before, and I spent hours following dead ends, tiptoeing across narrow ledges, all the while hovering near hundred-foot drop-offs. Many climbers have. At night, it's even more disorienting: hollow, rotten slabs with black veils of organic matter intersect sandy terraces that lead in all directions. I imagine that he looked for patterns in the rock, the same way he followed currents in the air.

With Dean, Stanley and Jeff, Graham pioneered new launch points. They planned their flights carefully, using Google Earth to calculate the distance of the glide and dropping rocks to determine the time to impact. Sometimes they measured the rise and run with a range finder and then generated the hypotenuse—their flight path—according to the Pythagorean theorem.

In recent years, Dean and Graham made flights that required minute precision and favorable conditions to complete, clearing gaps that others rarely, if ever, attempted. They traveled to the Alps to establish the highest exit point on the Monch. From the Mittellegi Ridge on the Eiger, they flew for nearly five miles, extending the descent over 9,000 feet, passing swaths of grey, blocky limestone above shining green meadows.

In one video, I watched Dean's red and purple suit contrast against smooth ridgelines. Clouds rose on either side of the rock. He took off and soared from high on the mountain, leaving it behind in a flight that didn't seem to end. "As soon as you step off and in the air, you're so utterly committed, you don't feel the fear or that rush people refer to.... All the emotion comes at you after you land," Jeff says.

Three weeks before he died, Graham completed the first-ever wingsuit flight off Castleton Tower, near Moab. He flew like an airshow plane, aggressively nose-diving, fueling himself with wind, then almost hovering like a plane in stall. During the first wingsuit descent from the Dragon's Nest, he buzzed past the 900-foot Titan at more than 100 miles per hour, its red-orange walls transforming into a blur of flame. Combined, the two men practiced their final jump nearly ten times. After dropping hundreds of feet from Taft Point before their wingsuits caught lift, they planned to take a straight line to a narrow opening at the end of a U-shaped bowl atop a scrappy formation called Lost Brother. From there, they would cut over the Valley and pull their chutes.

Dean went first. Graham followed closely behind. "It's a twenty-second flight. Twelve seconds into it you're committed," Jeff says. Midway to the notch, Graham overtook Dean near their commitment point. Something went wrong. Graham leaned left, Jeff tells me, potentially looking to exit the bowl, and veered back right. Sixty feet above the bottom of the notch, he made contact with a small tree and struck the wall. Dean cleared the notch by several feet, but he wasn't high enough to stay above the terrain on the other side.

In the days after, I viewed images on social media of two people leaping from the white granite of Half Dome's Visor. One man was in a front flip, while the other's arms were upright. Piercing orange light flared into the corner of the image. They looked as though they had superpowers.

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DEAN

SPRING IN YOSEMITE, 1996. Moisture hung in the air. I was barely nineteen, cleaning rooms at the Ahwahnee Hotel. One afternoon, I took the tourist bus from Curry Village to Yosemite Lodge and tucked into the boulders. I tinkered around on a shaded line with rails of smooth stone until my fingers pried open and I fell onto a creaky-springed Curry Company mattress someone had stashed.

A tall man approached the boulder, his dark hair sheared short. At first, he was just another unfamiliar figure in the forest. He reached up a tall arete that cleaved the white and black rock, grunting as he spanned gritty holds with enormous limbs. He had more strength and boldness than anyone I'd met.

After we introduced ourselves, Dean Potter mentioned that he wanted to free solo the Steck-Salathe on Sentinel Rock, the 1,500-foot dark face that loomed above. I asked him if he thought about Derek Hersey's death on the same route a few years prior. Dean said it wouldn't happen to him—he wouldn't slip. And then he was gone.

From time to time, Dean reappeared, suddenly, like a ghost. Once on a break from work, I was standing on the back dock of the Ahwahnee. Air from large vents blew past the dumpsters, over a grease layer. I was smoking rolled cigarettes. Dean scolded me, pointing out the obvious: tobacco hinders performance. Again, he vanished amid the trees.

