Lost Brother in Yosemite

by John Branch

Originally published in the NYTimes, 11 June 2015

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Afternoon gave way to evening, and the parade of restless clouds and the occasional bursts of rain had moved on from Yosemite Valley. In their wake was the empty quiet of Taft Point, 3,000 feet above a famous green valley going gray in late-day shadow.

There were no tourists, only a raven, black and unhurried, circling at the edge of the cliff. It spiraled upward, a silent signal of rising air. A good sign for BASE jumping and wing-suit flying.

Dean Potter, a 43-year-old professional climber and jumper, considered one of the world’s best in a wing suit, stood a few feet from Graham Hunt, 29, his apprentice and flying partner.

About 20 feet to their right was Jen Rapp, Potter’s longtime girlfriend, and the couple’s dog, Whisper. Rapp held a camera. She framed the photos so that El Capitan, across the valley toward the setting sun, was in the background.

BASE jumping is illegal in the national parks. But that did not keep people from surreptitiously doing it, at the risk of being caught, especially in Yosemite, where the sheer cliffs make it the best place on the planet to do it, some believe.

“Anywhere else you go is a compromise,” Potter would say.

The men had jumped from dozens of spots around Yosemite Valley, but they knew this route well. At the end of a 1.1-mile downhill trail from a small parking lot on Glacier Point Road, Taft Point is marked by a railing meant to keep tourists from falling. Potter and Hunt preferred jumping from an edge about 100 yards left, to the west. They would drop hundreds of feet with their arms and legs spread, the webbing between their limbs and the baffles inside their suits filling with air until falling turned to soaring.

They would fly right, toward the heart of the valley. There is a sloping rib of a ridge there, a relatively unremarkable feature called Lost Brother. It is not marked on the park maps handed to visitors. It juts downward into the valley before it ends abruptly into a vertical wall known mostly to climbers. In that ridge is a notch, a V like a rifle sight.

Potter and Hunt had made the jump many times, sometimes together, sometimes not. Hunt had done it without Potter several days before. He would usually steer himself through the notch. Potter had been through the notch a couple of times, but he usually went around the ridge to the left. It depended on how well they maintained altitude once they began to fly.

The men were zipped into their suits. They did not wait for the full cloak of dusk. A breeze from behind caught their attention but did not send a strong enough warning to pause. It was 7:25 on May 16.

Yosemite’s BASE-Jumping Culture

“I don’t mind if I’m on the record,” Potter wrote in an email in March, discussing the decades-long fight to legalize BASE jumping within National Park Service sites, and especially at Yosemite, with its unique valley of sheer cliffs.

“I’ve been flying in the park since 2003 and the N.P.S. knows it, but they haven’t been able to catch me or prove anything,” he added.

Potter offered a tour of the BASE-jumping culture at Yosemite, allowing himself to be captured on video leaping, illegally, from the cliffs at dusk or dawn and landing before being detected.

“There are at least 10 local guys who are regularly BASE jumping in Yosemite and probably 50 to 100 others annually traveling to Yosemite from around the world to experience the birthplace of big-wall BASE,” he wrote.

Potter knew the long history of enforcement at Yosemite. Robin Heid was arrested and charged with jumping off El Capitan in 1979, which helped lead to a midsummer trial run for legal parachuting there in 1980, aborted after six weeks of unruliness. BASE jumping took hold in the global extreme-sports culture of the 1990s, and stories of Yosemite rangers hiding in trees and using night-vision goggles became legend.

In 1999, Frank Gambalie drowned in the Merced River after trying to escape rangers. Months later, in a protest of park policy and enforcement, Jan Davis fell to her death from El Capitan without her parachute ever opening; she wore a borrowed rig, not wanting her own gear confiscated. In 2010, Ammon McNeely was caught and subdued with a stun gun.

In between, dozens have been arrested, jailed and subjected to thousands of dollars in fines and have had their gear confiscated. Several have gone to court to challenge the National Park Service rules banning the activity, ultimately to no avail.

It made no sense to Potter, and plenty of others, that climbing was legal, and that falling was legal, but that stopping a fall with a lifesaving parachute was illegal, a result of the application of an arcane law banning the delivery or retrieval “of a person or object by parachute, helicopter or other airborne means.”

But it was 2015. Potter was hopeful. He believed he could be both renegade and diplomat.

