Even after hundreds of skydives and base jumps, Steph Davis says, stepping to the edge of that cliff still brings up a bubble of fear. But she’s spent her life pushing the line for fear that holds you back and the freedom that lies beyond it. So despite that fear — or perhaps because it’s still there to study and explore — she base jumps off that cliff, stepping into the abyss with a single parachute she packed herself and no back-up determined to take freedom over fear.
“I think love and fear are the strongest emotions, but the thing about fear is it can just stop you from doing the things you want to do because there’s just such a strong instinct to avoid fear that a lot of times we’ll make decisions based on that instinct or feeling, but then in the long run we look and we see we’re limiting our freedom more and more,” she says. “So for that reason I’ve always been really interested in fear.”
Davis has been a climber for 20 years, and was the first woman to free-climb Salathé Wall in Yosemite National Park and to free-solo the Diamond on Longs Peak. But after her now former husband Dean Potter made a controversial ascent up Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in May 2006 that ultimately cost both of them a key sponsor, Davis saw her world, her climbing career and her marriage crumbling. After hunting a reclusive Potter down in Yosemite for an encounter that left her convinced there was no fixing their relationship, she started driving east, passing her Moab house, a favored climbing area near Rifle and on toward the Front Range. She landed — or, more appropriately, began taking flight — in Boulder, crashing on a friend’s couch before she rented a place for herself and her dog, Fletch, in Eldorado Springs, and spent most of a summer at the Mile-Hi Skydiving Center in Longmont, jumping out of airplanes. When the time came to move back to her home in Moab, where there wasn’t a similar skydiving outfit, she had to look for an alternative, and the logical — if the word can be applied to a decision that landed on an incredibly risky undertaking — answer became to learn to base jump from the cliffs she had climbed.
“You’re never not going to be scared. I’m scared every time I do a base jump,” Davis says. “Every time you get close to the edge, you feel it, whether it’s just a little bit and you just think ‘OK, I feel a little intensity’ or you’re actually scared. You always feel that. The thing is to figure out how to manage it and make that sure it’s not controlling you physically because that’s the only time there’s a problem with fear — when it’s kind of handicapping you physically, but the fact that it makes you extra alert, extra cautious, really aware of everything, that’s really important.”
Those events, and how they impacted her life and her climbing career, are recounted in her latest book Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love, and One Amazing Dog.
Davis with her dog | Photo by Tommy Chandler
Before the first time she stepped to the open door of an airplane and jumped out, 13,000 feet above the ground, falling was the last thing Davis wanted to think about. A climber, particularly a free-soloist, does her best to keep even the word “fall” from entering her mind. But exploring that fear and finding the common threads that link skydiving or base jumping with climbing provided rich fodder for her — it was among the experiences that opened the doors to her deciding to free-solo the Diamond.
“When I was younger I thought, ‘OK, if I’m afraid of something then I really should do that thing because that’s how I overcome that fear’ and for a while I just had that as my bottom line operating instinct,” Davis says. “But then, after a while, I realized when you’re too scared you just don’t function at your best. So there are times when you have to back off from something, and usually when you have to back off from something there are some reasons, and the reasons start to stack up.
“One of those reasons can simply be, I’m too scared, I can’t get control of it and I can’t function well. Then you have to back off and figure out how to deal with that and either try again in a different format where you’re not going to be so controlled by the fear, or really step it down. But I think the problem that I see a lot — that I’ve experienced and I also see in others — is that a lot of time people have this, maybe, stereotype that you should just grab the bull by the horns if you’re scared, just rip off the Band- Aid, jump off the high dive, just go for it.
“But I think that the right way is a lot more of a step-by-step process. And I think a lot of times when you see people do extreme scary things, what you’re seeing is the final step in the process and a lot of times there’s been a lot more steps to get there.”
In climbing, that can mean doing research, planning and practicing a route. Before Davis free-soloed the Casual Route (5.10a) on the Diamond, she climbed the route using gear and taking the time to memorize the moves through the crux sequence, setting minimal gear to keep from feeling too reliant on that protection.
But there’s no real way to top-rope a skydive or a base jump.
