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Patagonia apologizes to industry, Potter apologizes for climb

One month following the Dean Potter climb of Delicate Arch, a climb that put Potter and one of his sponsors, Patagonia, squarely in a spotlight of negative energy and attention, an apology has been issued -- from both Potter and Patagonia.

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One month following the Dean Potter climb of Delicate Arch, a climb that put Potter and one of his sponsors, Patagonia, squarely in a spotlight of negative energy and attention, an apology has been issued — from both Potter and Patagonia.

The statement that was sent to SNEWS® from Patagonia reads:

Since May 7th, we at Patagonia have had much discussion and debate about where the company stands on Dean’s controversial climb. Historically, we have always stood by our Ambassadors and their actions. Our Ambassadors are a part of Patagonia’s close-knit family, and we trust them to act in ways that they deem responsible. However, over the past few weeks, our internal conversations have enlightened us to the reality of this unfortunate situation. We strongly believe that Dean’s actions warrant a public apology.

Here at Patagonia, we also want to extend an apology to you. We apologize for not responding more quickly and decisively. We make no excuses, but in explanation — Patagonia is always extremely hesitant to publicly denounce a long-standing friend and Ambassador. Before we responded to our customers and the media, we needed to hear his side of the story. We needed details. We needed to speak at length with Dean, in person.

At the end of the day, we do feel Dean’s climb of Delicate Arch was inappropriate. Patagonia had no prior knowledge of his climb, nor did we “sponsor” his activities. Sadly, his actions compromised access to wild places and generated an inordinate amount of negativity in the climbing community and beyond. We asked Dean to write a letter about his solo and the ensuing maelstrom. His sentiments below best describe where he has landed on the issue. It’s his, and our, final word.

From Dean Potter:

When I climbed Delicate Arch I certainly didn’t foresee the controversy that has ensued. I didn’t think the climb would do anything but inspire people to get out of their cars and experience the wild with all of their senses. I was wrong. I am sincerely unhappy about climbers’ loss of freedom caused by my ascent. More, I am deeply hurt over the split this has put in our climbing community. I want to explain my actions, bring the facts to light, and hope that all of us can come to see the good in one another.

First, I admit it…I am a climber. I feel compelled to climb most everything I see, and that included Delicate Arch. To me, all rocks are sacred. When I climbed to the top of the Delicate Arch it was my highest priority to do no harm to the rock or its surroundings. I climbed the Arch in the highest and purest way I could, and I left it the same way I found it. But I failed to foresee how Delicate Arch, for so many, is also an untouchable symbol of our delicate relationship to nature. It is also a symbol for me, but where I saw it as a chance to commune with the arch through expressing my own art of climbing, others saw it as a violation of what they also feel is sacred. Again, I had no intention of doing something that would invoke such feelings, and for those who do feel that way, I apologize because that certainly was not my intention.Others have accused me of climbing the arch as a publicity stunt. As a professional athlete, recognition of what I do is part of the job. Most disturbing of all are those accusing me of responsibility for the rope scars that have been documented conclusively on the top of the arch. I can certainly understand why someone would conclude they were caused by my ascent, but I believe the true answer lies in the details of my ascent, and the possibility that there were other ascents previous to mine. I have recently seen the close-up photos of the grooves at the top of the Arch and can state with certainty that my actions did not cause them. I was very careful to place my rope in a natural groove in the rock. Since my climb I have learned from first-hand witnesses that in the past at least two other parties have lobbed ropes over the Arch and jumared up. Perhaps those parties left the grooves. I know that I didn’t.None of my sponsors, including Patagonia, has ever influenced me to climb anything. Again, I am sorry that the climb has negatively affected so many people in our community of climbers, and I certainly am not ignoring the views expressed in the Internet chat rooms and in the press. Peoples’ opinions are important to me and I value others’ views, and I have been troubled at the negativity this has stirred up. I saw the climb as communing with nature; somehow, others have seen it as exploiting nature. The National Park Service has strengthened rules about climbing in Arches National Park, and people have blamed me for the loss of access. I sincerely regret any loss of access…anywhere, anytime. Let me add that I strongly advise anyone thinking of climbing the Delicate Arch not to try. First, the climb is now unambiguously illegal. Second, the climbing community and the Park Service should be friends and work together to protect the environment and climbing access. Third, the Delicate Arch really is fragile and repeated climbing would inevitably cause damage.

Finally, I apologize to Patagonia for the injury this has caused the company and the brand. Patagonia is sincerely and deeply committed to their mission of using business to provide solutions to the environmental crisis, and regretfully, in the view of many of their customers, this has been compromised by my ascent.

SNEWS® View: It has been a damming month for Potter, and unfortunately in many ways, for Patagonia too. Potter has finally admitted what we all knew — his climb was as much about publicity as it was about simply climbing for the sake of “communing with the arch.” The apology by Potter is a huge first step, but if it is full exoneration he seeks, then he must, in our view, do what we suggested in our first SNEWS® article (click here to read) on the climb — donate time and money to the park assisting with protection and restoration, and to the Access Fund to further promote responsible climbing AND access.

We applaud Patagonia for, finally, doing the right thing. Potter would never have apologized, we believe, had it not been for Patagonia exerting pressure. We know that internally, the Potter climb and what to do in response to it was a vexing issue for the company management and employees, with some wanting outright condemnation, others wanting middle ground, and others feeling that Potter and the right to climb should be supported simply because of the company’s climbing heritage.

Ultimately, what Potter did was not only violate a trust with other climbers but also a bond with the public, an understanding with land managers, and an amazing lack of respect for a national symbol.

From all of the reports we have read, most recently in the excellent story in Outside magazine, the vast majority of climbers assumed that climbing Delicate Arch was off-limits. Most seemed to fully embrace the idea and reasoning behind the prohibition. Why not Potter? As a Patagonia athlete, is he not supposed to reflect his sponsor’s long-established and highly regarded environmental creed and example? That he advocates clean climbing and leaving no trace on his climbs in this case was not enough. Like it or not, Potter did leave a very visible trace on his climb of Delicate Arch, as he does in any climb that someone of his skill and stature needs to realize is unavoidable — publicity as a result of the climb. He set an example and precedent that, by his actions, others could follow. It is the long-lasting trace of publicity, of setting a precedent, that troubled SNEWS® most of all.

It is our belief that some places in this world need to be protected, simply because they cannot withstand the impact of multiple users. One climber, yes…many, no. One hiker, yes…many hikers, no. We would imagine that the majority of the outdoor industry believes, as we do, that there are places on this earth that are sacred in spirit and in need of protection either by ensuring the location remains as secret as possible, or by regulation or understanding that the spiritual essence of the place, the cultural importance of the site is greater than the individual need to exploit it. Delicate Arch is such a place.

We have also always believed that it is not so much the mistake that matters, but what one does with the information learned. Potter has a huge opportunity to demonstrate by action, not just words, that he has learned from a very large mistake. Ultimately, we hope, he will be judged and remembered by what he has learned, and by what he does to right the wrong.

What do you think Potter should do, if anything, beyond the apology printed here? Click here to voice your opinion in our SNEWS® Chat set up just for this topic — it is private and viewable only by SNEWS® subscribers, so feel free to open up the discussion and bare your soul.