Dean Potter made quite a stir in the climbing world when he climbed the Eiger Nordwand in 2008. He free soloed the whole route – meaning he used no rope to protect himself from falling – but that wasn’t why people were talking. Strapped to his back was a parachute, to be deployed in case he fell. He didn’t, thankfully, reaching the summit of the monumental wall without incident.
This is called FreeBASE, which Potter invented. Like the illicit drug term it puns on, it’ll quicken your pulse, takings two of the world’s most dangerous sports – free solo rock climbing and BASE jumping – and combining them into one crazy cocktail.
It’s pretty straightforward: climb a giant wall with a parachute strapped to your back. If you slip on the way to the top, just pull the cord of your parachute and land safely at the bottom of the wall.
The simple elegance of FreeBASE belies its holy-shit-this-is-crazyness.
FreeBASE might seem more safe than just normal free solo rock climbing. After all, you have a parachute to catch you if you fall. But this ignores many of the realities of BASE (an acronym standing for the things you jump from: buildings, antennas, spans and earth) jumping:
- Many people die while BASE jumping. The rate of fatality was once calculated at one per every 60 participants. People don’t plan well enough. They don’t practice. Chutes malfunction.
- Your body must be perfectly oriented in mid air for a successful jump. Your stomach must be facing the ground. When you fall from a wall while climbing, your back will be facing the ground. So you must turn yourself around in mid air – otherwise you die. This is a lot harder than it seems, because once you start twisting in mid air, it’s hard to stop.
- Parachutes are only effective when you’re high enough. The lowest BASE jump on record is probably around 100 feet, depending on how you measure it. So if you fall before you climb high enough, you die.
- To pull off a successful BASE jump, you need your full attention on the task at hand: how your body will be positioned in the air, where to land etc. Now imagine rock climbing at the upper limits of your ability – an already strenuous mental task – and then trying to fly through the air and accomplish all the mental calculations to pull off a successful jump.
It’s almost easier to just climb without a parachute and hope that you don’t fall.
Dean Potter is a badass, to use the technical term. He’s the inventor and, so far, the sole practitioner of FreeBASE. In addition to FreeBASE, he has pushed the upper limits of adventure sports. He does things that make your palms sweat, just watching it.
- Highlining — The sport of walking across gaping chasms, suspended on a thin strip of nylon. Most people use a leash, a small piece of cord connected to the line that will catch you if you fall. Potter sometimes goes without one.
- Free solo rock climbing — Until Alex Honnold swaggered onto the scene with feats of climbing bravado, Potter was considered the best free soloer of his generation. He’s racked up numerous free solo first ascents around the world.
- BASE Jumping — Potter once held the world record for the longest wingsuit jump: a jump off the Eiger (again), where he flew for almost three minutes before deploying his chute.
- BASElining — Another adventure sport combination. BASElining combines highlining with BASE jumping. The principle is similar to FreeBASE — walk across a highline, and if you slip, it turns into a BASE jump. Potter invented the sport, naturally.
Preparing for the Eiger
Potter, like many climbers, got into BASE jumping. It’s fun, it’s extreme and it’s an easy way to get to the bottom of a big wall after you’ve climbed it. Many climbers had speculated about the obvious potential of climbing with a parachute (everyone has action movie fantasies sometimes), but Potter was the first to put it into practice.
He practiced FreeBASE several times on easy climbs (once he was already an accomplished BASE jumper), learning how to fall cleanly and orient his body correctly during a fall. Look at this video of him falling — he looks just like an action movie star (one commentator in a video about Potter says that FreeBASE makes “James Bond look like a pussy.”)
Once he was ready, Potter took his parachute with him to Germany, where he would put the nascent sport to the test on one of the world’s most iconic mountains, The Eiger.
Potter’s mental preparation for the climb can only be described as religious. Like the great prophets of history, Potter retired to a cave at the base of the wall, where he mediated and practiced Yoga until the weather broke, drinking water that dripped from the roof of the cave. After 40 days, the weather cleared and Potter was ready to free solo the route — a feat unlikely to be repeated.
Any Other Takers?
So far, no other climbers have followed Potter’s lead and taken up FreeBASE. It’s not hard to see why: the sport requires mastery of two of the most difficult activities on earth. Most free solo rock climbers aren’t expert BASE jumpers. And many BASE jumpers couldn’t free solo a wall high enough where a parachute would be effective.
Potter may be history’s first, best and only FreeBASE artist.