Last year, daredevil Dean Potter took the stage at Mountainfilm festival in Telluride and screened the trailer for a short movie he made of his mini Australian cattle dog, Whisper, clad in tinted goggles, bundled in a backpack, and soaring through the air on Potter’s back during a BASE jump. The reception he got from the audience was lukewarm, to say the least.
Potter, who has graced us with decades of antics including free soloing, slacklining, and wingsuiting, and who has lived in a cave in Yosemite on and off, is no stranger to the role of the misunderstood outcast. But the video, called When Dogs Fly, really struck a nerve with the outdoorsy animal lover crowd. Some viewed it as a story of deep love and trust between man and dog. Others saw an animal needlessly put in harm’s way.
Nearly a year later, Potter has decided to release the full 22-minute film on Vimeo. Outside caught up with Potter last week to ask what it’s like to fly with a passenger in his backpack, and what he has to say to his critics.
OUTSIDE: Are you still wingsuiting with Whisper pretty regularly?
POTTER: I would never make a movie just for the sake of making a movie. It captures our real life. Whisper’s entire life, she’s done what I’ve done. We wingsuit, BASE jump quite a bit, but only on the safest jumps. I don’t take her on any super advanced, death-defying jumps. I’m also into paragliding, so Whisper goes paragliding very often.
It all started because I had to take her on hikes. I was taking Whisper for a dog walk in the morning, then I’d go on like a four, five-hour hike by myself to go BASE jumping, and then I’d come back home, and take Whisper for another walk. It was like six or seven hours of hiking every day. I was like, “This is crazy, I’m getting run ragged. I’ve got to figure out a way to take Whisper with me.” I realized that for all but probably three or four minutes, Whisper would love it. These are long hikes into the mountains – that’s her favorite thing! I wanted to figure out these three or four minutes of being in the air so I could bring Whisper for four or five hours on these amazing hikes.
"Whisper's entire life, she's done what I've done. We wingsuit, BASE jump quite a bit, but only on the safest jumps. I’m also into paragliding, so Whisper goes paragliding very often."
Tell me about your relationship with Whisper.
I spend more time with Whisper than I do with anybody else. I chose her when she was three or four days old, I’ve had her since she was nine weeks. She’s a mini Australian cattle dog; cattle dogs need to have a job, and her job is just walking after me. Whisper started coming with me on little climbs, and then on longer ones—multi-week trips into the mountains, that kind of thing. She’s my wing girl–like my wingman, but she’s a girl. Wing dog.
I don’t imagine they sell the gear you use at your local sports shop.
No, you don’t just go and buy a wingsuit BASE jumping backpack for a dog. I have to make it. My whole life I’ve always innovated the gear to match my pursuits. I’ve innovated the best climbing gear, the best slacklining gear, and definitely the most advanced BASE jumping gear. With Whisper, it took about a year and a half working with a few riggers to create the first BASE jumping container that allows Whisper to safely ride on my back. The model I use is quite bulky. It’s way overbuilt for safety, so it’s not very streamlined. Right now I’m working on a more aerodynamic prototype, so I can be more agile and safe in the air.
What about the extra weight on your back? Does that throw off your balance?
Whisper with all her gear weighs about 25 pounds, and that’s all up pretty high on my back. Upon exit, when we leap off the cliff, it puts me more head-down, which is a pretty vulnerable position. I practiced with sandbags and this little stuffed animal for a while and made sure I had it before I flew with Whisper.
In a more, let’s say, spiritual sense, how does it feel to wingsuit with a passenger?
The whole film is about how it was almost too much responsibility for me to fly with Whisper on my back. Wingsuiting is super dangerous. It’s not a glory film. I’m not saying, “Hey, look how rad we are, jumping.” Certainly some people will think, “Wow, that’s amazing.” But the film really goes deep into the fact that I am unsure and I don’t try to hide my uncertainty.
"Whisper chooses to do everything she does. And there are some things Whisper will not do. We found out very early on that Whisper hates to ride in helicopters."
After the film’s trailer debuted at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride last year, some viewers said your jumps expose Whisper to unnecessary danger.
It is an unsettling film. You shouldn’t expect just to see a dog with goggles on. Some people still watch the film and that’s what they take away. But if you really watch the film, and you’re thoughtful, the takeaway is how precious life and love are. And how all of us have to balance what we do with the effects our actions have on our lives. In Whisper’s and my case, and in [girlfriend and co-producer] Jen [Rapp]’s case, it’s way more front-and-center. The decision to go into the mountains and hike with your dog, and wingsuit with the dog, can bring catastrophe. These are decisions we make because they fulfill us, but they also have danger.
Do you think Whisper is “fulfilled” by these jumps the way you are? How can you tell?
Thanks for bringing that up. Whisper isn’t just a silent passenger. Whisper chooses to do everything she does. And there are some things Whisper will not do. We found out very early on that Whisper hates to ride in helicopters. We took her on one helicopter ride, and she pooped in the helicopter. We tried to take her again, but she plants her feet and sits down and won’t go. Or when I run the vacuum cleaner, like most dogs, Whisper tucks her tail and runs underneath the bed.
But when I pick up my BASE pack, and say, “Hey Whisper, let’s go for a hike, let’s go BASE jumping,” she’s right at my heels. She knows what the pack means – she’s been in that pack now close to a hundred times. When I’m sitting near the edge of the cliff and I start putting on my wingsuit and getting our gear together, Whisper comes right to me. She’s not pooping the helicopter, or hiding under the bed, she’s coming right to me, and nestling close and through her body language asking to come along.
With or without Whisper, what’s next for you?
I’m living full-time in Yosemite, and pursuing my art as strongly as ever. Right now I’m very focused on rock-climbing here in the park. There’s one rock that calls my name. When I first came to Yosemite, I wondered if I could free solo it. Recently I’ve also been setting up this major highlining zone in the park, as well as innovating the best flying wingsuit in the world, and I pretty much fly daily. My life is a mixture of pursuing those arts.
Also we bought this big piece of land inside Yosemite, and we’re trying to make this land more livable and have a place for all of our friends to be able to stay in the park for longer than the national park itself allows. So we’re kind of making this little safe haven, to be able to come into the park and really enjoy it.