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Wingsuit Fliers in Yosemite Knew They Were Cheating Death

Two wingsuit fliers who leaped to their deaths from a cliff in Yosemite National Park were trying to zoom through a notch in a ridgeline and were airborne for about 15 seconds when they slammed into a rocky outcropping, a friend said Monday.

Dean Potter, 43, and his partner Graham Hunt, 29, were both experienced at flying in wingsuits — the most extreme form of BASE jumping, which is a sport so dangerous that enthusiasts keep lists of the dead.

Dressed like flying squirrels, with flaps between their outstretched arms and legs to keep them aloft, they leaped off Taft Point, 3,500 feet above the valley floor, and would have been traveling at speeds close to 100 mph as they aimed for the narrow gap in the ridge.

Potter thought he had found ways of safely enjoying some of the world's riskiest endeavors. He scaled the toughest vertical faces without rope, and walked barefoot across lines suspended between cliffs. If he fell or became exhausted, he would deploy a parachute.

As if that didn't provide enough adrenaline, Potter wanted to fly.

"Many people consider me crazy for my innovations and changes to climbing saying I'm reckless and taking too many risks,'' Potter wrote three weeks ago on Instagram, where he posted a photo of himself leaping from a cliff in Switzerland in 2009 and transforming "dying into flying.''

"I'm still injury free after over 30-years of pursuing some of the most dangerous #OutdoorArts known to man, #KnockOnWood and will continue to take the necessary precautions to stack the odds in my favor in order to live a long and happy life,'' Potter wrote. "There is a way to play hard and stay safe!''

Their bodies were found Saturday in the notch they had already flown through about a dozen times, said professional climber Alex Honnold. No one knows exactly what went wrong. A gust of wind or a slight miscalculation could have sent them off course, hurtling into rock.

"What they were doing is pretty routine,'' Honnold said. "Not like a once-in-a-lifetime performance.''

Potter was "the big inspiration to the climbing community in the last generation,'' and Hunt "was maybe the most prolific BASE jumper in the valley right now,'' he said.

Honnold's own free-solo ascents of America's biggest cliffs have made him one of the world's most recognized climbers. But he has never BASE jumped, and has no desire to try.

BASE jumping — renegade parachuting off buildings, antenna, spans (such as bridges) and Earth (in this case, the cliffs over Yosemite Valley) — is illegal in national parks. Doing it in a wingsuit is even more dangerous, particularly the form Potter practiced, gliding frighteningly close to cliffs and trees before deploying his chute.

"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.''

A helicopter crew spotted their bodies Sunday morning. Both wore skintight wingsuits with batwing sleeves and a flap between their legs. Neither deployed parachutes, Park ranger Scott Gediman said.

At least five people have died in BASE jumping accidents in national parks since January 2014, including the most recent deaths at Yosemite, said Jeffrey Olson, a National Park Service spokesman. Two of those were at Utah's Zion and one at Glacier in Montana.

The park service celebrates Yosemite's role as a climbing mecca, but struggles to stop people from illegally leaping off the cliffs. Jumpers who are caught get fined and see their equipment confiscated, but Honnold compared that to speeding tickets for race-car drivers.

"For them, BASE jumping was like their art, their passion,'' and they faced a much more powerful repercussion in any case, he said: "The potential down side of base jumping is dying.''

In 2009, Potter 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.

Potter's solo ascent of Utah's iconic Delicate Arch in May 2006 prompted the National Park Service to ban climbing any of the named arches or natural bridges in Arches National Park, and the 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.''

Clif Bar also withdrew its sponsorship of Potter for taking risks it couldn't support. But Potter held onto Adidas and other sponsors, even after he packed his miniature Australian cattle dog, Whisper, on his back for some of his jumps and was criticized by animal rights groups. The dog was not with him on Saturday's fatal jump.

"Dean Potter was an inspiration for many of us. He was an innovator and pioneer, always seeking for new creative solutions, an exceptional athlete and artist, who loved what he was doing,'' Adidas said in a statement. "We lost a friend. You will be deeply missed Dean.''

Another sponsor was Five Ten footwear, whose spokeswoman, Nancy Bouchard, said "Dean would have pursued these activities whether he was supported or not. In the back of our minds, we always knew something terrible could happen, but that didn't and doesn't diminish our feelings.''
 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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