Dean Potter remembered as free spirit, risk-taker

Dean Potter stood in front of El Capitan after a speed climbing attempt up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif.
Dean Potter stood in front of El Capitan after a speed climbing attempt up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif. Tomas Ovalle via associated press

If it weren’t for Dean Potter, Ann Melim may have never mustered up the courage to take on Mount Washington, or, for that matter, Mount Kilimanjaro.

Potter, the renowned risk-taker and expert free-solo climber who died while BASE jumping in Yosemite National Park over the weekend, helped Melim develop a penchant for the outdoors that carried her well into adulthood.

“He taught me how to climb, and I still climb,” she said. “I’m indebted to him for that.”

Potter, 43, was killed Saturday after he leaped from Yosemite’s Taft Point while wearing a wingsuit. It was a typical expedition for the extreme sportsman, who captivated the nation with his adventurous spirit, but it ended in tragedy.


Potter was one of two men who died after making the plunge into the national park’s valley. Neither of them deployed their parachutes, according to reports.

BASE, or Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth, jumping is illegal in national parks, and it’s believed that both Potter and his climbing partner, Graham Hunt, 29, were trying to avoid detection under the cover of dusk. Their bodies were discovered Sunday by a helicopter crew.

Before he was known for scaling some of the world’s steepest rocks with little more than his bare hands, and free-falling from cliffs wearing a wingsuit and a parachute, Potter got his climbing start in New Boston, N.H.

Not far from his family’s house was a 200-foot outcrop known as Joe English Cliff, which was located on private land.

Despite the foreboding “No Trespassing” signs and warnings from his parents to steer clear of the area, Potter was drawn to the property.

“It was there at Joe English that I taught myself to climb by bouldering and free-solo,” the late climber wrote in 2012, in a blog post for the website FiveTen.com.


Although she never scaled Joe English, Melim learned everything she knows about the climbing culture from Potter.

The pair quickly became friends while on the cross country team at Goffstown High School in the late 1980s, around the time Potter developed a thirst for climbing.

Melim, who was somewhat of a loner, said Potter helped get her out of the house by extending an invitation for her to join him on a trip to Boston to check out an indoor climbing facility.

Without hesitation, she went along for the ride, sparking a tradition that was regularly enjoyed by a small group of friends with a zest for adventure.

On their trips from New Hampshire to Boston, they listened to the Talking Heads, cracked jokes, and stopped at a sub shop to recharge.

Melim remembered Potter as “dangly” and a bit of a goon, but a daredevil who would push the envelope.

“He was really such a character,” she said in a telephone interview. “He was always trying to do what nobody else was climbing.”

After high school, Melim and Potter parted ways.

Potter went on to attend the University of New Hampshire for a short time before eventually dropping out. While there, he was part of the school’s freshman crew team.

“He was big. I remember him being this big, goofy, susper-strong, and competitive guy,” said Sean O’Connell, who was Potter’s rowing coach.

O’Connell said Potter’s energy was as big as his stature, and described him as someone who was always engaged with those around him.


He said while on the crew team, Potter was physically gifted.

“I coached a lot of guys, but Dean I remember crystal-clear. He’s one of the few people who stick with you,” he said.

Eventually, Potter headed west where he established his name by setting free-climbing records and putting a spotlight on BASE jumping and extreme tightrope walking.

Over the decades, Melim continued to track her friend’s success, collecting posters and magazine articles featuring Potter. To this day, she uses Potter’s outgoing personality as an example when teaching her students about the Transcendentalist movement at Hollis-Brookline High School in New Hampshire.

“I’m still connected to him. He was all about getting the most out of life, and doing what you love and not being afraid to take those chances,” she said, holding back tears. “He opened up a world that I would have otherwise never known.”

Reflecting on Monday, Melim said she hoped that as Potter took his final jump at Yosemite that he wasn’t afraid.

“I don’t think he would have been,” she said. “He wanted to get everything out of life, and to not do it would be to not live.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.