“The N.P.S. and the law enforcement have changed a lot in the past year or two,” Potter wrote in March. “Most all of the lead positions in the park service are now held by people who either don’t have a huge problem with BASE or are quite lenient when it comes to catching and prosecuting jumpers. For sure the rangers enforce the law. If they see us, they pursue, but for the most part, they are not hunting us as before and there seems to be a lot more respect on both sides.”

A sport that began as a rebel offshoot of sky diving had evolved into a popular and respected derivative of rock climbing. Places in Switzerland, Norway and Italy welcomed BASE jumpers. And Yosemite, the best place — maybe the safest place, with its vertical cliffs and grassy landing areas — had only six known BASE-jumping deaths in its history, and none since 1999, despite thousands of jumps since.

Into the Dusky Valley

Potter jumped. Hunt followed, like a shadow. Rapp clicked photographs. The men fell out of the frame before her lens caught them falling away, soaring with wings spread.

Hunt quickly passed Potter. His suit was made for speed. Potter had set records for long flights and preferred loft. He had been in Canada working on a design to allow him to land on his belly on glacial ice, no parachute necessary.

“He’s low,” Rapp thought to herself. “Why is he going toward the notch?” She saw Hunt veer left, as if to go around the ridge, then quickly back to the right. Potter held his line for the notch. They disappeared into the hole that led to the dusky valley.

Rapp heard a thwap. Her mind tried to tell her that it was the familiar sound of a parachute deploying. It was followed almost immediately by a duller, heavier sound.

Rapp waited alone on the cliff’s edge for more clues from below. None came.

She clicked through her camera to retrace the flight paths in the photos. In two dimensions, without depth perception, it was hard to tell what happened to the shrinking specks in the frames. There was Hunt, who disappeared into the grayness of the rocks. There was Potter, who made it through the leading edge of the notch, a downward halfpipe, and fell out of sight.

Somewhere far below was Rebecca Haynie, Hunt’s girlfriend of a few months. She had been on a hike when Hunt called saying that he and Potter planned to jump at Taft Point. Meet at the meadow at 7:30, Hunt said. She aborted her hike and went to the lodge area in Yosemite Valley to get a drink and pass the time.

She did not see a text message that Hunt sent at 6:55 until about 7:25 because of spotty cellular service in Yosemite. He had asked her to turn on her two-way radio so they could communicate. She quickly texted back that she would in a few minutes. She drove around the darkening, forested roads for 90 minutes, waiting to hear from Hunt again.

“I was putting my faith in a lot of irrational places,” she said in a phone interview. “Even though I knew what probably happened.”

In the dwindling light, Rapp rushed back up the trail to the parking lot. She drove her car the 13 miles or so back to Wawona Road, made a right and headed the 10 miles down to the floor of the valley.

She went to El Capitan Meadow, but there was no one there. Her phone had no text messages. Unsure of what to do or where to go, she drove to the rented house that she and Potter shared in Yosemite West, a cluster of homes back up Wawona Road, past the Glacier Point turnoff. The couple recently bought 31 acres nearby and had plans to build their own home. That day, rainy and cool, had been spent clearing trees and brush, and Hunt was there to help, until the clearing skies led to the idea of making an evening jump off Taft Point.

The house was dark and empty. Mind racing, Rapp studied the photos and scrolled through various outcomes in her head. Maybe the sounds she heard were Hunt crashing. Maybe Potter saw it happen and was searching for his friend. Maybe Potter crashed and was hurt. Maybe they were both O.K. but were hiding from rangers. Maybe they had been arrested.

Her mind was a tug of war with hope. Maybe they would pull up to the house any minute. A car came at 9:30. Out stepped Haynie. She was alone.

Discouraging the Spectacle

A little more than a year earlier, in March 2014, one of Potter’s best friends and flying partners, Sean Leary, was killed BASE jumping at Utah’s Zion National Park. It was only the second known BASE-jumping death at Zion, but the first had come just over a month earlier.

Leary, alone, had apparently jumped off a sandstone tower called West Temple and tried to fly through a gap in the Three Marys, a set of statue-like formations resembling chess pieces. Leary was missing for days, and Potter was among those who rushed to Zion to help find him.

Potter and a few other climbers reached Leary’s body, but the park service would not allow them to bring it down. Rangers packaged the body, and a helicopter, borrowed from Grand Canyon National Park, lifted it out.

“There are places within the United States that one can BASE jump, but not in Zion,” the park’s then-superintendent said in a news release. “There are many reasons for this, from resource protection, to visitor and employee safety, to Wilderness mandates. BASE jumping is not congruent with the founding purpose of this park.”

