INTERVIEW: Steph Davis-Follow Up
TSL: Last we chatted, you were getting into BASE jumping and wing-suit flying…I’ve seen some of your videos of Lauterbrunnen…and I have two words…”Holy Crap!” What new world has wing-suit flying opened up to you? How has it changed your life?
Steph Davis: Well….I can fly.
TSL: Where has been your favorite place to fly?
SD: I like Lauterbrunnen, for the convenience. The Eiger is a famous jump for a reason, it’s fantastic.
SD: I’ve been jumping a Phoenix Fly Vampire. I’m getting a Tony Suit X-Wing right now, which will be my 4th wing suit. It’s hard because the innovation is constant, and it’s changing every day. No one is really sure what is the best design yet.
TSL: From the first moment you went skydiving (I’m also assuming that you jumped out of a plane first, before you started base jumping and wing suit flying.) what has the progression been like to wing-suit flying. What were your feelings on your first jumps (plane, base, wing suit) and how have your feelings they evolved?
SD: I started tracking almost immediately in skydiving, which is flying your body kind of like a wing suit, but you’re not wearing a wing suit. I did that until I progressed to wearing a wing suit. I have become more conservative over my first years in the sport. I want to become the best I can at the things I am doing, rather than just surviving tricks.
SD: I want to figure out which wing suit gives me the optimum flight.
TSL: What music are you listening to now?
SD: Lots of Robert Miles, some Lady Gaga, lots of MC Solaar
TSL: Any new vegan recipes?
SD: I’ve been perfecting my wheat-free, sugar free vegan chocolate chip cookies. They are good! The secret trick for all chocolate chip cookies is you want to refrigerate the dough for a day, which is not easy.
TSL: Where have you been traveling?
SD: I spent October in Switzerland, just base jumping my wing suit, and have been sticking close to home in the desert all winter.
TSL: How has your life/perspective changed-evolved since our last interview…what lessons have you learned about yourself, pursuing your passions, etc…
SD: I feel like I am in a period of rebirth and wonder.
SD: I’ve been approached several times by journalists who want to do a story where I teach them how to base jump. I explain to them the requirements of skydiving, and the progression, and that seems to be the end of it. It’s a big commitment to become a jumper, in time and money. Also, the person who approached me most recently has two little girls. I explained to him that I don’t recommend or support base jumping for people who have dependent children, because the risk factor of death or serious injury is just too much, especially in the first years of learning. Highly experienced base jumpers tend to die a lot too, perhaps because they are pushing the edge more.
TSL: What other projects are you working on, any new books, new climbing goals, new sports?
SD: I’m working on another book, called “Learning to Fly,” about this transition phase I have been living through from only climbing to now skydiving and base jumping as well. I lost my dog Fletcher last summer, and it’s going to be easier to travel this year, unfortunately and fortunately. So I’m organizing my plans for spring/summer/fall to climb and jump lot and be traveling much more than last year when I was nursing her at the end of her life. I’m also going to Japan in July to be a guest instructor for a yoga teacher training course in Tokyo.
You can keep up with Steph and her adventures at LINK
The Sporting Life: Where did you grow up?
Steph Davis: I grew up first in Illinois, then in Maryland.
TSL: What were your hobbies as a kid?
SD: Playing piano, reading, messing around in the woods.
TSL: Where do you live now?
SD: Moab, UT and Yosemite, CA
TSL: What are your favorite haunts?
SD: Kane Creek Canyon in Moab and the top of El Capitan in Yosemite are two of my favorite hangs.
TSL: What did you want to be when you grew up?
SD: I had no idea!
TSL: What was the moment that you decided to become a climber?
SD: The first time I went rock climbing, at age 18, I had a hard time wanting to do anything else.
TSL: I understand you lived somewhat of a vagabond life when you began climbing, what were your living conditions like?
SD: Yes, I had a hand-me-down Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera from my Grandma. It was a real step up for me because I couldn’t afford a car before that and was riding a Honda 550 road bike. When I finished my Master’s degree, I was free to live on the road, climbing and traveling, and the Cutlass became my home. Eventually I took out the back seat and the passenger’s seat and put a piece of plywood down for a bed. It was great—I could sleep in there, cook in there, and it was super low profile in Yosemite. Rangers were always on the lookout for climbers sleeping in trucks or vans (which is illegal for some strange reason), but no one was looking at the Oldsmobile sedan. I was pretty excited, though, when I finally got a truck… way roomier and better for 4 wheeling.
TSL: What was your first challenging climb?
SD: Climbing was challenging for me from day one, and I think that’s why I got so sucked in. The first time I put discipline into actually projecting a climb that was hard for me was a long crack at Indian Creek, near Moab, called “Tricks Are For Kids” when I was about 23. It took me 7 or 8 attempts to lead it, and that was a real commitment for me at the time.
TSL: What made you decide to make climbing an occupation?
SD: I was waiting tables after college, and then guiding, and then slowly started to make enough money from small sponsorships to stop those jobs.
TSL: How did your life change after making that decision?
SD: I was able to climb more, but it also added a strange pressure because I changed from just another enthusiastic climber to a name that other climbers felt either inspired by or competitive with. That has been a strange feeling for me, and I have learned to appreciate the positive sides and send positive energy toward the less constructive sides.
TSL: What has been your greatest personal triumph in climbing?
SD: Staying true to my own path.
TSL: Who are your climbing heroes?
SD: I always loved reading about Layton Kor as a young climber. He did many early, futuristic climbs in all the places I most love: the Utah desert, the Diamond and Yosemite.
TSL: If you could climb anything, what would it be?
SD: In my dreams I could free solo El Cap. Don’t worry; it’s not on my actual project list.
