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."
Later, after adding base jumping to her repertoire, she wrote, "New base jumpers are like drug addicts, and I was no different. But if I didn't climb constantly, I suffered racking climbing withdrawals and, even worse, loss of painfully earned climbing fitness. So every day was a desperate attempt to satisfy my vertical cravings."
She has free-soloed granite cliffs alone, she has hiked mountains in the middle of the night to start sunrise solo climbs, she has climbed in rain and cold when one slip or numb fingers could mean death, she has slept in caves and pickup trucks and Oldsmobiles and tents.
She has continued to climb even through the times of her deepest despair, which is the focus of her latest book. Davis and her first husband, Dean Potter, were able to earn a living from their climbing exploits thanks to sponsorships from climbing companies. But the five-year marriage crumbled in the wake of Potter's controversial climb of Delicate Arch in 2006. The public anger over the climb of such a revered landmark resulted in the loss of climbing sponsorships for the couple and, as Davis tells it, the added financial stress contributed to their breakup.
Reeling from the demise of her relationship with Potter, she drove from California — where the couple had been climbing in Yosemite — to their home in Moab, or at least that was the plan. Distraught and disillusioned, she drove past the Moab exit and wound up back in Colorado, where she threw herself headlong (literally sometimes) into climbing and the other vertical challenges.
During the next few months, she began free soloing, skydiving, wingsuit flight and base jumping while struggling to come to grips with her marital breakup. It is tempting to see a metaphor in her first free solo attempt, which was made on Longs Peak Diamond in Colorado — a sheer, 1,000-foot granite face. After sleeping alone in a cave, she awoke at 3 a.m. and hiked to the base of the peak, tears flowing down her cheeks as she drew close to the face. She began her lonely climb at dawn and during the ascent she had an epiphany: She experienced real fear for the first time.
As she writes, "I stood with my shoulders tipped back slightly, one hand buried in a crack, feet stemmed out a little, the wall dropping away a thousand feet below my rock shoes. I started to reach high for a side pull with the other hand, making sure the other was still securely jammed into the crack before I let go to take it. I hesitated. I heard the beat of my heart pounding loud inside my ears. With no warning, my mind instantly cartwheeled into images of my body falling down the wall, and tumbling for another thousand feet … Like an onslaught of invading enemies, tension, paralysis and weakness rushed into my limbs. I froze in position, like a rabbit in the headlights of a truck. I knew that I had to move, immediately, before my panic took over completely, but I had to move with control or I would definitely fall and die. Shaking, yet clamping down on the holds through sheer instinct to survive, I fought through the panic and climbed to the safer, vertical terrain."
From that experience, Davis says she realized she didn't have a death wish and that she was not fearless — she was simply able to stare down that fear, and she applied that experience broadly.
"I needed to get control of fear, completely," she writes. "It had been progressively, insidiously destroying my life and destroying me, and I wasn't going to be a slave to it any longer. Fear and I were done."
There are safer ways to achieve such catharsis, but Davis became hooked on the demands that death-defying climbs made on her. Ask her why she free solos and why the thrill of climbing with a rope isn't enough, she says, "It demands total focus."
In an online video posted on Vimeo, Davis tells the camera, "To be able to free solo, that is an expression of being so in control that you know you're going to be able to do it without falling. There is a pretty strong mental dialogue and a pretty strong engagement with fear. It's hard to push past that fear. It takes a lot of thought and preparation, and I don't have to be paralyzed by fear."
Davis literally climbed out of her despair, and along the way she met Richard, a pilot and base jumper, and returned to her home in Moab to start life anew.
"A big part of the reason I wanted to write the book is that most people have had experiences like this, or will, whether it's a relationship or a career or whatever," she said in a recent interview. "Even a happy person can become depressed. When you're in that place, if you have some kind of guidance, some ray of hope … What I knew to hold on to was climbing and this whole new world of skydiving and having new experiences. Life's about change. Don't be afraid."
Davis, along with Richard, has been able to cobble together a living with her climbing again through sponsorships. She writes books and blogs and runs a business. A year ago, Davis and Richard opened Moab Base Adventures, offering tandem BASE jumping off the local terrain to the public.
"It's the only place in the world you can do a tandem base jump from a cliff," says Davis. "People tell us it changed their life. Their greatest fear was to step off the edge of a cliff. That is life-changing."
Davis, a small woman with dark eyes and hair, is as lean and spare as you would expect from someone who pulls herself up mountains regularly (and also practices yoga and embraces a vegan diet). Climbing has defined her life and she has embraced it. Her passion for climbing was understandably hard on her family, but even they have come to accept it.
"It was hard on everybody for the first 10 years," she says. "But they see me having a happy life and feeling fulfilled and self-directed. It's great when you find your thing and go after it."
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