I did not know Dean Potter well, having only hung out with him once in the summer of 2005, a summer that I spent living, working and climbing in Yosemite Valley. During that charmed time of my life, I would sometimes stumble into the climbing legends I had known before only through the magazines and climbing videos I voraciously consumed while not actually climbing. So it was that I met Dean, when one evening he decided to pop into DNC employee housing to party with a few of us lowly working stiffs.
I recognized him immediately—the towering physique, shaggy hair and mischievous grin were unmistakable in the half light of the setting summer sun. I was shocked that this literal and metaphorical giant I had seen soloing The Nose in Masters of Stone V was standing in front of me. At the time, I was still pretty new to the climbing game, but I sure-as-shit knew who Dean Potter was, as did most of the folks I lived with. I had seen what Dean was capable of, and the love he showed for Yosemite was partly responsible for my move to The Valley. So, I couldn’t help but feel a bit star struck as I looked up from a heated game of Scrabble on the (now-demolished) Terrace porch to find Dean Potter and Ivo Ninov walking up to casually say hi and make some new friends.
That night was like many others, complete with tall boys of warm King Cobra, cheap white zinfandel straight from the bottle, lots of laughing, stories. Dean was just like any other guy who wanted to hang out for a beer, a chat, and if he could weasel it, a back rub or two on Party Rock. He was indeed a man I looked up to, but he turned out to be as down to Earth as the rest of us. It was an experience that reinforced what I was just beginning to understand, that the climbing community really is a community.
There have been many eulogies about Dean from his family and close friends—as it should be, they knew him best. But Dean also touched the lives of many of us “normal” folks as he carved his singular path through a world that he made his playground. With these people in mind I have collected a few short stories about Dean, not from other famous climbers or BASE jumpers, but from everyday individuals who came to know him briefly. We want to celebrate who Dean was as we knew him, and in doing so, send him off with some memories from the masses:
“We pulled into the Bridger Jack Mesa campground in the darkness of night and set up our tent. When we woke up, we realized Dean Potter and his friend Jean were camped next to us. We had breakfast together and talked as our dogs mingled around. My dog Arthur walked inside Dean’s tent and stood on top of his sleeping bag. Dean yelled with his booming voice, ‘Arthur, if you pee on my sleeping bag, I’m gonna pee on you!’ That night we drank whiskey and hung out with the duo as Jean cooked up wild rabbit he had ‘caught’ with his pickup truck. I passed on the rabbit, but my friend didn’t. He ended up throwing up later. Maybe it was the whiskey.”
—Evan Kay, North Pomfret, Vermont
“One summer I happened into a bit of side work carrying gear for the Huber brothers’ camera team. The Hubers were shooting a film about an ascent of El Cap, and needed people to shuttle heavy-ass packs from the valley floor to the top of El Cap. Afterwards, they invited us to a party outside of the park. I remember Dean manning the bar all night long, pouring drinks for people like he was a real bartender at an actual bar, while the rest of us got wrecked and threw firecrackers at each other.”
—Russ Miller, Lawrence, Kansas
“When I first got to the Valley, I would get super star struck when I would encounter famous, elite climbers. Pretty soon , I got the picture that that wasn’t cool , and you were supposed to act all nonchalant with famous climbers , and just be like, ‘hey bro , how’s it going?’ no matter how star struck you were . So of course, I played along, and tried to act all cool. But with Dean Potter, I NEVER got over being completely in awe of him to the point of being freaked out when he was around. I always felt like he was SO crazy heroic and awesome, that I could never get over being blown away by his presence. He was like a comic book superhero; which is the most accurate way to describe how he seemed to me.”
—Anonymous Yosemite climber, Moab Utah
“I was just learning how to slackline on lines that had been set up in Camp 4 during my first summer in The Valley in 2004. I was struggling. Dean gave me some brief words of encouragement and advice. He seemed like a wise old guru, and everybody there was just kind of silently watching in awe as this guy played around on the line. He would take huge leaps forward and quickly stick the landing and recover. He would jump between two lines. I had never seen anybody do that, nor had I ever even contemplated that it might be possible. That’s what he did. He tried things nobody ever thought to try.”
—Danny Loental, Kansas City, Missouri
“It was a summer when I wasn’t working. I was just dirtbagging in Yosemite. I had a plane ticket home so I could actually get a job back in Ohio, but what I really wanted to do was stay in The Valley and climb all summer. I explained my situation to Dean and he looked at me and said, ‘Just do what you think will be the most fun. Everyone goes through life doing what others expect them to do when in reality, we all just need to do what we think will be the most fun.’ So, I stayed in The Valley and climbed all summer. I have never seen anyone live as free as Dean Potter, and I am honored that I got to know him.”
—Keegan Rathkamp, Chillicothe, Ohio
“It was another lovely night on the front porch of the Terrace kitchen. I was munching on a tasty box of Honey-O’s sitting on the steps and hanging out with the usuals when a massive dude with giant man hands sits beside me and asks if he can have some of the Honey-O’s. I said ‘yeah,’ and together he and I (mostly he with his massive mitts) finished off the cereal. Later, I was told that was Dean Potter who ate my cereal… the Dean Potter.”
—Lindsey Yankey, Lawrence, Kansas
“Dean towered over my five-foot frame but his great eye contact and warm smile made me feel like I was six-feet tall. He was a kind and soft human being. He listened to your every word with soft eyes, and responded with compassion or, like Silent Bob, made a gem of a comment that would stick with you forever. Once, we had a couple beers in the corner of the lodge bar and just talked about life and dreams and simple joys. He said, ‘I just want to live it. Life. I just want to live it.’ And you did, my friend, you certainly did.”
—Sara Levinson, South Lake Tahoe, California