Moab's Steph Davis making the most of her 'vertical cravings'

Published: Monday, May 6 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

Simon and Schuster

There's something about Steph Davis that makes her want to throw herself off a cliff every day.

In a daily routine as practiced as a shower or a morning jog, she hikes to the top of one of the 400-foot sandstone towers near Moab, accompanied by her husband Mario Richard and her dog Cajun. After pausing to enjoy the view and check her equipment, Davis … leaps off the cliff and parachutes to the desert floor, followed or preceded by Mario.

As soon as the couple is airborne, Cajun races back down the trail to find her friends and they return to the homey doublewide trailer in Moab they call home.

Davis has been doing this — or some variation on the theme — for years, and in recent years in the company of her husband. If it involves heights and diving off dizzying heights, Davis is doing it. She climbs sheer 1,000-foot cliffs without a rope — free solo, it's called. She leaps out of airplanes and helicopters wearing a parachute or wingsuit. She jumps off antennas, bridges and mountaintops — "base jumping." She climbs sheer sandstone faces with nothing more than a tiny crack in the surface in which to jam her fingers and toes. Sometimes she combines her passions — a free-solo climb up a sheer vertical face of granite or sandstone and then a quick exit to the bottom with a parachute or wingsuit.

She has climbed, jumped and skydived from Switzerland and Italy to Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Patagonia, Pakistan and back to Colorado and Utah. She's made so many of these jumps that she long ago tired of the question — how many? — and stopped keeping track.

If you're like most people, you have many questions. For the most part they are answered in Davis' book, "Learning to Fly," which is just hitting bookstores. Does she have a death wish (no)? Is she fearful (yes)? Why no rope (we'll come to that)? Why does she do it (it's complicated)?

"One reason I wrote the book is that people are so fascinated by the wingsuit and the base jumping — what's it like?" says Davis. "I wanted to write the book to answer those questions."

There's another deeper reason she wrote the book, but we will come to that, too.

Born in Illinois and raised in New Jersey and Maryland, she did nothing more athletic or daring than gym class in her youth. Her father was an aeronautical engineer, her mother a school teacher. Intense and academic, Davis was a straight-A student and an accomplished classical pianist. She began piano lessons at 3 and, by the time she was 18, she was practicing six hours daily, as well as playing the flute and performing with a handful of singing groups.

She attended the University of Maryland to study English and fell head over heels in love … with climbing. She quit playing the piano, dropped her music classes and transferred to Colorado State to hone her climbing skills. After taking a degree in English and a master's degree in literature from CSU, she began law school at the University of Colorado.

Five days later, she dropped out and dumped everything to climb full-time. She quit law school, gave up her apartment, moved into her grandmother's Oldsmobile and for the next seven years moved from one climbing area to another, taking jobs waiting tables and guiding climbs when her bank account dwindled.

She's been climbing ever since. Davis is 40 now, and hers is a story of passion, if not obsession.

"Climbing is an exceedingly high-maintenance pursuit," she writes in 'Learning to Fly.' "If you're not climbing, you're coming back from climbing, getting ready to go climbing, training for climbing, stretching for climbing, eating for climbing, organizing for climbing, reading about climbing, writing about climbing, talking about climbing, thinking about climbing, or earning money for climbing."

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