TSL: What does the inner dialogue sound like when you get into a tough spot?
SD: It depends…If I’m free soloing (no rope), it’s very important for me to maintain a calm, positive mind-state throughout the ascent. So I start saying “Be relaxed. Have good feelings.” from the minute I step my foot off the ground, and just keep saying that over and over until I’m at the top. For a hard free climb (with a rope), I am climbing at a higher ground, and need to go for it a little more aggressively. I’m usually not saying anything, just trying to conserve energy and unleash at the hardest parts, trying not to care if I fall.
TSL: What training do you typically do in prep for a big climb?
SD: I usually train on the climb I want to do, if it’s a free climbing project. For the mountains, I mostly carry backpacks up snow before a trip. For a free solo project, I do a lot of mental preparation, making sure I am calm and unattached. Generally, I climb on plastic, do pull up workouts, lift weights, do yoga; skate ski and run, for overall fitness.
TSL: Mentally, what are the different preparation techniques you use for Mountain Climbing as compared to Rock Climbing?
SD: Climbing in the mountains is very different from rock climbing, even if you are rock climbing in the mountains, because things are so much more conditions-dependent, and not always in your control. Also, when rock climbing, the lighter you can be, the better. Starving yourself gives you great results. Not so in the mountains, where it’s all about carrying heavy packs, having strong legs and enduring fatigue, cold and scary conditions, and the light fanaticism is more about your equipment, always trying to pack lighter and have lighter gear.
Physically, they ask for completely different strengths and training programs. Mentally, they are also completely different. I find that in the mountains it’s very important for me to be totally unemotional, always. When pushing myself in the safer, high-end rock climbing environment, detachment is also crucial, but at the hardest moments, I have to unleash my emotions.
TSL: What are the five most important things in your backpack when mountain climbing?
SD: Light is right when climbing in the mountains. Everything I carry has to be the lightest thing possible. I usually carry a small piece of plastic tubing in my shirt pocket, to suck water off the rock if there is some running water on the wall or in a little crevice. I always have a small headlamp, and an extra set of AAA batteries for it. I also carry a super tiny, extra headlamp, rather than a second set of batteries. This way you have a backup light even if you drop the first one. I also have the lightest possible Gore-Tex shell jacket and pants in my pack. Usually I also take an extra set of glove liners, to have a dry pair.
It’s always a great debate when starting up a long alpine climb, of what to bring in case you have to bivy. It’s tempting to bring a light stove, but that requires a fuel cartridge, a lighter, and a titanium pot, for melting water and having something hot to drink in the night. Sometimes it is totally worth it, and you need the stove. But often I end up settling for a light bivy sack instead, which is a little more grim but can be adequate for survival. I have a European one that weighs only 550 grams, and can fit two people. It has saved me several times.
TSL: How do you maintain focus when you are exhausted?
SD: My favorite activities are those that require technique through exhaustion. That’s why I am most attracted to big free climbing projects, and that’s also why I love skate skiing. To me, maintaining focus when I’m exhausted is one of the most interesting challenges. You don’t get that in bouldering or more power-specific activities. I have had my biggest personal breakthroughs on major climbs where I found myself climbing at my best many hours into the climb. Once you know you have that ability, you can always try to reach for it again. Training is key, though.
TSL: What future climbs are you preparing for?
SD:I’m working on a hard crack project here in Moab.
TSL: What other Sporting Life activities are you into, i.e.: Skiing, Surfing, Polo, Hunting, Fishing, Croquette, Axe Throwing, Yachting, Drinking, Cooking?
SD: I love skate skiing (a lot!). I don’t know if BASE jumping is a Sporting Life activity, or wing-suit flying, but those are my other latest crazes. I like drinking Americanos, red wine and margaritas, and I am vegan, so I cook a lot too.
TSL: If you could have a soundtrack to your climbs, what would it sound like?
SD: That depends on the time. I usually get pretty wrapped up in a specific album or artist in certain phases, and when I look back on the climbs I did, I always think of that music.
TSL: Who are you currently listening to?
SD: Right now I’ve been listening to Christina Aguilera’s album “Stripped” for a bunch of months. I always listen to a lot of Paul Oakenfold too, and Black Eyed Peas.
TSL: Who are your favorite authors?
SD: I am a reading fanatic. I usually read a book every day or two, sometimes more. I love T.C.Boyle and Victor Villasenor. I also read a lot of Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks.
TSL: Currently reading?
SD: The Food Revolution by John Robbins, Stiff by Mary Roach and Sister Coyote by Mary Clearman Blew.
TSL: What inspired you to write your book? How long did it take?
SD: I’ve been keeping a journal since I was in my teens, and I have a master’s in literature. For the last decade or so, as a climber, I’ve written articles or essays along the way. I’ve always envisioned myself writing a “proper” book, a narrative type story. So it occurred to me that if I did a book project which started with some stories I already had, I could learn what it actually takes to write a book. Then it would be easier in the future. It took about a year, since I ended up writing a bunch of new stories and essays. I learned the process of writing a book, and it also got me started with blogging, which I really like for the absolute freedom it gives me as a writer and photographer.
TSL: Do you feel that climbing Everest has become somewhat of a “thrill seeking” rite of passage, much like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona?
TSL: What’s your idea of the perfect lunch?
SD: I don’t usually eat actual Lunch, because it makes me get lethargic. I usually just snack throughout the day, but my favorite meal foods are greens (kale, chard, and spinach), quinoa, broccoli and curry. Chips and super-spicy salsa are always good too!
If I could be transported anywhere for a meal, I’d go straight to Italy! It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and I love the food and wine.