Celebrated climber Dean Potter’s death from a tragically failed wingsuit BASE jump this past May hit me harder than I expected, and maybe understandably, since I had met the legendary man himself at a Reel Rock movie screening (a movie that chronicled rock climbing in Yosemite) last fall at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Dean seemed more alive than life itself, as I shook his huge hand and bowed to the thrill-loving sparkle in his eyes. My passion for rock climbing (and that of thousands of others) was inspired by titans seemingly as immortal as Dean.
Rock climbing is a sport that seems like an ultra-modern hipster fad, but it actually dates back to the late 1800s. And it is a sport that I took to accidentally when I showed up at Planet Granite on a date for a ballet lesson. Climbing up a vertical plane, gingerly gripping colored knobs, was at once exhilarating, challenging, and, from my over-achiever perspective, a gift that would only keep on giving with every new level and grade to overcome. Whether you scale 30-foot indoor walls in a harness, free-climb completely untethered, or perilously boulder across and around rock formations, the art and sport of rock climbing engages every one of your muscles and focuses your mind.
I think the draw among the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial, tech-centric community is the counter-balance that climbing brings. Rock climbing means getting technical with nature, applying both the laws of physics and the muscle fibers of your own body. It requires immersion. Keyboard, screen, and office ambience are replaced by the holds of the rock face, total concentration on a point, and the sound of your own breath.
Rock climbing is dangerous in a way that makes the financial and emotional risks of entrepreneurism and startups seem tame. Failure can be a great teacher. Climbers fall, and the consequences are real.
But, of course, we keep climbing, and keep taking chances. A couple of weeks ago, I had a rare chance to visit the alluring “Stone Forest” in Varna, Bulgaria. Within seconds of stepping onto the sands of this boulder garden formed 50 million or so years ago, I thought of Dean and imagined that he would immediately cleave to these exquisite formations, embracing the stunning oddity of nature. And as I channeled that vision while gripping the warm grey jagged ends of one of the formations and started to spider my way up against gravity, I felt for an instant completely…complete. Never mind that free bouldering on these historical landmarks was about as normal as climbing a Manhattan office tower. My hands grasped the knobs of ancient silicon, my spirit inspired by the man who motivated so many to risk this ever-changing dance with nature, my body buzzing with the intoxicating energy of physical exertion amidst antiquity, my mind focused on the moment.
We find balance, passion, and joy when we immerse ourselves and unlock that elusive charge that provides the strength and presence for our everyday challenges. Exploring rock formations tens of millions of years in the making has its own humility-inducing qualities. There’s the thrill of taking a calculated risk in something that is inherently dangerous, reminding yourself in a tangible way that success does not come to the timid.
Dean Potter reportedly told a writer that he had a dream about falling to his death in Yosemite Valley. This spring, he and a friend leapt from Taft Point, a 7,500-foot promontory that overlooks Yosemite Valley and El Capitan. Dean had done it before.
Even the titans fall.