The accomplished free-solo rock climber, BASE jumper and slackliner shaves almost six minutes off the route’s previous speed record
Dean Potter. Courtesy of Jennifer Rapp
At 6 a.m. Sunday, May 3, Dean Potter left his house in California’s Yosemite Valley, and headed for the Sierra Point Trailhead, which leads from the beginning of the John Muir Trail in Happy Isles to the base of Grizzly Peak, one of the valley’s many giant rock faces. Potter is best known for death-defying feats as a free-solo rock climber, BASE jumper and slackline walker, but on this day he had no parachute or climbing shoes. He was setting out to capture the fastest known time (FKT) on Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome, a granite formation that rises almost 5,000 feet above the valley floor. Two hours 17 minutes and 52 seconds later, he returned to the same trailhead, having broken the longstanding FKT by nearly six minutes.
Potter’s speedy time is in part due to a new route that he has pioneered. It starts at the old Sierra Point Trail and breaks off into a gully at the base of nearby Grizzly Peak. The gully leads to the Snake Dike, an eight-pitch, 800-foot climb up the southwest face of Half Dome. The route, graded 5.7, is the easiest climb up the face. Potter soloed the climb, topping out on Half Dome in 1:19. He then descended via cables on the south side of Half Dome, circled Lost Lake and ended on the Mist Trail.
Potter’s route up Half Dome via Snake Dike (left). Photo courtesy Jen Rapp
Though climbing and flying have been Potter’s focus for the last three decades, he has always been a runner. Now 43, Potter spent much of his childhood in South Carolina, where his father was stationed with the army. From the time he was in first grade, he would run with the new recruits, and later ran track and cross country in high school.
He also taught himself to climb during high school, and by college it had become his main passion. After leaving the University of New Hampshire to pursue climbing full time, Potter gravitated toward harder and longer alpine routes, and running became an essential part of his training. “I guess you could say I was an ultrarunner,” he says, “but just in my own way, and always in preparation for a big rock climb or expedition.”
During the long mountain linkups he has become known for, Potter has used running as a means of descent. “I’ve always called it ultra climbing, because if you are climbing several peaks, or one really big peak, you are moving continuously for two days straight,” he says.
Over the past several decades, Potter has become infamous for his particularly dangerous outdoor activities: free soloing (rock climbing without a rope), BASE jumping (using a nylon wing suit to fly off mountains, then opening a parachute before ground impact) and linewalking (walking across slacklines suspended thousands of feet in the air, often without any tether).
Potter with his Australian cattle dog, Whisper. Photo courtesy of Jen Rapp
The idea for the FKT attempt goes back several years, when Potter met accomplished ultrarunner Scott Jurek. They ran together a few times, and Half Dome came up. “I mentioned that I hike it at least once a week,” Potter says. He told Jurek that, jogging some of the sections, he could make it to the summit in 1:40, with a pack weighing 10 to 15 pounds. Jurek and his wife, Jenny, suggested that Potter could probably break the record.
Potter didn’t act on the idea right away, and continued to BASE jump off the Half Dome summit rather than run back down. Recently, though, his attitude toward dangerous activities has shifted, and he’s looked to running and other alternatives.
“When you’re dealing with fear and danger, there’s a lot of adrenaline going through your body,” he says, “which leads to awesome highs but also unpleasant lows.”
Last week, Potter made his first attempt at the Half Dome FKT, running the route in about 2:26. On Sunday, he chose a different descent route, and shaved nine minutes off his time, securing the FKT. His ultimate goal, he says, is to run the route in under two hours.
Potter looks at the route as the gateway to a new hybridization of running and rock climbing. “The rack of gear needed for Snake Dike is minimal,” he says, explaining that those not wishing to solo the 800 feet can tackle the route in a team of two, roping up for the final climb. He envisions the Half Dome route opening up an opportunity for more runners to venture into climbing, and vice versa.