Dean Potter's Final Essay on Love and Adventure

The late climber, highliner, and BASE jumper writes about the passions of his life: his dog, his girlfriend, and the outdoors

Oct 13, 2015
Outside Magazine
Dean Potter's Final Essay on Love and Adventure

Dean climbing up Leaning Tower in Yosemite with Whisper. (Photo by Graham Hunt)    Photo: Courtesy of Jen Rapp

Dean Potter wrote this essay on adventuring with his dog, Whisper, not long before he died in a BASE-jumping accident in Yosemite last spring. We’re publishing his words now, with the permission of his girlfriend, Jen Rapp, as a telling reflection of Potter’s values and love of the outdoors.

We stand on the edge of the North Face of the Eiger, in the Swiss Alps, and peer into swirling latte clouds. Rhythmic breathing of my mini cattle dog, Whisper, resonates behind me. Soft breaths change to faint snores; her body slightly relaxes and adjusts within the BASE-rig backpack that secures both our lives as one. My fingers run over our harness chest strap, then reach back and micro-adjust the position of our stowed pilot chute, then stretch farther to scratch Miss Whisp’s forehead.

My girlfriend, Jen, has also made the alpine scramble and sits on the edge taking in the immense beauty, while most likely calculating the safety of her loved ones. My feet confined in the wingsuit, I penguin-walk in tight circles around the Eiger Mushroom, our dog on my back, and hope the clouds will part and we’ll be able to safely fly to the grassy meadows below.

The weather doesn’t change, and our little family settles into an awkward meditative perch atop the Mushroom pillar. Neither Jen nor I speak. Internally, I recount putting Whisper in the BASE pack and securing her full-strength Ruffwear Doubleback Harness to me with three separate lanyards. Though my body is warm inside the nylon suit, I start to shiver and wonder if what we’re doing is right. Wingsuit BASE-jumping feels safe to me, but 25 wingsuit fliers have lost their lives this year alone. There must be some flaw in our system, a lethal secret beyond my comprehension.

Our family is all Whisper has. She hates to be separated, especially if we’re going hiking. This morning, I gave her the choice of staying at camp, but she saw us packing and, true to her Queensland heeler bloodlines, filed into position between our heels and yipped and nipped at our shoelaces.

We’ve been staying in the Swiss Alps most of the summer. Jen has been flying back and forth with Whisper from our home in California every few weeks to keep on top of work obligations while simultaneously holding our family together. Whisper sits at Jen’s feet for the international flights and guides her safely across the borders. Not bad for a 22-pound pup: half the time along the Pacific Coast and mountains of California, and the other half yodeling the Sound of Music in alpine pastures and peaks.

The three of us have been living in the Swiss village of Wengen. No cars are allowed in town. We walk or take the train everywhere. It rains a fair bit. We stay at our friends’ Hotel Falken when it’s stormy, but otherwise we live in our small yellow tent on the West Flank of the Eiger, where we easily access some of the best trekking, climbing, and flying in the world.

These peaks are rich in mountaineering, skiing, flying, and climbing history. No matter how deep into the hills we go, there are signs of the people who came centuries before. The Swiss are so healthy and vital. Looking around, it’s easy to see why with smiling cows eating lush greens. We shop at tiny markets for organic produce, meat, and cheese. I shake my head at the contrast between the norms in America with our superstores, hormones, pesticides, and patents on GMO seeds.

My wingsuit is wet. The rock is darkening with moisture. Plus, I can’t see the ground, and that’s one rule to never break with BASE. It seems obvious that you have to see where you’re flying, but often jumpers favor flying blind over painstakingly hiking down. They opt for a few seconds of unknown, leap into clouds, strike the wall, and die. The clouds blacken. We accept the sun’s descent and make our decision to down-climb several hours back to our tent.

