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Thread: Wingsuit Base jumper Steph Davis describes holding on and letting go

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    Wingsuit Base jumper Steph Davis describes holding on and letting go

    Wingsuit Base jumper Steph Davis describes holding on and letting go

    When pro climber and Base jumper Steph Davis lost her husband in a wingsuit crash, she considered giving up on everything. In the last chapter of her new memoir, Davis describes overcoming loss and returning to flying

    Steph Davis Base jumps off the 380ft Tombstone, outside of Moab, UtahPhotograph: Simon and Schuster

    by Caty Enders

    Despite two decades as a professional climber, putting up free solo and first ascents of notable peaks around the world, Steph Davis isn’t what you picture when you think of an extreme athlete. At 42, one of the world’s best climbers and wingsuit Base jumpers is a vegan with a masters in literature. Until her early thirties, falling was her worst nightmare.
    Originally from New Jersey, Davis describes herself as a perpetual late bloomer. She wasn’t introduced to climbing until her freshman year at the University of Maryland. After obtaining her masters, she got five days into a law degree before leaving to live out of a truck and chase record-setting routes from Yosemite’s El Capitan to Patagonia’s Torre Egger.
    But Davis’s superpower, world-class physical strength aside, seems to be her ability to bend adversity to her will. She’s lost many friends in the mountains, and she’s become a master at confronting and harnessing her emotions. “There are benefits to fear,” she says. “The negative is when you get so overwhelmed by it that you start doing things that don’t make sense.”
    For practitioners, the risks are what make wingsuit Base such a challenge: it’s largely a mental exercise in controlling fear before it controls you.
    Base jumping, which takes its name from the types of fixed objects used for launch – building, antenna, span and earth – is exploding in popularity. No organization keeps official tabs on Base participation numbers, but the sport is undeniably having a moment. Social media has allowed extreme athletes and their breathless POV videos to reach a new mainstream audience. Pop action franchises like Point Break and Transformers took have taken pains to feature wingsuit flying, a type of Base jumping that involves a nylon squirrel suit to increase glide and maneuverability, using pro Base jumpers instead of CGI.

    Davis made her first moves towards Base after splitting with her first husband and longtime climbing partner Dean Potter in 2007. (Potter, a pioneering base jumper and climber, died in a wingsuit accident in May 2015.) She says the pain of that separation forged a sort of fierce independence. Two days after she and Potter parted, she found herself chasing down her anxiety about falling and taking her first skydive. Four months later, she jumped off her first cliff.
    “What I could control was myself, and never more than when I stood on the edge,” Davis writes in her newly re-released memoir Learning to Fly: a Memoir of Hanging on and Letting Go.
    In re-issuing the 2013 book this winter, Davis has added a new chapter, which addresses the loss of her second husband Mario Richard. A talented wingsuit base jumper and pilot, Richard died in a wingsuit crash after attempting to thread a notch in the Italian Dolomites a few months after the book’s original publication.
    Davis jumped first, on what she describes as the most beautiful morning she could have ordered. When she landed, Richard failed to appear behind her. Having struggled with depression before, Davis describes entering a grief period where she considered exiting a favorite Moab cliff without a parachute.
    It took what she describes as months of “research”, talking to friends who had lost partners, to determine whether she would ever again be happy enough to justify living. Four and a half months later, on New Year’s Eve, she returned to wingsuit. She jumped with pinches of mario’s ashes in her parachute.

    Steph Davis free soloing in California’s Yosemite National Park Photograph: Simon & Schuster

    Learning to Fly, in its revised form, is as much a deft exploration of loss, grief and resilience as it is of Base jumping. Like many in the Base or climbing communities, Davis has lost close friends to her sport. The added pain of losing a partner, coupled with a natural inclination for self-analysis, have made her something of an expert on grief. She says she’s been approached by people who are experiencing losses of various kinds to talk about recovery.
    She does not mention Potter’s 2015 death in the book, avoiding using his full name throughout. But their 12 tumultuous years together haunt its pages. Her first marriage left her “almost broken”, she writes, with “scars so deep they would never disappear”.
    Resilience, for Davis, means reclaiming the life that gave her joy. She finds it confusing when people try to nudge her to give up the life she loves because of a friend or partner’s death.
    “I don’t think there’s any value in just hiding from life and basically locking yourself up in the house and saying, well I’m not going to do anything because it might increase my risk today,” Davis says. “Everybody goes through their risk/reward analysis, and it’s different for everybody.”
    She doesn’t like the water, for example. She says she and would never surf and chance drowning or getting eaten by a shark, “because the reward I would get from the experience would be so minimal compared to the potential risks”.

    Steph Davis on a wingsuit skydive Photograph: Simon and Schuster

    That’s the funny thing about high-risk pro athletes: Most are hyper-logical. You don’t survive in these sports without being thoughtful and deliberate in the extreme.
    “Base jumping’s not safe. Riding road biking isn’t safe. Driving cars isn’t safe. Living isn’t safe,” says Davis. “So if the perception of the value or benefit of any activity is based on whether it could be made ultimately safe – that’s sort of a losing battle ‘cause we’re all going to die.”
    On the other hand, she does have clear boundaries to delineate what she’s ruled either calculated or reckless risk. She’s opted not to participate in the World Wingsuit League, for example, which invites top wingsuit flyers to race a course marked in the sky at the Grand Prix in China’s Hunan province each fall.

    The World Wingsuit League 2012 Grand Prix“I don’t think that competition belongs in wingsuit Base, just like I don’t think it would belong in free soloing,” says Davis, describing a type of rock climbing she practices that is done without the safety of a rope. “Because it so high commitment and there is so much potential danger.”
    As opposed to getting amped up to compete, she is moved to experience each individual flight and strives to execute each element as perfectly as she can. Escaping fear’s crippling effects is motivation enough.
    “Freedom had always been my greatest priority in life”, Davis writes in her final chapter, “and fear was the only thing that could keep me from it — the thing that had almost seduced me into giving up on life completely”.

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