A friend says the two BASE jumpers who died at Yosemite National Park over the weekend had been in the air just 15 seconds when they crashed into a ridge.
Extreme athlete Dean Potter and his climbing partner, Graham Hunt, were killed Saturday after jumping from a cliff about 3,500 feet above the park's valley floor.
Professional climber Alex Honnold, who knew both men, confirmed Monday that their bodies were found in a notch below Taft Point. He says they were trying to fly through the notch while wearing wingsuits.
With their arms and legs outspread and the webs between them catching rising air currents, they were supposed to glide downward just beyond the cliff face, then zoom through rocky outcroppings and over the trees to a safe landing.
An extreme athlete, Potter knew the risks every time he jumped off a cliff, but loved the feeling he got by cheating death.
"I love the idea that I can change the worst possible thing to the best possible thing: dying to flying," Potter says in "Fly or Die," a documentary about his wingsuit jumps that can be seen on National Geographic's website.
"The wingsuit is basically the flying squirrel suit," Potter explained in the video. "Everyone kinda fantasizes about it — flying. And it's an amazing place in history right now, that man actually has the skills to pull it off."
Potter, 43, and his climbing partner Graham Hunt, 29, were killed Saturday when they slammed into a ridge after jumping from Taft Point, a promontory about 3,500 feet (1,000 meters) above the valley floor in Yosemite National Park. With their arms and legs outspread and the webs between them catching rising air currents, they were supposed to glide silently downward just beyond the cliff face, then zoom through rocky outcroppings and over the trees to a safe landing.
Instead, they stepped off the cliff and disappeared from view. When they didn't reach the valley below, someone alerted the same park rangers both men had sought to avoid when they prepared for the illegal jump.
Park ranger Scott Gediman said rescuers looked for the men overnight but couldn't find them until a helicopter crew spotted their bodies Sunday morning. Both wore skintight wingsuits with batwing sleeves and a flap between their legs. Neither deployed parachutes, Gediman said.
Potter was renowned for his daring and sometimes illegal climbs and BASE jumps. Hunt was still developing his reputation in the community of extreme athletes drawn to Yosemite's cliffs.
Friends remembered how Potter spoke about the death-defying nature of the sport at a memorial service last year to a friend who died in a BASE jumping accident.
"He always recognized how dangerous the sport was and at the same time, how magical it was — the tension between those two things," fellow climber Chris McNamara said.
BASE jumping can be done with a parachute or a wingsuit, dropping from high-altitude structures or cliffs. It is illegal in all national parks. About five people have died trying it in Yosemite alone, said Gediman, recalling how he watched a BASE jumper leap to her death in 1999 when her chute failed to open.
"BASE jumping is the most dangerous thing you can do ... every time you jump it's a roll of the dice," said Corey Rich, a photographer who documented some of Potter's feats. "The odds are not in your favor, and sadly, Dean pulled the unlucky card."
Potter was famous for pushing the boundaries of climbing by going up some of the world's most daunting walls and cliffs alone, using his bare hands and without ropes. He took the sport to an extreme level with highlining — walking across a rope suspended between towering rock formations while wearing a parachute for safety in case of a fall.
He drew criticism in May 2006 after making a solo ascent of Utah's iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, where climbing the arches is illegal. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia stopped sponsoring him, saying his actions "compromised access to wild places and generated an inordinate amount of negativity in the climbing community and beyond."
Potter defended that ascent as an attempt to inspire people to "get out of their cars and experience the wild with all their senses."
Clif Bar also withdrew its sponsorship of Potter, along with four other top climbers last year, saying they took risks that made the company too uncomfortable to continue financial support.
But Potter held onto other sponsors, even as he combined his love of climbing and flying with BASE jumping, focusing on wingsuit flying. He even packed his miniature Australian cattle dog, Whisper, on his back for some of the jumps, drawing criticism from animal rights groups. The dog was not with him on Saturday's fatal jump.
In 2009, he set a record for completing the longest BASE jump, from the Eiger North Face in Switzerland, by staying in flight in a wingsuit for 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The feat earned him the Adventurer of the Year title by National Geographic magazine.