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Wingsuit flier thought he could manage the risk, avoid death

In this Monday, Nov. 15, 2010 photo provided by Tomas Ovalle, extreme athlete Dean Potter stands in front of El Capitan after a speed climbing attempt up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif. Potter, renowned for his daring and sometimes rogue climbs and BASE jumps, and his climbing partner Graham Hunt were killed Saturday, May 16, 2015 after jumping from a 7,500-foot promontory called Taft Point in Yosemite National Park. (AP Photo/Tomas Ovalle)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Extreme athlete Dean Potter faced the risk of flying off the vertical rock walls he was famous for scaling with little more than a parachute on his back and thin fabric wings.

Just two weeks ago, the man who talked of transforming “dying into flying,” had posted a photo of himself soaring just above the treetops with enough space to avoid disaster.

“I don’t fool myself thinking I’m any better than my fallen brothers and sisters but I do stack the odds in my favor,” Potter wrote on Instagram.

Potter lived on the outer edge of extreme sports and died Saturday pushing the envelope in his beloved Yosemite National Park when he and a friend leaped off Taft Point, some 3,500 feet above the valley floor and crashed into rocks during a dusk flight in bat-like suits.

The deaths of Potter, 43, and Graham Hunt, 29, were a stunning loss and another reminder of the narrow margin for error in the death-defying pursuit of wingsuit flying, a more dangerous offshoot of BASE jumping — parachuting off buildings, antennas, spans (such as bridges) and Earth.

Potter and Hunt were experienced manipulating their suits for a thrilling 100 mph ride just inches from rock walls and treetops before deploying their parachutes.

Like anyone who chases the rush, they also knew the hazards of a wrong move or gust of wind.

“BASE jumping is the most exciting, amazing experience in the world but it also kills way too many people and way too many people who are really thoughtful and calculated about it,” said Chris McNamara, who quit jumping after a friend’s death and knows of many casualties.

Just last year, Potter helped recover the body of a close friend who died jumping in Zion National Park in Utah.

Parachuting has been controversial in Yosemite since two men launched off El Capitan in 1966 and were battered when winds blew them back into the cliff.

After a brief experiment permitting jumping in 1980, Yosemite made the pursuit illegal, as it is in all national parks. Jumpers caught are fined and their equipment is confiscated.

In 1999, after a jumper who had landed safely drowned in the Merced River while running from rangers, supporters staged a protest jump from El Cap.

People below watched in horror when Jan Davis’ chute didn’t open and she plunged to her death. Controversy was further stoked because Davis, 60, had borrowed the chute from someone else because she didn’t want her parachute confiscated.

Skydiving instructor Brian Germain said if flying was legal in the parks, jumpers would know the flight lines of the terrain to better avoid accidents.

“You have too much adrenaline because you know you might get arrested,” said Germain, who uses wingsuits in skydives from airplanes but not BASE jumping, because it is too dangerous. “The legality issue is probably what killed them.”

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 Zion and one at Glacier in Montana.

Potter’s pursuits have cost him valuable sponsorship, including Clif Bar, which withdrew support for risks it couldn’t support.

He held onto Adidas and other sponsors, even after he packed his miniature Australian cattle dog, Whisper, on his back for jumps criticized by animal rights groups. The star of the documentary, “When Dogs Fly,” was not with him Saturday.

“These activities are extremely dangerous, it is inevitable that people will get killed, but that doesn’t make them any less valid as activities,” said Nancy Bouchard, spokeswoman for sponsor Five Ten footwear. “In the back of our minds, we always know something terrible could happen, but that didn’t and doesn’t diminish our feelings for Dean.”

Potter, who was originally from New Hampshire, set speed climbing records and in 2009 set a record for completing the longest BASE jump, from the Eiger North Face in Switzerland, staying in flight in a wingsuit nearly 3 minutes.

“I got the impression that it was not easy being Dean Potter,” said author Daniel Duane, who climbed with Potter and has written about the sport in Yosemite. “He was constantly trying to find these wildly eye-catching, dramatically beautiful places to do these things.”

In an Instagram posting three weeks ago, Potter pondered how he had managed to survive. He said he wanted to be free like a raven.

“Somehow I’ve made a life of dipping my toes in icy water, feeling the lift of fresh clean air and the pull of planets overhead,” he wrote. “Sure I lack a lot but it’s equally for sure that I #FlyFee.”

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Smith reported from Fresno. Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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