I admired Dean from afar, but for years I was too shy to leave the security of Curry Village and venture to Camp 4 where he and Stanley hung out. I imagined they felt a connection to the vertical world that I only hoped for. I believed they climbed with less fear than I did, continuing beyond the point where I stopped.

In Alpinist 27, Dean described his earliest memory:

I dreamed of feathers sprouting on my arms, fields rolling far below in waves of cloud-streaked green, distorting into burnt wastelands of faint sand dunes and dust storms.... Underneath me a blurred tunnel formed. I began plummeting, out of control. A dead tree spiked up, its branches like the hand of a corpse.... All my life I wanted to make the first part of this dream real, but find a way to decipher the ending.

At age five, he'd fallen trying to climb the stone wall outside his family's house in Israel, where his father, a military man, was stationed. After Dean recovered, he seemed to find a new ease in the heights. When they moved to New Hampshire, he scrambled alone on nearby granite outcrops, reveling in the sun and the wind.

By his early teens, he'd set up a training schedule for himself, lifting weights and running, developing immense force. "He could break an oar" says Valley regular Stu Kuperstock. "He could've been an Olympic oarsman, and rumors are that he once did a 100-mile run. When he wasn't being active, he'd just lie around like a dog." I imagined a Great Dane flopped in the dirt.

Soon after we met, Dean damaged his finger and wrapped it with a thick wad of athletic tape. He channeled his drive into a hybrid of soloing, speed climbing and aid on El Cap and Half Dome, linking the tallest formations ever more rapidly.

"I wish I could find that heightened awareness without risking my life," he said in a documentary. "Right now that's the only way I know how to find it." Again and again, he seemed to see his existence unfold according to the patterns of his childhood dream. As he explored near and distant ranges, he merged different forms of what he called "aerialism"— soloing, highlining, BASE jumping—hoping to turn the fear of falling into the sensation of flying. He looked for signs everywhere: the wingshaped camber of a drop of water, the spreading branches of a leafless tree.

In 2008 he climbed Deep Blue Sea, a 1,000-foot route on the Eiger Nordwand, in a style he named "FreeBASE," free soloing with a parachute on his back. During a month and a half of preparation, he sometimes slept in a high cave, listening to the rain fall. Before his father died of a heart attack, he'd written a last letter to Dean, and the words still swirled in his mind...the landing problem can be solved. As the ripples of smooth, burnished stone flowed beneath his fingers, he wondered whether his father had some secret to share with him, "how to follow your passion completely, without losing your loved ones or your life," Dean later wrote.

A year later, at Taft Point, near the place where he took his last jump, Dean walked a slackline 3,000 feet off the ground. After rehearsing for a week, he dropped his red swami-belt tether, and crossed the span unprotected. In the photo, his arms curve like the wings of a bird as he seeks his balance. The thin, pale strand of webbing gleams electric above the void.

For a long time, he'd hoped, one day, to land in his wingsuit on a snow slope without ever deploying his chute. By subtle adjustments to his tracking, he thought, he could slow the fall of his body just enough. "Innovation or insanity, blue sky or buoyant liquid, infinitesimal changes in the curve turn impossible to reality," he wrote. After Stanley fell, he gave up his vision of parachuteless flight.

Somewhere in the quest to find the farthest boundaries of potential, there lies a threshold. Beyond it, everything ends.

Potter hangs out with "Willard," a half-mummified bird he found in El Cap Meadow. [Photo] Dean Fidelman

Just a few weeks before his death, Dean scrambled up Half Dome from Mirror Lake in 2:17:52 round-trip, cutting nearly six minutes off the record. He carried no food or water, and he wore only shorts, socks and sticky approach shoes. He planned to run the loop weekly, to break the two-hour mark. Edges and small holds became mere details rushed past in frantic paddling. Holds became insignificant, replaced by momentum and power.

