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Most of us aren’t recreational skydivers. Nor do we step into a wingsuit on a weekday to go BASE jumping off the red rocks in Moab. Steph Davis (pictured, right) isn’t most people. The 4o-year-old professional rock climber has devoted her life to seeking out an adrenaline rush. She’s the first woman to free climb (when climbers use ropes and other protections only to prevent falls, not aid their ascent) Yosemite’s Salathé Wall and the first to free solo (ascending without ropes, harnesses, and other protective gear) the Longs Peak Diamond. But when her life started to unravel, she turned to skydiving and BASE jumping to find a new balance.
Learning to Fly (Touchstone, April 2013) is both a how-to on these free-falling sports and the story of one woman’s journey to change her life. I caught up with the Moab-based adventurer before her book signing at the Tattered Cover LoDo on April 18 at 7:30 p.m.
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5280: Why did you decide to write this book?
Steph Davis: It was in 2009, and I was having ACL surgery. You have a lot of recovery time, so I thought, I’ll just work on this project. I really wanted to just share that whole world of skydiving and BASE jumping. People are always asking me, “How do you start BASE jumping?” People are always curious about wingsuit flying. As I started writing, it started going a different direction; it turned into a different project.
5280: What’s the heart of the story?
SD: I think the title kind of sums it up. On a physical level, it’s about learning how to fly—how to fly a wingsuit, how to skydive. “Learning how to fly” is also on an emotional level: living through this period of life of having a hard time with things, being afraid of a lot of things, and learning how to embrace change and enter a whole new world.
5280: You went through a bumpy time, including the end of your first marriage. What lessons did you learn?
SD: The biggest lesson is the one we’re always learning, which is that everything always changes. There’s a tendency to not always like change and to be a little nervous about it. What we have to keep in mind is that change, literally, is life—as soon as you’re not changing, it’s because you’re not here anymore.
5280: Do you have any favorite Colorado climbing spots?
SD: A lot of the book is about climbing the Diamond in Estes Park. That’s definitely a favorite place for me. A little bit is about Rifle. I spend a lot of time there in the summer.
5280: Tell me about free soloing the Longs Peak Diamond.
SD: I ended up soloing the Diamond four times. I was kind of figuring out how to do these climbs without a rope, how to do it in a safe way. The experience changes so much when you don’t have a rope. If we didn’t have emotions as people, there would be no difference between climbing something with a rope and without a rope. It highlights the degree to which emotions affect people.
5280: How do you set about planning a dangerous climb like that?
SD: The first thing is just deciding this is something I want to do. You usually go climb it first with a rope, once or twice, whatever it takes. When you’re climbing with a rope, you’re always looking down and trying to get these impressions in your brain so it’s not this big shock when you’re out there without a rope. [It’s also about] controlling your mental state—saying, “This is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to do it”—and making sure you’re totally prepared. And when the time comes to do it, it’s full commitment.
5280: Then you turned to skydiving. Why? What was that first experience like?
SD: When I first went skydiving it was partly because I was in a rough spot in life and I think I was just looking for something completely different. You can’t really get more different from climbing than falling on purpose.
One thing that’s different between climbing and jumping is that [the athletes] move at a really different pace. Climbing is not a fast sport; it’s actually really slow. When you’re climbing, if you get a little overwrought mentally, you can just stand there for a while, whereas with skydiving you’re in a speeding airplane and when it’s time to go, the door opens. My brain wasn’t used to thinking that fast.
When you get really into skydiving and you’re a climber, it becomes kind of an obvious next step to BASE jump. I BASE jump every day; I have a BASE-jumping business.
5280: So you pretty much stare death in the face every day?
SD: I take a really careful approach to the things I do. The fact is, we all do something every day that can kill us. I think that is the charm of humans, that we just don’t really focus on it.
—Author photo courtesy of Tommy Chandler