Ray O’Neal, a longtime ranger at Zion, said that the problem with BASE jumping in national parks was not necessarily one of safety or rescue costs, as many jumpers presume.

“The reason we would like to discourage it is not so much because of the danger of it, but the spectacle of it,” O’Neal said during an interview at the park’s Emergency Operations Center. “We like to think that people come here to enjoy the scenery, and not the spectacle of people jumping.”

Scott Gediman, a Yosemite park spokesman, agreed. On average, 14 Yosemite visitors die each year — from falls or drownings, car accidents or natural causes. Rarely are they BASE jumpers.

“We’re not against BASE jumping as a sport,” Gediman said while sitting on a bench at Yosemite, where a rappelling accident had killed a climber the day before. “But we have to look at the big picture and its appropriateness in the park.”

The frustration for Potter and other BASE advocates has been the apparent lack of consistency in park policies. It is generally legal to catch a fish but not to pick flowers. Horses are allowed on many trails, but mountain bikers are not. The Merced River is a jumble of colorful rafts carrying tourists; El Capitan is a dot-to-dot slate of climbers and ropes; and Yosemite even allows hang gliding on a limited basis off Glacier Point, not far from Taft Point. Potter was allowed to string tightropes between formations. But if he fell, it was illegal, in theory, to prevent his own death with a parachute.

In 2006, the last time the National Park Service updated its management policies, individual park superintendents were allowed the discretion to pursue approval of BASE jumping. None have. (The exception in the national park system is the annual Bridge Day at New River Gorge, in West Virginia, where hundreds take part in a one-day jumping celebration that dates back nearly 40 years.) Potter thought times were changing. He pondered ways to devise a permit system, to limit the number of BASE jumpers and to ensure that only well-trained jumpers would leap into the valley. He did not have that part figured out yet. But it was his goal. He wanted nothing more than to BASE jump and fly wing suits legally in Yosemite, the place that he loved more than anywhere else.

Seeking Familiar Faces

The women drove back into the black valley. They looked for people they knew — climbers camping or hanging around the village and the bar. There were no familiar faces. At about 10:30, they showed up at the door of Mike Gauthier, Yosemite’s chief of staff, a conduit between park bureaucracy and the climbing community.

A call to the Yosemite dispatcher quickly deflated hope that Potter and Hunt were in custody. There were no reports of BASE jumpers caught by park rangers.

A late-night search was called. Rangers and volunteers from Yosemite Search and Rescue were told that a pair of BASE jumpers were missing off Taft Point. It was not until they saw Rapp that they realized that one of the men missing was Dean Potter. Everyone knew him.

“I hoped he was just hurt,” Rapp said. “Maybe he had two broken femurs. Maybe he was bleeding to death. We just needed to get up there.”

She tried to leave the searching to the experts. But at 4 a.m., helplessly waiting, she took binoculars and headed to the base of the canyon below Lost Brother. She scanned the darkness for movement or color. She screamed into the black void above her. She got no response.

There were still no answers from above by daybreak. A helicopter took off and headed over the top of Lost Brother. Two bodies were quickly spotted. Neither man had deployed a parachute.

Hunt had cleared the base of the notch, but having most likely entered the downward funnel on a diagonal path, he had crashed into the right wall.

“Turns out the sounds I heard, I think, were the sounds of Graham hitting a tree and then the wall,” Rapp said.

Potter was found several hundred feet farther into the notch. Speculation began immediately that maybe the sight of Hunt, or the air disturbance caused by his maneuvers, had affected Potter’s concentration or control. Neither man was wearing a GoPro video recorder, contrary to some news reports, but Potter had jumped with a smartphone strapped to his head. It was heavily damaged, but park service investigators have it, along with Rapp’s photos, hoping to mine them for clues.

Rapp returned to Taft Point three days after the accident. By then, there was a memorial at the cliff’s edge, where Potter and Hunt had made their final jump. El Capitan sits across the valley a little to the left; Yosemite Falls can be seen a little to the right, over the top of the brown, down-sloping ridge with the notch. The memorial included feathers, a beer can, Tibetan prayer flags and a photograph of Potter.

Rapp sat alone on a rock. A raven appeared. Unflinchingly, it approached and patiently ate a piece of salami out of her hand. It had never happened to her before.

“The way the raven looked at me, so intently, so. …,” Rapp said, the thought drifting, unfinished. “Yeah, it was Dean.”

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