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The Free Life: Dean Potter reports from the field. "Emergence"

March 11, 2010 -  Dean Potter    

"This past December in Yosemite, as the sun’s rays angled low in the sky I headed to the southern hemisphere where the longest days of summer were just beginning. I longed to feel the energy and magic of the wilderness and peaks in the Fitzroy and Cerro Torre Ranges of Patagonia.  I’d spent many seasons before in the little town of El Calten, nooked on the edge of the mountains. Windspeed bellowed and called to me strongly.

When I arrived, I was overwhelmed with memories and exultant to be among longtime friends who live in the shadows of the "smoking mountains."  Something was unsettled in me though.  I couldn’t focus on the peaks that I was there to be with.

My head spun with things left undone. During the past few years many things in my life fell away.  My father passed away, my wife left me, our dog Fletcher died and certain friendship dissolved. I hadn’t seen my family for years nor had I felt the comfort of having a home.  Somehow I’d let a lot of things slip while relentlessly focused on my crafts of climbing, flying and walking the line.

During my nights in Chalten everybody partied but I felt a sense of separation.  Late at night I’d lie awake.  The wind gusted and hummed and shook the roof of my crib.  I fell back to sleep and entered visions about my alpine objectives.  Being solo, I needed to cross the glaciers alone.

Night after night I dreamed of post holing in total whiteness towards the towering granite walls.  Sun beamed into my gaze and I squinted and searched for hidden crevasses; ice axes held tight in each hand ready to be swung if the ground fell out on me. My legs burned and I panted, sweat ran down my mug and stung my eyes. Centered in the middle of the glacier I abruptly became weightless and stared into the sky.  Distorted dark grey birdlike clouds swirled above. My arms tensed and swung my sharpened axes into emptiness. Warped ice and hues of white, grey then blue swept in front of my face.

My crampons connected first and pain scorched through my legs as my bones splintered. A muffled droning thud knocked the air out of me. Upside down I frantically gasped and felt myself slip deeper, head first into a slot.  With each labored breath I inched further into its icy grasp.  It pressed on my chest and restricted airflow until I mouthed for air but could no longer expand my ribcage.  The wind howled.  My eyes opened and I stared at the knotted pine ceiling.  This repeated night after night.

The feeling of my breath leaving me lingered throughout the day. A few weeks passed and the dreams didn’t stop. I had to listen.

I thought about my mom, sisters and all my relatives that I hadn’t connected with for years.  Two years ago my dad died on the night of the winter solstice. December 23rd I walked towards El Rancho Grande, sat at the computer and sipped Café Double and booked a flight to Boston and left the ‘Smoking Mountains’ behind.

I realized that my life had become totally one sided.  All I had were my pursuits. They were empty and not worth it without the real important things in life like love, friends, health, home and family.

I traveled through Christmas Day alone.  The airports were relatively empty and I arrived at my mom’s place in Bristol, Maine on the 26th.  Days of stuffing my belly and being with people who loved me warmed me up from the inside.

I went to northern New Hampshire and stayed with my dad’s brother, Uncle Bob and Aunt Roberta.  I slept in my dad’s cottage in the room where he died in his sleep of a heart attack.  I became filled with his energy.

My dad, Tony was sharp and strong to the moment of his death.  He had a regimented exercise program and woke up at 5am every morning to run and lift weights.  He always encouraged me to do the same saying, “You need to train your body Dean; it will make you more safe, keep your mind strong and emotions stable.” I lay in front of his wood stove, the fire blazed hot and I started doing pushups, situps, crunches and pull-ups on the exposed wooden beams.  I started a running regiment; in minus ten-degree weather I’d bundle up in triple layers and trot with my dad inside me up our favorite trail to the top of Pine Mountain in the White Mountains near his place in Randolph, New Hampshire.

After a few weeks of being with family a big part of me wanted to stay in New England but a soft voice called me back west to Yosemite, California where I’d lived on and off for most of my adult life.

I realized that I had been hiding behind my pursuits and hadn’t dealt with the real important things. This focus had been great for my career.  During this last two years of imbalanced time I’d invented BASEline and freeBASE and set world records in solo highlining and wingsuit-BASE-jumping.  Now I had a lot of untouched areas to catch up in.

I was pretty much homeless. Luckily my friends Rick and Annie Cashner helped me. Rick and I’d spend the days bouldering with his dog Mundo.

Brief moments on highballs or slippery slabs while the majority of time we sat amongst the trees and laughed.

Annie and I’d go skate skiing and cooked huge dinners together. Soon they both helped me figure out a place to rent in Foresta, Yosemite.  I walked next door with Annie, to Ann Matteson’s place and asked if I could rent her second cabin.  Having been fined and even arrested for walking her dog’s off the leash in a National Park, Ann answered, “I’d be proud to house another ‘Outlaw.’  She knew a little of my reputation for seeking freedom in the Parks, so we both laughed and knew we were good people who lived in a place with immense natural beauty but severely unnatural laws.

I’ve been more motivated than ever.  My Paps would be proud; every day I push it consistently on multiple levels with visions of bold breakthroughs, being safe and creating a balanced life. My family and friends stream through my veins and I contemplate longevity. Looking back I see these ‘lows’ have been crucial times of growth.  Also, it’s been easy to see who really believes and stands with me. Lately my friend, Charles Cole, the owner and innovator at Five Ten® has been a stable platform for me.  Our paths have shot parallel for the past 11 years while our relations keep getting stronger.

Charles has always backed me but recently he asked me what else I needed.  Security was the main thing that lacked in my life. As I push towards more and more ultimate dreams on the rock, in the air and on the line I need stability, something to return to.  These next years I plan on traveling the world looking for enchanted places where the ultimate in natural-human achievement can be reached.  I want to fly free!

I went to southern California to Five Ten® headquarters in Redlands and hung with Charles and his crew for a while. A bunch of us went to Joshua Tree. A mixed group; Brett a first-time climber, Laura a long-time rock diva, Charles with over 30 years of climbing experience and myself all playing together on the coarse granite. Golden light shone upon the irregular rounded desert landscape. 5.2 and first time rappels were just as important as the cutting edge. When I left and headed for Yosemite I knew I had a home away from home in So Cal and people who cared.

Now in Yosemite I’m sporting a new Five Ten® Sprinter Van so I’m comfortable and secure during my quest.  Also it was important to Charles that I don’t rush nor worry, so he signed me on for the next five years.

These things play into my consciousness strongly.  I used to think I could do it all alone.  Now I see that the circle of friends, family and community is everything.  I guess I’m known as a ‘soloist’ but in reality, I’m never alone.

I sit in Foresta and squint through the pines, oaks and cedar trees and glimpse El Cap.  My shiny ride awaits a journey.  Frogs peep and croak from amongst the snow patches.  Blue Jays heckle the Raven.  I beam and know I’m opening.

Sometimes we don’t see the important growth that happens during ‘downtimes.’ These last years have been hard on most people around the world but I know new depth and unity emerges."

-Dean Potter


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