“Jumping out of an airplane kind of is the baby step for base jumping,” Davis says and laughs, “and that’s the funny thing about skydiving and jumping in general. There’s baby steps within it, but at the end of the day, when you need to jump out of the airplane, you’ve got to jump out of the airplane.”
The groundwork comes more in the form of classes and training done before even boarding the plane.
“A lot of times, I think, part of the preparation for doing something scary is doing all your homework and making sure when the moment comes you can say ‘I know everything, I’ve studied everything, I’ve prepared myself as much as I could possibly be prepared so I should be confident because of that,’” Davis says.
Base jumping at River Road near Moab, Utah | Photo by Mario Richard
Recognizing the difference between fear that’s ready to be pushed through and fear that needs to be a reason to turn back just comes from a natural sense — as least for Davis.
“I think you know,” she says. “If you’re there and you’re feeling a lot of anxiety and the question mark, because it’s always like, the fear is, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen?’ right? So if you’re feeling all this doubt and anxiety, and you’re thinking, well, I’m prepared, the conditions are right, everything is in line on the physical level, now I’m a little uncertain because I’ve never done this before, so that’s why I’m scared. If it’s just that, you can kind of talk yourself through it, but sometimes you’re so anxious that you’re actually physically seized up and actually can’t function, well then that’s when it’s not going to work.”
In climbing, the battle with fear can manifest itself so palpably that it’s no longer possible to do the moves of the climb and make progress up improbably small holds or inhospitably small cracks.
“It’s something you know you can do, but you can’t do it only because you’re scared,” Davis says. “And then you have to start working through that, and then it’s not so hard to see that that translates to daily life as well.”
But skydiving or base jumping strips down most of the questions about the physical ability to get the task done, and it’s just about mental control.
“The really amazing thing about jumping is that it’s so much less physically demanding than climbing that it almost gets completely boiled down to fear in order to do things that involve jumping,” Davis says. “As you get more involved in skydiving and base jumping, there’s a lot more body awareness and body control in those sports, so there is a lot of technical ability that you start to develop as you progress. But in the very beginning — anybody can jump out of the door of an airplane, so it’s just a question if you can let your mind do that, so that’s really interesting.”
Davis lives and works in Moab with her husband, Mario Richard, and the two run an adventure-sports guiding company, Moab Base Adventures, which includes tandem base jumping along with crack climbing clinics in their guiding services.
“We’re taking people who have never done a base jump and taking them on a base jump, and we’ve met some really amazing people because it’s all these people that are really intense, passionate people, and they want to experience that,” Davis says. “It’s just been totally amazing to meet all these different people and to see people deal with their feelings of fear, because that’s why they’re coming to do it mostly. They want to have that feeling of standing at that edge and being able to step off. It’s just really intriguing to see everybody’s different processes for being able to take that step, and I’m really impressed that people do it, actually, because I know how it feels to be at the edge of a cliff for the first time and step off it, and it’s really intense.”
Between guiding and climbing and base jumping from new desert towers, Davis made use of time in the passenger seat on road trips with Richard, plus a solo retreat to Rifle to spend hours alone in the back of her truck with her laptop, to write the book.
Davis will return to the Front Range to talk about and sign her latest book at the Boulder Book Store on April 16 and at the Tattered Cover on 16th Street in Denver on April 18. It’ll be nice to come to talk about the book here, she says, because Colorado and the people here made such a difference in her adding skydiving and base jumping to the list of activities that keeps her busy.
“So much of the book is about Colorado. I mean, that’s where it all starts,” she says. “One thing that I like about this book is I like the fact that there’s so many interesting characters in the jumping community and also climbing community. Obviously a lot of the climbing is solo, but it does take place on the Diamond, which, to me, is almost like a person. But what I really love about this book is just the opportunity to share all these interesting people and their stories.”
Of course, getting back in the neighborhood could also involve some extracurricular activities. She says, “I’m definitely planning to go to Longmont and jump as much as I can while I’m around.”
Steph Davis, author of Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love, and One Amazing Dog, will read at 7:30 p.m. April 16 at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. in Boulder, and at 7:30 p.m. April 18 at the Tattered Cover, 1628 16th St. in Denver.