He and his girlfriend, Jen Rapp, had recently bought thirty-one acres of land in Yosemite West where they planned to build a home. He liked to sit in El Cap Meadows for hours, listening to frogs and insects, feeling the light warm his skin or watching the snow fall on stone. "I too have been trancing out on the landscapes," he'd written to Alpinist editor Katie Ives in 2009. "Mostly, though, I am too focused on seeing through to the other side that I forget what really matters, what's right around us." At times, when he concentrated on his writing, he could reach those heightened states through the breathlike rhythms of meditation and words.

Leo Houlding tells me Dean planned each of his feats obsessively, trying to make them as safe as possible. Leo lists the names of the fallen from his group of friends. "I hate to think of it as past tense," he says. "We're going extinct."

"It's like if El Cap were gone," Heather Sullivan says. As she pours me four shots of espresso at her house in El Portal, her black stocking cap is pulled down over her hair. She hides her eyes. She'd once been Dean's roommate in Foresta. Pictures of Dean and Graham lie scattered on her tables. In some, Graham snuggles with a puppy. In another, Dean holds his dog, Whisper, like a baby.

Heather says that two ravens have been visiting her lately. Ravens were a symbol of protection to Dean. He asked an artist to paint one on the helmet he wore on an expedition to Patagonia: the bird spreads its wings against an orange sun.

At the far end of her property, the ravens dive behind a tree. Their dark feathers morph into shadows.

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IN A STRANGE WAY, my acquaintance with Dean intersected with my choice to leave Yosemite a decade ago. It began when a friend, Ivo Ninov, dozed at the wheel while we were driving through Nevada before dawn. The feeling of brush beating against the undercarriage brought us out of sleep. He swerved to get us back on the road. The small white car became airborne.

As we tumbled down the highway, I realized I wasn't in control of my life anymore.

Ivo and I crawled from the wreckage, battered but intact. We smoked and walked through scraps of metal and cubes of shattered glass. An eighteen-wheeler pulled to a stop fifty yards away, but no one got out. Sunlight broke through the dusty air.

We called Dean from the wrecking yard to pick us up. I stared out the window of his station wagon while they talked about Dean's plans to free the triple—El Cap, Half Dome and Mt. Watkins—with Leo in a day. I don't remember what Dean and Ivo said, only the feeling of leaving the deathlike emptiness of the desert behind. As we headed back to the Valley, I started to piece together plans to move to a new place, where I might escape my compulsion to stray so close to the edge.

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ON MY FINAL EVENING in El Portal, I meet up with friends of Dean, Graham and Stanley in a wooden backyard structure. Plastic candles surround us. Their small bulbs flicker above the glowing bases. Children's fingerpaint streaks the walls.

I think about something Jeff said: "Everything in life requires balance, and losing balance in this—the highest-risk of dangerous activities—is catastrophic. We go into the mountains to be in touch with living in the present, and flying forces this balance. The magic is in the action, and it changes you as a person." His words remind me of moments when I felt invincible. Of times when friends and I giggled, soloing in unison on routes we hadn't climbed before. And then of other, later days, when I chased that feeling until a crippling fear set in, like a hand pulling me earthward. I thought of how Dean, Graham and Stanley had leapt, so often, through that twilight, finding that brief balance as they emerged somewhere past their uncertainties, traveling through the sky under the power of the wind.

"You found your path, and now you're questioning it?" I ask one of Dean's and Stanley's jumping partners.

"Yeah," she says in a soft, childlike voice. She pauses as if she's deep in the process of answering this and many other questions in her head. "Every time someone dies, that becomes part of you. One after another."

Then she tells me about jumping off El Cap in the moonlight with Dean and Stanley: "It feels better than anything I've ever felt as a human." Human. She pronounces it as if we're just another animal in the kingdom. A sedan crawls along the dirt road behind a fence, briefly interrupting the stillness. Its headlights blink through the slats. Red taillights leave tracers in our peripheral vision. The sky emanates a dark blue, the stars blurred by yellow lights from El Portal.

"Every time you stand on the edge of a cliff and then step off," she says, "you know that if you don't pull your chute you will die. Right before that is when the fear hits. The second you hit the air, it's just smooth. You know what needs to happen. It's like going home."

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