Steph Davis spends hours and hours every week hiking to the top of cliffs and jumping off them. She used to spend that time practicing piano, following her dream of becoming a professional classical pianist.
Her dreams shifted once she started climbing, but sometimes she thinks how much different her life would be if she’d never never caught the climbing bug and had stayed on the musical path.
“I didn’t know much of anything about outdoor sports growing up in suburbia,” she says. “I never went camping. It just wasn’t something I did. So when I first went rock climbing it was the first time I’d ever been exposed to anything like that. I fell in love with it, and it just redirected my life, kind of pushed me down a different road.”
But the focus, attention to detail, and ability to be self-critical that have allowed her to be successful in both rock climbing and BASE jumping: those are traits she attributes to all that time spent at the piano.
“I’d spend my time in a little room just practicing,” she says, “And to me that was totally normal. But as I’ve grown up and understood life a little bit more, I’ve learned that in our culture to focus that much is not normal. And I think if you have the ability to focus, just to grind away, you will be able to do what you want to do. Even if it’s not what you were brought up to do or taught to do.”
From Steph’s first experience rock climbing in college, she took to the sport with the same tenacity that had kept her working hard in the practice room. That drive and the love for her newly acquired sport of choice took her from the east coast to Colorado for a college exchange program, and it took her back to Colorado for grad school. Then it took her to the town she calls home, Moab, Utah, where she’s been living for the last 22 years.
“I was drawn (to Moab) by the climbing,” she says, “…then I think it’s not just the climbing, but the vibe of the town and all the desert surroundings that kept me there…And then when I started BASE jumping, it was like oh wow! This place is phenomenal.”
So piano led to climbing rocks, and climbing rocks led to jumping off them. But the obvious difference between Beethoven and BASE jumping is danger. And it’s fear, and it has taken Steph a while to learn to embrace those things.
“I used to see fear as this pesky annoying thing that prevented me from fulfilling my climbing potential,” she says.
But fear in climbing is manageable by starting small and getting bigger as you become more comfortable. Like most beginning climbers, Steph started out top roping on easy routes and progressed from there. In BASE jumping, however, “beginner” isn’t a thing.
“The first time I jumped off a cliff I could barely deal with it,” she says, “because as a climber that is the ultimate taboo … you can’t ask for two more different things between climbing—holding on, and jumping—letting go.”
Steph knows how extremely dangerous BASE jumping is, and that’s where her attention to detail comes in. She is always willing to walk down from a jump if it doesn’t feel right, if the conditions aren’t perfect. She uses her fear to help her judge each situation. She has learned to embrace that fear.
She talks about how so many people, her former self included, feel so uncomfortable with the fear at the top of a jump that they just have to force themselves to jump. “I don’t think that’s the right way. I think you have to be strong enough to be in that moment of fear for as long as it takes to evaluate the scene, to make your plan A, your plan B, your plan C. You have to be willing to be in that moment and be OK with it, instead of just wanting to make it stop so I’m going to jump now.”
But once she jumps, she says, that fear leaves her. “Once you actually start going off and you do go off, it’s totally different,” she says. It’s like you’re in the jump. But all the doubt, or if you have fear or anxiety or questioning, should I do this or not?…that whole very emotional sort of ball of stuff going on happens right before you actually decide to go. And once you decide to go, you’re just doing it.”
For Steph, it is all about a feeling of ultimate freedom. It’s not about the thrill of any one particular jump, it’s about being able to do it all the time. For her, BASE jumping isn’t a bucket list item to cross off.
“It’s about this life of being able to fly off cliffs,” she says. “To fly through the air and have that experience of freedom. So I see it as a much bigger continuum than any one single jump. That’s why I’m able to walk down from any jump. And that’s why I accept the risks inherent in any jump, because it isn’t about just one jump.”
She’s learned to embrace both the fear and the freedom. She’s built a life in the adopted hometown she loves, doing the sports she loves, and spending time with her beloved dog, Cajun.
“We take Cajun for a walk,” she says. “We hike to the top of the cliff. It takes 35 minutes. We jump off. She runs down. We go get coffee. That’s a very standard morning in Moab.”