Delicate Arch climb has park chief red in the face
MOAB - For almost 12 years, Dean Potter studied the tiny cracks and crevices in Delicate Arch, searching out potential fingerholds and footholds that could aid his ascent of Utah's most famous icon.
On Sunday morning, Potter, a professional climber known for his speed and agility, put that research to the test, successfully scaling the 45-foot monument "free solo" - without the aid of ropes and other climbing gear. But the 34-year-old part-time Moab resident's achievement doesn't sit well with National Park Service officials and some fellow climbing enthusiasts.
"I'm very sorry to see someone do this to Utah's most visible icon," said the park's superintendent, Laura Joss. "I would just ask if they think it's a good idea to encourage this."
Potter believed that as long as he used no fixed anchors and did not damage the rock, he was free to climb Delicate Arch.
Not so, says Joss.
It was an idea that Potter, a climbing ambassador for outdoor-gear company Patagonia, could not get out of his head.
"For the past four years or so, I've been going up there kind of obsessively and looking at it in every possible light," Potter said Tuesday. "When I realized I was going to try this, I started going out to it more and more frequently."
Feeling his way along the rock face early Sunday morning, Potter inched his way to the top of Delicate Arch, stood on the flat, wide shelf and looked out over the Moab Valley.
"This was one of the most beautiful climbs I've ever done," Potter said. "For me, it was just an overwhelming experience, as if the formation was vibrating with energy."
Once atop the arch, Potter lowered a string to retrieve a climbing rope to make his descent. He says he climbed Delicate Arch "several times in a two-hour period." Even one time is too many, Joss said.
"The intent of our [regulations] is that all named arches are closed to climbing," Joss said. "If the compendium is found not to be sufficient, we will work with our solicitor posthaste to put a closure on Delicate Arch immediately."
Arches allows climbing in some areas, and Joss said that in the past climbers have respected the rules, which include prohibitions on climbing the park's most famous rock formations.
Matt Moore, owner of Desert Highlights, a climbing outfitter in Moab, said he has always understood that park regulations prohibit climbing on Delicate Arch.
"Probably every climber looks at it and thinks it would be great to climb Delicate Arch," Moore said. "On the one hand, it was probably a great ascent for Dean, but at the same time, I can't condone it because it is against park regulations."
Patagonia's publicity department initially alerted the media to Potter's ascent, but indicated it may back off on further promotions after learning that Potter may have broken park service regulations.
His Delicate Arch ascent marks the second time in as many years that Potter has come to the attention of Arches officials. The park recently changed its regulations to prohibit "slacklining" - a sport in which flexible nylon rope is stretched between two points, often over a steep fissure, and walked like a tightrope - after Potter slacklined the Three Gossips, another well-known rock formation in the park, Joss said.
Potter said he took great care to leave Delicate Arch undisturbed, and he is unapologetic about undertaking the challenge.
"I am very conscientious about following nature's rules. I respected the arch to the fullest. I did no more than blow a little dust off a few handholds," Potter said. "What has our world come to if we cannot join nature by climbing one of nature's most beautiful features?"