WASHINGTON - Extreme athletes mourned the loss of a celebrated BASE jumper Monday and wondered if a ban on the sport in US national parks led him to take a major risk that contributed to his death.
Dean Potter, 43 and fellow BASE jumper Graham Hunt, 29, were killed Saturday during a wingsuit jump made at sunset from Taft Point in California's Yosemite National Park.
National Park Service rangers found their bodies - and unopened parachutes - on Sunday at mid-day following a helicopter search of the area.
They had apparently hit a rocky outcrop while flying through a narrow gap in the rugged mountain terrain sometime around dusk, according to US media reports.
The 22-year Yosemite resident was one of the most famous free climbers, highliners and BASE jumpers of his generation, and a winner of National Geographic's Adventurer of the Year honour.
On his official Facebook page - where he described himself as "artist, adventurer, athlete" - extreme sports enthusiasts from around the world posted tributes to his fearlessness and courage.
"He was a great guy, the kindest, gentlest person I've ever known," Florida-based wingsuit designer Tom Uragallo told AFP. "It's a total shock."
Yosemite has been a focal point of BASE jumping since 1978 when jumps off El Capitan helped raised the public profile of the sport.
But because it now is banned by the National Park Service, practitioners risk leaping at dusk to avoid Taser-carrying park rangers who might arrest them and seize their gear, Uragallo said.
Danger in the dark
"It's the biggest problem," he said. "When I do something as extreme (as BASE jumping), I don't want to jump in the dark."
National Park Service headquarters in Washington did not respond to an email request for comment.
BASE jumping is already one of the most dangerous of all sports, with 250 recorded fatalities as of February, the HealthResearchFunding.org blog says.
That figure does not break down BASE jumps using wingsuits or conventional parachutes. (Those using wingsuits typically carry at least one backup parachute in case of emergency.)
According to a 1995-2005 study in Norway, the odds of dying while BASE jumping is one in 2,317 jumps, compared to one in about 100,000 jumps for skydiving, adds the British health care blog Bandolier Journal.
Uragallo, with more than 1,000 wingsuit flights under his belt, personally jumped Taft Point the last time he saw Potter, in the summer of 2014, shortly after sunset, and he likened it to jumping into an abyss.
"You're jumping into a crack and then you've got to turn left out of this crack, and then you have to fly out and then you go fly around the rocks - it's a very complicated dive," he said.
"And to do it in the dark? ... I did a terrible job because I was nervous as hell, jumping in the dark."
California-based skydiver and wingsuit flyer Taya Weiss, with 5,500 jumps to her name, said Potter campaigned vigorously against the Yosemite ban.
When she learned of his death, she said the hour at which Potter jumped at Taft Point was one of the first questions to cross her mind.
'Not going away'
She agreed that US restrictions on BASE jumping - compared to more lenient policies in Europe - represented an unneccessary extra layer of risk.
"The ban on BASE jumping in Yosemite is never going to make it safer, and it's also not going to make it go away," she told AFP.
Weiss added: "Dean was not only a pioneer and very well known. He was just a nice, down to earth, very relatable person and he inspired a lot of people."
While saddened by his death, and that of a close skydiving friend last month, Weiss is still forging ahead with ambitious plans for a record-setting formation leap by 100 wingsuit flyers over southern California later this year.