Whisp perks with a snort, sensing what’s going on. I carefully take off our wingsuit and unclip her. She wiggles out of the confines of her flight capsule. Jen clips Whisper into the Tyrolean cable with two locking carabiners, then secures the other end of her full-strength leash to her own harness, and they scoot across. Jen pulls Whisp behind her, with the zip, zip, zip of metal on metal. Dogs aren’t huge fans of free-hanging, and Miss Whisp is pleased to get off her tether and start leading the way down. Jen and I file into position behind and click on our headlamps as day fades into night.

A false step and we’d slip off the side of one of the deadliest alpine rock faces on earth. Many climbers have lost their lives here, yet somehow this has become a comfortable dog walk for our untraditional family. Mist obscures the beams of our headlamps, and I squint, losing the faint trail. Whisper keeps her snout down and easily leads us across slippery rock ramps.

With hound in the lead, I relax. Thoughts flicker back and forth between the Alps and home, Yosemite National Park. Exhaustion seeps into us humans, but Whisper joyously trots. We keep our eyes on the white flag of her curved scorpion tail flashing in and out of our beams of light. My consciousness falters and we are alongside the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. Half Dome reflects in tranquil pools. Our family is safe in tall grass and windflowers. I blink and we’re at the Eiger’s roped section; water streams down our Gore-Tex, but Whispy’s oily coat is barely dampened. Jen leads down the rappel line, and I secure the pup to my harness with a locking ’biner and follow. Whisper obediently stays still and obligingly dangles. I securely hold the rope as icy water oozes and we friction-slide down. My concentration lapses. I long to be submerged in the gurgling Hot Creek near our home on the east side of the Sierra Nevada with my girls, all together in the bubbling flow.

A few hours later, we unzip our wet clothing, towel off Princess Whisp, crawl into our two-person tent, and snuggle into toasty sleeping bags. Whisp donkey-kicks and somehow makes herself weigh 100 pounds as we all jostle for position. I turn to kiss Jen goodnight, and Whisp wiggles in between to fend Jen off. Doggie isn’t comfortable not being the alpha and relentlessly tries to up her position.

During the night, I imagine the things our family does: roping up across glaciers, taking Jen’s kids to school, climbing big walls, eating family dinners, surfing, spending time with grandma, picking apples, finding arrowheads, and… alpine wingsuit BASE-jumping.

Dean Potter sitting with Whisper at Glacier Point in Yosemite.   Photo: Courtesy of Jen Rapp

My girls breathe softly while I toss, wondering if it’s okay to lead our family into dangerous situations under the guise of our motto, “Never leave the dog behind!” Throughout the night, I can’t sleep. I go outside and sit in the shelter of a small cave and peer at lifting clouds. Fog, stars, and mountaintops transform into a massive furry, flying puppy. I imagine holding Whisper’s warm paw as she sits beside us in our van, a trusty co-pilot everywhere we go.

The sky’s edge brightens in predawn light. I finally start to yawn and crawl back into our tiny tent. An hour or two later, my iPhone alarm sounds with an old-fashioned car horn. The girls are already awake. The smell of espresso wafts into the tent from the flames of our camp stove. Whisper sits pretty and signals she’s ready for breakfast. Jen feeds Whisp her allotted half-cup of bison and venison kibble and hands me a warm mug of caffeinated goodness. I breathe it in and stir my exact portions of wildflower honey and organic half and half. Minutes later, I’m ready to go, and so is Whisper-dog.

The sky is clear and azure; the air is fresh, still, and chilly. We decide Jen should meet us at the landing. She starts hiking down toward the Eigergletscher train station, while Lone Wolf and Cub grab our BASE-gear and proceed up the Eiger. Whisper hates when the pack disbands. She keeps looking back for Jen but quickly takes charge and leads the way.

Glorious thoughts of unified human-dog-flight-symbiosis emerge in my anticipatory state. The physicality of the 2,500-foot elevation gain requires focus on breath. Whisper knows where we are going and runs back and forth up the side of the Eiger, gesturing, “Let’s go, Papa. What’s taking so long?”

