Death By Police State: The Case Of Dean Potter


Some pragmatic and biased partisans of the police state will immediately interject that the famous climber Dean Potter died from hitting the ground as he flew his wingsuit too low in Yosemite. The Guardian, though, saw a bit further: “Did rules, not risk, cause Dean Potter’s Base jumping death?”

Potter Above The Alps. Some Day, We Will Fly Better Than That, Because We Tried

Potter Above The Alps. Some Day, We Will Fly Better Than That, Because We Tried

See also: The Last Flight of Dean Potter by my friend Dan Duane.

Humanity evolved because it learned to enjoy ever greater feats, by taking ever more risks thanks to, and inciting to inventing ever more sophisticated technology.

Therefore risk takers have to be respected: they are animated by the essence of what makes us humans.

That does not mean one should make a cult of them. And the cult around many a climber has irritated me over the years. Yes, when risk takers go too far, and misrepresent the risks they take to the youth, thus making a lot of victims, they have to be cut down to size. In that sense Dean Potter, and other like him, some of them personal friends, have irritated me. I think climbing is dangerous enough to not overdo it. Most of my friends died climbing.

Wingsuit flying is even more dangerous: around 5% of wingsuit fliers die, every year.  However, the philosophy of wingsuit flying holds together.

Indeed, I am a climber too, and I have free soloed (mostly by force, during mountaineering, because it was safer than the alternative). I have observed, during a long climbing career, that those who solo too much, or at too high a level, die. They don’t necessarily die climbing: they get so used to cheat death free soloing, that they take inconsiderate risks in other activities such as driving, or BASE jumping (indeed). So I view the hard line taken by Dr. Paul Preuss, a fanatical free soloist and with hundreds of first ascents as stupid and criminal. A free soloing Preuss died in 1913, at 27, after falling off a thousand feet. Preuss was a genius, but he went too far.

I use to climb a lot in U.S. National Parks, especially Yosemite. However, over times, those parks turned into training grounds for the police state. Once, long ago, after a hard climb in Rocky National Park, Colorado, our ropes got cut by rock fall on the descent. We had to spend the night at 13,000 feet, freezing, and finished the descent the next day. By the time we made it out to the trailhead, hours away, a ranger was there to arrest us for staying out without an overnight permit (we had only a permit to climb that particular mountain).

In Yosemite, entire casual, or cheap campsites were closed, while the Valley itself became a city, complete with judge and jail. Rangers go about with infrared detectors to arrest those who would be out in the woods at night. And so on.

There is little doubt that forcing parachutists to jump with low visibility, or worrying first about arrests, is a factor increasing the probability of dying.

Why then have the National Parks, and a lot of the wilderness, in the USA, be transformed into a police state? Well, precisely because, so doing, people are trained to live in a police state.

A particularly comic aspect of this happened when the government of the USA ran out of money, and closed all the National Parks.

I came for one of my mountain runs, starting at the end of a dirt road where there is never anybody. For this sort of long, solitary runs, I get dropped somewhere, and run to somewhere else, where I get picked up (it’s more challenging than climbing, these days).

But that period, the Parks were closed. And to make sure that the Parks would stay closed, the government had sent plenty of supplementary law enforcement (so the government spent more money, because it wanted to spend less money!). A runner had to run in the woods to escape the Rangers’ SUVs, and then play hide and seek with a horse patrol, which had been especially sent in pursuit. Those days I saw plenty of rangers in places where one never sees anyone (let alone rangers), on access dirt roads to various Parks. Many people, even families, with children, got actually chased down and arrested for daring to penetrate their National Parks, on their habitual dominical hikes.

What was taught by Big Police by this barely credible repression? That in the USA, the law is hard, but it is the law, and humanity is nothing, if it stands in the way of the law. So Dean Potter died, flying at dusk, and many in law enforcement in the USA rejoice, and so do their fellow travelers. Because it reminds all that people are nothing, and orders, everything. National Park do not teach nature first. They teach the police state, first. That is considered much more important, nowadays.

There has been recently some indignation about the methods of the police in the USA. Racist allegations were made. However, those familiar with the police in the USA know that racism is not the fundamental problem. Some of the officers indicted for violence were actually “colored” (to use an old American expression). Police, in the USA, is very well paid, and associates with the rich, and the order they gave rise to. But not just that.

The Romans used to say: ”The Law Is Hard, But It Is the Law!” The Americans say the same. Brutal application of “justice” and the law is what holds the USA together.

(Obama himself has perceived this, and just cracked down, deciding to forbid the police access to some military equipment.)

325 million citizens of the USA are taught to toe the line, and there is no better place to do so, in a semi-playful way, than in National Parks. And it’s getting worse, in parallel, and related to, the mercantilization of the Parks. That’s why I don’t go there anymore.

Increasing authoritarianism is multifaceted: this week, all my comments to the New York Times, but one, were censored. I cannot even imagine why. But the general trend is clear: if one has something really interesting to say, don’t try to say it on the New York Times: this is the propaganda piece of the pseudo-fair. (Most interesting commenters have disappeared  from there. However, The Guardian, and other British publications publish my comments. So does the… Wall Street Journal.)

Increasing authoritarianism is a slow suffocation of the human spirit. Resisting it, our essence. As Jefferson, third president of the USA pointed out, when a law is bad, it’s not just our right, but our duty, not to obey it.

