This past Saturday, Dean Potter—a towering figure in the rock climbing, BASE jumping, and slacklining community—was killed in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite National Park, along with fellow jumper Graham Hunt. At 43 years old, Potter had pioneered highlining (walking across a taut slackline strung thousands of feet in the air, oftentimes without a safety tether), set climbing speed records on some of the toughest routes in the world, and created what has since become known as "free BASE," where one rock climbs with a parachute as a fail-safe (instead of using ropes). Before his death, Potter had perhaps become best known for his aerial exploits, specifically wingsuiting, where one BASE jumps (BASE being an acronym for building, antenna, span, and Earth) in a squirrel suit. BASE jumping allows the jumper to experience a prolonged, controlled flight. It's also very, very dangerous.
Underlying these athletes’ experience is a positive psychological change, which seems to be the direct result of partaking in a life-threatening sport.
There's been an outpouring of grief and respect in the wake of Potter's death. Climbing writer John Long told National Geographic that Potter was "an event ... a force of nature." In the New York Times, Yosemite’s chief of staff, Mike Gauthier, said that "[Dean] was a luminary and in the pantheon of climbing gods." There have also, however, been a barrage of more negative comments, often tacked onto the articles covering Potter's death. Littered through the 700-something comments on Outside's coverage of Potter's death are remarks calling the late climber "bad rubbish," a "waste of life," and "incredibly shallow and selfish." At the heart of these callous remarks is a sentiment that was best summarized by another Outside commenter, who said BASE jumpers like Potter are "disregarding the value of their own lives." Statistically speaking, that argument might have some validity.
According to a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Stavanger in Norway, out of the 20,850 BASE jumps that occurred between 1995 and 2005, nine were fatal. Using this data, the University of Oxford estimated that, for every 100,000 BASE jumps, 43 will be fatal. That may not sound like a lot, but for comparison: skydiving has a 1:100,000 ratio; and rock climbing, just 0.31:100,000. With an unrivaled mortality rate, many question whether BASE jumping should even be considered a sport, and condemn jumpers as having a death wish. (A New York Times story from 2013 on famous BASE jumper Le Gallou is titled, "'It’s More Like a Suicide Than a Sport.'") Research has shown that despite BASE jumping’s intimate relationship with death—or perhaps because of this relationship—however, jumpers achieve a sense of humility and courage that transcends anything non-jumpers could understand.
In 2010, researchers from Ohio University went to Fayetteville, West Virginia’s Bridge Day, the largest BASE jumping event in the world. Through a series of one-on-one, open-ended interviews with 50 BASE jumpers, the researchers tried to find the answer to one question: What value do participants get out of BASE jumping? The researchers' found that, basically, it's all about self improvement. "High-risk athletes deliberately [take] risks as a means of becoming positively transformed," they wrote in their resulting study. Challenging the stereotype of the BASE jumper as a daredevil with a death wish, the researchers were able to identify a few main motivators for all jumpers. Number one on this list: simply acquiring a new, elite skill. Specifically, BASE jumpers reportedly enjoyed the logistical challenges of having "to deal with or fix intense situations through decisions." Other big motivators to these athletes included an adrenaline rush, a sense of accomplishment, and overcoming fear. Noticeably absent was anything remotely resembling a brash desire to cheat death.
A similar 2008 study by Eric Brymer, a professor at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, asked extreme athletes to describe, in their own words, the reason they risk their lives for the sake of a thrill. Through written and conversational interviews with 15 of these athletes, Brymer uncovered motivations that were as enlightening as they were expressive.
An extreme wind-surfer, for example, shared this with Brymer:
I have never met anyone who has stood, however precariously, on the flanks of a great mountain, or who has been, however, briefly, to the dark world at the edge of the abyss, and not come back changed. Changed how? More humble, perhaps, more aware of the fragility of life.
Another interviewee, a kayak explorer with a double Ph.D. in health psychology and education, reflected on the deep effects that successfully riding—and surviving—a flash flood had on him:
I had changed. I found myself to be more forgiving and more patient; reflection replaced reaction more often than before. My hard logic more readily made room for intuitive considerations, something I had seldom given much notice. I no longer thought of truth as something definite and unyielding but as something woven into both sides of an issue.
Underlying these athletes’ experience (and in both papers, every extreme athlete virtually express the same sentiment) is a positive psychological change, which seems to be the direct result of partaking in a life-threatening sport. The overwhelming responses Brymer received led him to conclude that these athletes' relationship to their natural environments "transforms the human tendency for anthropocentricity and replaces it with ecocentricity and the realization of true courage and humility." The ego shrinks, and in its place grows a deep understanding of one's relationship with the natural world.
The gut reaction to label Potter's actions as selfish are understandable. But BASE jumpers, and extreme athletes in general, report experiencing a fundamental and organic change for the better by virtue of their sport. Potter—the luminary, the event, the force of nature—might not have been the Potter that we knew without precariously spending his time high in the mountains.
As one BASE jumper told Brymer: "You can’t even begin to try to make somebody who hasn’t done it understand how frightening, how exciting, how peaceful and beautiful that sensation is."
Lead photo: BASE jumpers in Kemaliye, Turkey. (Photo: Prometheus72/Shutterstock)