"On the highline my thoughts are simple and clear," says pioneering rock climber, BASE jumper, and wing suit flyer Dean Potter. “Fundamental needs shine through the mental clutter. I focus completely on my breath, my connection with the line, and making it safely to the other side.” This highline was set up on the summit of Cathedral Peak, in Yosemite National Park, at an elevation of 10,911 feet. Though Potter is untethered, he is in control. “I’ve always been a ‘free soloist.’ Whatever I do, I long to be untethered and free,” notes Potter. “I am completely confident with my ability to catch the line if I were to fall. I’ve practiced this catch move successfully for the past 19 years.”
This shot is just one spectacular scene from “The Man Who Can Fly,” an episode of Explorer airing Sunday, February 12, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. The show captures Potter’s quest for true human flight, with first feats in free soloing and wing suit flying in Yosemite, California, and British Columbia, Canada. The episode examines Potter’s unique blend of daring, determination, and pursuit of the unknown.
Getting the Shot
“Hands down this was the most complicated photo I’ve ever taken,” says photographer Mikey Schaefer. “It started a year earlier with Dean [Potter] seeing the moon rise over Cathedral Peak and noticing that it would make a great shot.“ A bit skeptical, Schaefer used an app called The Photographer Ephemeris to locate where the moon would rise from a relative location. “I went out the night before the shoot with a GPS and lined everything up. Sure enough, the moon rose exactly where I thought it would,” says Schaefer.
In Tuolumne Meadows, Schaefer set himself on an adjacent ridge from Potter, about 1 and 1/4 miles away, and began shooting at 7:30 p.m. “Thankfully the light was absolutely perfect, as it was just ten minutes before the direct sunlight would be off of Dean. This allowed me to balance the exposure evenly between Dean and the moon, as there weren’t too many stops difference between the two,” recalls Schaefer.
Schaefer worked throughout the filming of the show, from rigging ropes to operating video cameras, all while shooting still images as well. The image of Potter against the moon stands out from the rest of the shoot. “The whole scenario seemed crazy,” Schaefer says. ”I was over a mile away from my subject, who was walking a tightrope with certain death consequences if he fell. I was running through the woods with $20,000 worth of camera gear, making the most unique photo of my career. I’m still a bit amazed that I managed to stick the shot.”
This image was captured using a Canon 5D Mark II and an 800mm, f/5.6 lens with a 2X doubler.
"I better stomp this!" This was on the mind of freeskier JT Holmes before he launched off the "Drifter," a 35-foot cliff in Squaw Valley’s Silverado Canyon, during a shoot for the upcoming Warren Miller film, Like There’s No Tomorrow. Holmes has been doing such stunts for ski flicks since he was 15 years old. "The Drifter offers a clear view from takeoff to landing—if you stop above it. But I was skiing for film and for fun, so I came in nonstop, blind," recalls Holmes, who grew up and still lives in Squaw Valley. "I was psyched. I had just become airborne to find that my trajectory was good, and my vision of the landing was only partly obscured by the falling snow."
Even after seeking out the world’s best backcountry, Holmes says nowhere compares to his home turf. “Squaw Valley offers the best skiing experience and community. The layout creates a great vibe on the mountain …” Holmes says. “On top of that, we tend to enjoy mild temperatures. I am not so keen on skiing when it is cold outside.”
Getting the Shot "When I get the call on the radio that he is ready, I’ve got about ten seconds before JT drops into the line," says photographer Alex O’Brien. "This is the point when I take a deep breath and steady myself." To get this shot, O’Brien was positioned directly across a small valley at the same elevation as the cliff, which gave him a good perspective. It also showed where Holmes was coming from and where he was headed, which is something O’Brien always tries to communicate in action photos. He chose a Nikon d700 handheld with a 70-200mm lens for the conditions: "I use this lightweight setup when I am shooting a subject that requires me to cover a lot of ground in a day."