Patrice Ayme

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18 Responses to “Death By Police State: The Case Of Dean Potter”

  1. Jdanforth Says:

    jdanforth to Tyranosopher

    It is not just in America’s national parks that “the police state first” is the core principle! You should see the police deployments used to prevent people from jumping off the Coney Island pier in NYC. After witnessing this phenomenon first-hand, I looked it up on the Internet, and found an article comparing it to Checkpoint Charlie.


  2. Frederic R. Pamp Says:

    Frederic R. Pamp to Tyranosopher:
    There you go again: ‘forcing’ people to do something dangerous because it’s also illegal. The lack of perspective among the climbing/gliding community of adrenaline junkies is remarkable. Saying that reasonable rules in national parks make the US a ‘police state’ is equally remarkable.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      The policy of National Parks or National Forests in the USA is to train the populace for the police state. The particular case of base jumping is a tiny example of the general harassment, as I explained. To mandate rangers to hunt people at 2 am, as I have seen it done, is obsessive. Requiring written permits, often denied, for all too many things, another example.


  3. Pennyrile Says:

    Pennyrile to Tyranosopher:

    Tyranosopher, there are vast swathes of public land available for you to do nearly whatever you damned well please, including BASE.

    Yosemite and other parks are over-crowded and in danger of being loved to death, which is why so many rules are in place. Yes, sometimes the rules are applied too overzealously – believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of this – and the shutdown was a nightmare, but by and large they’re completely sensible. But in the outdoors community there are large numbers of us who feel they are Special and should be exempt from the rules designed for the common folk.

    And there is zero evidence the flying at dusk is what caused Dean’s death.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Tyranosopher to Pennyrile:
      I explained in detail that the closure of the parks was an occasion to send law enforcement where it never goes, thus showing that the ulterior motive was not saving money, but training for blind, abject obedience to the sovereign (in this case my friend Obama).

      There are catabatic winds towards dusk in the mountains, and, in particular in Yosemite (where I have climbed, hiked and run for decades, before it got overrun by mercantilism and the police…) That clearly was a contributing factor (they flew at 7:25 pm)


    • gmax Says:

      Hey Pennyrife:
      There is zero evidence that flying at dusk while blindfolded causes death. Think about it. That will help you to estoppe bring so silly. Maybe


  4. Wubble Says:

    Wubble to Tyranosopher
    Is it a wonder the civilised world finds American’s odd?

    There’s a reason it was illegal.

    You do realise (well probably not) you are about as far from a police state as it is possible to be – but with such a poor education system that idiocy is allowed to breed rampantly as it does.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Tyranosopher to Wubble:
      The definition of police state varies according to time and place. You have to compare Yosemite now to what it was 40 years ago. By this criterion, it has certainly become a police state.

      The state policing of national parks has been on an ascending trajectory. One has also to compare to the comparable, in particular France and Switzerland, where various activities in the mountains, including BASE, are not viewed as an occasion to deploy uniforms, laws and arrests.

      The lack of education is also, of course, the very skeleton of the police state: a lot of money for law enforcement, and arrest the dangerous Dean Potter, and his free flying, and thus, as a consequence and an excuse, little money for schools.


  5. brodix Says:


    The very meaning of risk is to push against one’s limits, even those applied by other humans. Without limitations, life gets very nebulous. Energy without structure. We are defined by what limits us and limited by what defines us.
    I had a cousin who was into climbing, but mostly skiing;
    After all he did, he was killed in a car accident, when another car hit his, while it was broken down.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      John: Sorry about your cousin. As I explained at some point, individuals who (learn to) take a lot of (life endangering) risks (say by climbing) learn to live more dangerously, so they tend to die more readily.

      Although I have no statistics, I know of many climbers who died accidentally in apparently non-climbing related accidents. They are probably just a bit more casual about risk than other human beings.

      I actually had a climbing friend, a chemist, who nearly died after sleeping in his car in a sort of rest area in the big Wild West, and being hit by another car while sleeping. After that he was in diapers for years. He keeps on recovering, and now climbs again at a good level (although not at his old stellar level). He is on permanent disability (he was also a chemistry teacher for the government)…

      I know several climbers (only one was driving, John Bachar, and he fell meanwhile, free soloing) who were involved in horrific car accidents.


  6. brodix Says:


    There gets to be a point we all know a bunch of people who passed on. My wife died just getting the mail and hit at dusk. As well as an assistant of her’s who was killed a few months previously in a minor crash, when she wasn’t wearing seat belts and the airbag ruptured her aorta.
    My uncle had been a paratrooper in WW2 and was killed pulling out of a parking lot several years later.
    I was down 5 cousins by thirty. 2 from illness, two from accidents and one was a combination.
    I’m 55 and my mother’s father died at 55. My father died at 69, so I have spent a good bit of effort trying to see to the other side. I think the reason no details are apparent, is because death is the very negation of form. Yet the while element of awareness manifests form and it gives it definition, form, in all its forms, is transient. So I have learned to appreciate that life is transient and to skate over the sort of things most people spend their lives bogged down in.
    So like I was saying, its the things which limit us, also define us. we are the forms we grow from pushing out and up, then life pushes past us and we fall back into it.
    Not to go into them, but I’ve had enough strange things happen, to think this all is a lot deeper than our reductionistic materialism will account for.


  7. gmax Says:

    Lots of people accidentally dying: Potter, Nash and his wife… Even if we did not age, we would still die…

    What do you think about Nash’s madness? He said mathematicians HAVE to be crazy to produce good math, something about math being divine in their eyes…


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