Rational thoughts overtake my runner’s high as Whisp and I cross the Tyrolean cable again onto the Mushroom. I pull the wingsuit from my pack, and Whisper nestles in close, gesturing to me, “Don’t you dare leave me here alone.” We work together to secure her into the BASE pack. She is so patient with my clumsy hands and stares into my eyes, “I trust you, Papa.”

Whisper’s warm body presses against my back. I triple-check our harness attachment points, ensuring they are locked and loaded. I put technical data out of my mind and start single-focus meditative breathing and actively enter the artist’s flow. I peer into clear sky and see the inviting landing zone about three miles ahead and below. I step my feet to the abrupt limestone edge of the spire. Saliva wells in my mouth, and I spit into the void and watch as the globule remains together and falls into calm morning air. “Perfect for flying, Whisp,” I say nonchalantly, hypnotizing us into a positive outlook.

Whisper is snuggled into her secure pack. I reach back and run my hands over the short hairs of her smooth muzzle. “Are you ready, Whisper? Let’s get out of here,” I call out assertively, as if I’m with one of my mountain-hardened BASE brothers.

I shake my shoulders and arms, relaxing my body. The muscles in my legs are subtly quivering. My voice pierces the silent mountain air: “Three.” I exhale. My arms calmly dangle on my skeleton. I stare at the horizon. “Two.” I lean forward at the torso and bend my knees. “One.” I’m all the way crouched. “See ya!” I spring with all my might away from the jagged rock face and join the air.

Escalating wind speed rushes in my ears; striped limestone streaks before my eyes. The weight of Whisper tries to take us too steep and flip us, but I perform the only maneuver that works every time: relax and arch. The physicality of the locust yoga position, Salabhasana, while in free fall brings forth an involuntary groan from my open mouth.

We level out and build forward speed. My body loosens again, and I set my sights on the grassy meadow miles away where a tiny human speck patiently waits: Jen. At nearly 120 mph, the speck gets clearer and clearer. More than a minute passes with my single focus targeted on my girlfriend below. Milky mountaintops and smeared green hillsides filter in from my periphery. Jen is now 600 feet directly below us, and the ground is rushing in. I arch and slow our flight speed to half and calmly reach with my right hand, securely grip the pilot chute, and cast it into the relative airflow, which opens the parachute—bang. “Yeeewww,” I holler and reach up to grab the steering toggles, and then reach back farther and stroke Whispy. We start spiraling down to reunite our family.

We land gently beside Jen. I take Whisper off my back and set her into the dew-strung grass. She runs to Jen and calls out with high-pitch yips that indicate Whisper-happiness. Her triumphant performance is much the same as I feel, but I contain mine within a beaming smile. Jen comes and gives us kisses. Whispy sprints in circles, tucking her butt and tail underneath her in animated playfulness, kicking up grass and rapid-fire barking. Jen and I congratulate her: “Good girl. Good, good girlie.”

Days pass, and my girls fly back to California. The Alps abruptly change with the season’s first snow. Lonely, I head to high camp and take down the tent, saying goodbye for now. Sitting under an overhanging rock, I observe icicles forming: drip, drip, drip. I flash to innocent Whisper’s tongue sticking out as she bravely crossed to the BASE exit and our flight. Appalling thoughts of losing everything overwhelm me.

An Alpine chough sounds its metallic, almost synthesized call. It swoops and lands close to where I’m sitting. My mood elevates as the black bird cackles and begs. I oblige and toss it an apple core and stand up. The bird’s bright-yellow beak chisels into the fruit’s raw flesh. I turn away. Clouds swirl in the high peaks. The silhouettes resemble flowing brunette hair and bounding puppy midair.

Whisper lives with Potter’s partner, Jen Rapp, in Yosemite and Santa Barbara, as she has for the past few years. She continues to have mountain adventures almost daily.

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