The High-Tech Race to Make Deadly Adventure Sports Safe for Anyone

Risky pursuits like BASE jumping offer a buzz better than any drug. New technologies provide the same rush without the danger.

Dean Potter base jumping off the Tombstone cliff outside of Moab, Utah. (Whit Richardson)
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In their new book Stealing Fire ($28; Harper Collins) Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal investigate the many ways people are now seeking out the heightened awareness of flow states—those ecstatic zones of pure focus where humans achieve ultimate performance. Some use psychedelics, others meditate or dance, and daring athletes practice extremely dangerous adventure sports. In this exclusive excerpt, the authors recount the tragic death of BASE-jumper Dean Potter, question why he and others are willing to risk everything in the pursuit of elevated consciousness, and explain how innovative technologies enable us to reach the same state without the without the life-and-death stakes.

The why was never in question. What happened? How it happened? Those answers remain unclear. But the why? For Dean Potter—it was never in doubt.

It was May 16, 2015, in Yosemite Valley, California, a nice spring evening, right on the edge of dusk. Potter, a record-breaking rock climber, slackline walker, and wingsuit flier, got ready for the evening’s adventure. He was 3,500 feet above the valley floor, standing on the summit of Taft Point. Alongside his friend and fellow flier Graham Hunt—considered one of the best young pilots around—their goal was to leap off the edge, zip across the canyon below, and sail through a V-shaped notch in a neighboring ridge, above an ominously named cliff, Lost Brother. 

Dean Potter played an important role in the writing of Rise of Superman. He was a good friend of the Flow Genome Project, a member of our advisory board, and as big-hearted and thoughtful as any professional athlete we’ve met. In 2013, when we were filming the Rise of Superman video series, Dean told the story of how he nearly died while BASE-jumping into a deep cave in Mexico. He finished tellingly: "This year, twenty-something wingsuiters have lost their lives. Dying’s not worth it. I’ve been struggling with that a lot. I don’t want to be that guy who got lucky. And I’ve been that guy who got lucky for a lot of years. I want to be that guy that’s such a wizard of strategy and knows myself and am comfortable enough to say, 'Na-ah, I’m not going. I want to live.'"

But, that early evening in Yosemite, he went anyway.

Graham and Dean launched off Taft Point. Forty seconds later, their flights were over. Both men came into the notch low, possibly because the colder, denser winds that arrived with the setting sun had cost them altitude. Potter never wavered, but Hunt—as far as anyone can tell—jerked left, then swerved right, putting him on a diagonal path and directly into the canyon’s far wall. Potter made it through the notch, but didn’t have the height he needed and crashed into the rocks on the other side. Both men died on impact.

And to this day, the details of the accident remain mysteries. No one knows what caused Hunt to swerve; no one knows exactly how Potter lost so much altitude. But the why was never in question.

"Look," Potter once explained, "I know the dark secret. I know my options. I can sit on a cushion and meditate for two hours and maybe I get a glimpse of something interesting—and maybe it lasts two seconds—but I put on a wingsuit and leap off a cliff and it’s instantaneous: Whammo, there I am, in an alternate universe that lasts for hours."

And for flow junkies who get their fix through action sports, this has always been the dark secret. Ecstasis only arises when attention is fully focused in the present moment. In meditation, for example, the reason you follow your breath is to ride its rhythm right into the now. Psychedelics overwhelm the senses with data, throwing so much information at us per second that paying attention to anything else becomes impossible. And for action and adventure athletes seeking flow, risk serves this same function. "When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning," Samuel Johnson once remarked, "it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

By 2015, wingsuiting was providing exactly that kind of dangerous focus. "I start to shiver and wonder if what we’re doing is right," Dean wrote in an essay just a month before his death. "Wingsuit BASE-jumping feels safe to me, but [so many] fliers have lost their lives this year alone. There must be some flaw in our system, a lethal secret beyond my comprehension."

The lethal flaw is that, for many, using high-risk sport to explore ecstasis is so compelling and rewarding that it becomes an experience worth dying for. Steph Davis, Potter’s ex-wife and a professional climber and wingsuiter herself, has lost two husbands to the sport, yet she keeps flying. The siren song of "hours in an alternate universe" that Dean sought has continued to beckon to pilots convinced they can dodge the rocks.

But for the rest us? Those with lives and wives and things that matter? Are we shut out of these "alternate universes?" Do we have to make an impossible choice between dedicating decades to practice or accepting intolerable risks to get there faster?

Thanks to inventors like skydiver Alan Metni, the answer, increasingly, looks like "no." Metni began his professional life as a lawyer at Vinson and Elkins, a global firm that counts senators, U.S. attorneys general, and Fortune 100 CEOs as alumni. But the legal life didn’t do it for him, so he chucked it for his true passion: jumping out of airplanes. He pitched a tent at a local airport and began training relentlessly, logging more than ten thousand jumps and earning three U.S. national championships and a world championship in formation flying along the way.

But Metni wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to find a way to train even harder, so he started tinkering with giant fans and wind tunnels. By the early 2000’s, he’d perfected an indoor skydiving experience indistinguishable from true free fall. Suddenly, competitive teams could log hundreds of hours training together in absolute safety. With this one innovation, the standard of excellence at the elite level changed nearly overnight. Even SEAL Team Six came to work with Metni. Not to learn how to jump out of airplanes—they had that part down cold—but to train teamwork, group flow, and the secret to "flipping the switch" while falling through space together.

"Around the world," Metni said, "it doesn’t matter what culture, language, or faith, everyone has the same dream: to fly." So he built a company, iFly, and set out to fulfill that dream, one wind tunnel at a time.

Today, iFly is in fourteen countries with over fifty-four tunnels and revenue nudging ten figures. Thousands and thousands of people who would never have considered jumping out of a perfectly good airplane or leaping off a cliff in a wingsuit have realized that dream, and done so safely. By taking out the risk, iFly has taken a sport once reserved for daredevils and made it accessible to everyone—ages three and up.

And skydiving isn’t the only high-risk pursuit that has undergone a revolution in accessibility. Across the action sports industry, advancements in technology are providing safer and easier entry into the zone than ever before. Powder skiing, with its utterly magical sensation of floating down a mountain, used to be the rarefied domain of top athletes. Today, extra-fat skis make that float available to anyone who can link two turns together. Mountain bikes, which once offered bone-rattling descents to all but the best riders, now have supple front and rear suspensions, oversize balloon tires, and an ability to roll over the most daunting terrain. Even kitesurfing—best known on the Internet for its "kitemare" footage of people getting dragged by giant sails across highways—has mellowed. Better safety gear lets newcomers find the balance between wind and waves with a fraction of the exposure and learning time.

This trend, of technological innovation providing wider and safer access to altered states, isn’t limited to adventure sports. It’s showing up across many disciplines, allowing more people than ever before to sample what these experiences have to offer. We’re shedding some light on Dean’s dark secret, sparing many of us the stark trade-offs that he and so many other pioneers were forced to make. Technology is bringing ecstasis to the masses, allowing us to taste it all, without having to risk it all.

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