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Elite wingsuit flier thought he could "stack the odds" and avoid death

LOS ANGELES -- Extreme athlete Dean Potter knew the risks 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 above the treetops with just 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, who lived on the outer edge of extreme sports, died Saturday in his beloved Yosemite National Park when he and a friend leaped off Taft Point, 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.

Dean Potter receives his award for World Alternative Sportsman of the Year on May 20, 2003 during the Laureus World Sports Awards held at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco. David Cannon, Getty Images

Potter and Hunt were experienced in manipulating their suits for a thrilling 100 mph ride just inches from rock walls and treetops before deploying their parachutes. They also knew the hazards of a wrong move or a gust of wind.

"BASE jumping is the most exciting, amazing experience in the world but it also kills way too many people," said Chris McNamara, who quit jumping after a friend's death.

Just last year, Potter helped recover the body of a close friend who died while 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 U.S. national parks. Jumpers who are caught are fined and their equipment is confiscated.

JT Holmes' "birdman" days

In 2009, "60 Minutes" producers mounted a small expedition with high-definition cameras to follow a group of these extreme athletes to Norway to see how -- and try to understand why -- they "fly." (Watch video at left).

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 better.

"You have too much adrenaline because you know you might get arrested," said Germain, who uses wingsuits in skydives from airplanes but not while BASE jumping.

At least five people have died in BASE jumping accidents in U.S. national parks since January 2014, including the most recent deaths at Yosemite, said Jeffrey Olson, a National Park Service spokesman.

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.

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.

In an Instagram posting three weeks ago, Potter appeared happy with his life.

"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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