See You In Valhalla, Dean Potter
Because I have never met or climbed with Dean Potter, I have no photos of him. In place of stealing something from the internet I have substituted mountain goat photos from an Enchantments trip some years ago. I trust both Potter and the goats would approve.
I am not particularly cool and am rarely unconcerned. I tend to care about things to a pretty uncool degree. Most of our climbing icons right now are the opposite. Guys like Alex Honnold, Daniel Woods, Chris Sharma, and Hayden Kennedy seem to always act like nothing is ever that big of a deal. They certainly don’t live like they don’t care about anything, but to be cool they have to act like it. Climbing right now is pretty centered on this bro-ish stoner vibe, this determined, affected, attitude of unconcern.
Dean Potter didn’t act that way, and in the midst of all the remembrances and commemorations, I want to remind you people how often I heard him criticized for it. We all respected Potter, but in my experience relatively few of us liked him. He was a little odd, a little mystical, kind of dorky sometimes. His manner of speaking was very sincere and open and often quite emotional. He wasn’t cool and he wasn’t unconcerned and to a culture obsessed with these traits he was almost an outcast. And now that he’s gone I hope all the people who called him a douche for caring about stuff are feeling bad about themselves.
Anyways, on to the requiem,
When asked about the name of his band, John Darnielle explained that mountain goats are excellent climbers, but often not as excellent as they think they are, and that every year many of them fall to their deaths thinking they can make some leap of which they turn out to be incapable. They possess a suicidal pride that sets them apart from every other animal, except, of course, humans. This trait, this willingness to pursue the uncertain, even at great risk, is something few of us possess to the same degree as Dean Potter. When I go into the mountains I fight a losing battle against my fear and laziness and complacency from the moment I set out until the moment I return. If we choose to value those who do go after this uncertainty, which we do, we valorize them endlessly, we must also honor their downfalls. A gamble should not be judged by its outcome, it is either worthwhile or not before the die is cast, and death is not a refutation of life, but rather its completion. It is tragic that Potter died last weekend, and I wept for him, but fatal risk was his art and he was among its greatest practitioners, so to condemn his act is to condemn him. It must therefore be a different kind of tragedy than that to which we are accustomed.
When a man gets cancer or dies in a car accident we call it tragic, in that it causes us sorrow, but this is not the older meaning of the term. In ancient Greek, tragoida, translated as tragedy, literally means “goat song,” I don’t know what to make of that but somewhere in the concept is an inevitability. Cancer and car accidents are unnecessary in the philosophical sense, they can happen or not, with little prediction. I could easily have died today as I drove down the interstate and there is nothing I could have done to prevent it. How Potter died is very different from this. His death was a tragedy because it was contained in the essence of what he was trying to do. If I could get from home to work and back without risking life and limb maneuvering a steel box at 60 miles per hour, I would. If Potter’s arts did not involve that uncertainty they would be meaningless, they would be banal stunts, party tricks for the rich and famous.
Potter had that most human trait, that suicidal pride, and so his death was a tragedy in the ancient sense: the fulfillment of fate, however awful for those left behind, that brings a man to the home of the gods.