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Dean Potter on Living The Life of No Rules

Dean Potter on Living The Life of No Rules
Dean Potter on Living The Life of No Rules
February 10, 2012 - 

I’ve been getting back to my homeless man-dirtbag roots lately. I’m a lot more styled out than in the past but the sentiment of being free and unbound is still the same. I finally equipped my Five Ten Sprinter van with a stylin’ queen size cedar bed and a little cook set up.  My best friend-dog Whisper and I are back on the road more than we seem to be at home.


I’ve now been climbing almost 34 years. I took my first and only lights out fall when I was five years old and our family lived in Bethany Israel. My father was working for the United Nations then. I was climbing the side of our stone house to get up on top of the flat roof and see over the wall that separated our place from the town.  The next thing I knew I was waking up with my face in a small pool of blood on the cement patio.  My mother was there but so were some Bedouin women dressed in black.  They were chanting and singing and walking in a circle around me.  They threw salt onto the blood spot to dispel the evil spirits.  From that day on, I distinctly remember having much less fear of heights and being able to control my emotions when I got scared.  I’m not sure if this knock to the head damaged or activated something. Now days people often comment that I’m exceptional for the way I can relax during the unthinkable but, I kinda chuckle to myself and wonder, “if I have a gift or maybe it’s a certain kind of retardation that’s beneficial?” But that knock to the noggin really was when the climbing-switch first clicked and the simple need to see what was ‘up’ gripped me.

About ten years later my father was stationed in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. We moved to New Boston, a small town in Southern New Hampshire. About two miles from our house was a 200-foot outcrop named Joe English Cliff. It was contained in an Air Force tracking station and zoned, ‘No Trespassing’. My parents knew it was dangerous there and forbade me to set foot on the premises…. Being a rebellious teenager the very first thing  I did when they turned their backs was to go have a look. It was there at Joe English that I taught myself to climb by bouldering and freesolo.  Soon my best friend at the time, John Sirois started to join me and we’d freesolo full-length routes with a no rules style of climbing.  We’d assist each other in difficult sections by pushing one guy up and then lending a hand to the follower.  This ‘No Rule’ style of climbing and living is still what I’m doing today. I now look at my illegal life here in Yosemite with human flight and following ‘No Rules’ and innovating climbing by doing so and chuckle at my parents’ error at forbidding youth….

Another decade passed and I lived like a homeless man, barely making enough money to feed myself.  Fortunately for me, being skinny is best for shredding on the stone. After this decade of full commitment I started doing climbs where no one else had succeeded.  I had a unique style, I didn’t care about how things were done in the past, and I just did what felt natural, ‘No Rules’ once again.

Eventually, some companies wanted to align themselves with me.  I never asked; I just took what came my way if it felt like a true fit.  Five Ten was one of the first.  They’ve never pushed me to be anything different than who I am.  This freedom to focus on my art with the support of like-minded friends in the business world has allowed me to grow. Though I never went looking for sponsorship I’m sure glad it came my way.

I remember very easily why I started exclusively climbing with Five Ten and Stealth-C4. My friend Rick Cashner and I were bouldering near the base of El Cap.  I was flailing on this difficult arête and Rick was stylin’ the opening moves.  My foot kept slipping and my fingers felt weak.  Rick said, “…It’s the shoes, try my Anasazis….” I wiggled my feet into the pink Anasazi lace-ups and pulled onto the rock. All of a sudden I had steel fingers and easily pathed my way to the top.  That same day, I did slab problems that I could never do, without my hands.  I was hooked.

Now I climb a lot in the Anasazi Hightops that I’ve been working on designing for the last year and half.  They are almost perfect and seem to do it all.  If I could only climb in one shoe it would be the Anasazi Hightop, BUT luckily, Five Ten makes numerous styles that are perfect for every nuance of rock and most everything I do on earth.

I’ve always made art with the things I do and dream of.  As a kid all I ever drew were airplanes and birds.  Ever since, I’ve been up on the walls surrounded by air.  I realize now that even though I was clinging onto the rock for all I was worth, I was much more surrounded by openness and air.  As a soloist, this airiness overwhelmed me and I clung on harder.  Eventually, I needed to face this fear and leap headlong into it.  I started to play with the ‘emptiness’ and started to perceive that within there is substance. Now, I’m more comfortable in the air while flying than I am on the rock without a rope….

My playtime hasn’t changed much since childhood. For that matter, I still feel like a kid and can’t believe that I’m now supposed to be an ‘elder.’  Instead of using crayons to illustrate my imagination and dreams, I play with my friends and we make films and take photographs.  It’s funny that I’m really no different than that little boy climbing the side of the house.  Then all I wanted was to pick almonds from our rooftop.  Now it’s the juniper berries from atop El Cap.  Then my parents told me not to, now the rangers hide in the tall grass hoping to see me fall.  It’s a good thing I’ve learned to elevate beyond that.  Climbing has taught me to Fly Free.  

I do seem to have gained some sort of control on the rock and in with the air.  These are my strengths and somehow easy for me.  It’s the more day-to-day things in life that are my difficulties.  Keeping balanced and not allowing emotional lows to set in.  For me the most dangerous areas of life are in the everyday; not allowing myself to lose track of family, friends, love, community and health when I’m obsessing on a project.  

Whisper Dog has brought me balance. The most fun I’ve had all year is during our morning walks together.  She is so joyful and loving.  We often walk the few miles out to Little Nelly waterfall, near our house at the Flying Spur, in Yosemite.  Out there I throw sticks for her and she skinny dips and splashes in the pools below the little fall then joyously parades around trying to make me jealous of her prize stick that she holds with her teeth.  These simple everyday rituals bring me the most balance and happiness. I’m fortunate that I chose time over money and passion over convention.


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