I write this while sitting in the foothills of the Himalaya. In front is the massive Trisul, 7120m, pink-tipped in morning light. Yet it is rendered faint by a haze in the winter sky that I’d never seen in my childhood, when we spent vacations driving days-deep into the Himalaya. These lands have lost much in “development”. Like Doug Tompkins, I feel the single most important goal we have today is to preserve these wilds, through whatever means necessary, when the concrete zombie-cities of the south expand uncontrollably into nature, hacking away at forests, streams and meadows.
I became a climber, apart from other things, because of the sense of community and belonging it fostered almost instantaneously. Your nationality, color, gender and all other separators became secondary. I traveled the world staying with friends of friends who knew nothing of me, save that of being a climber. However, today’s fractious politics, news-cycle-driven fear and media hype around anything that pushes eyeballs, and the sense of otherness that the hunt of sponsors fosters, that community seems to be breaking apart. In today’s hyper frenetic YouTube era, I wonder if that meaning is being lost in the hunt for mindless clicks. Are FFAs and FKTs really that important? Do we always need to be something better or bigger or faster? Or can we be simply content in communion with nature? This is the message I share when I travel, looking for partners, from athletes to brands, journalists to NGOs. Perhaps I am naive. But there was an era when the sense of spiritual unity told us what this search actually meant.
We at the The Outdoor Journal are as guilty, sometimes, of promoting the most visible ‘actors’ to attract advertisers. However, we also try to highlight the best adventures around the globe that represent the lifestyle we seek to promote. Our goal is to try and seek a return to the simple joys of life, that have always existed in the real world outside. We know, despite my naivety, the only way to succeed is by creating a successful, profitable commercial enterprise, which then has the power to make a difference.
The question I always sought to answer, through the outdoors, was the meaning of life. Having lived and travelled in many countries, I wanted to know, what was the most important thing I could do? What was it that gave my existence purpose, and meaning? When would I stop feeling that unknown terror gnawing at my soul?
In the coming days the Outdoor Journal will release an exclusive interview with Steph Davis, follow us via our social networks and stay tuned for more.
Do you have to be fearless to jump off a mountain? Meeting Steph Davis, you quickly realise: no, fearlessness is not what it takes. It’s not the search for thrills that drives her. She’s Mercedes travelled to Moab, Utah to find out what does – and to talk to Steph Davis about what it takes to climb the most challenging peaks and plunge from the highest mountaintops.
At noon, when the sun is at its highest point above the deserts of southeastern Utah and when every stone cliff casts a sharp shadow, you get a sense of how harsh this area can be. Despite Utah’s barrenness, Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. But Steph is not here because of the natural spectacle. Here, in this area which is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, she can pursue her greatest passion: free solo climbing and BASE jumping.
Today, Steph wants to take us to Castleton Tower. We travel on gravel roads that are hardly recognizable, right into the middle of the desert. Gnarled bushes and conifers grow along what might be the side of the road. Other than that, the surrounding landscape lives up to its name: it is deserted. Steph loves the remoteness of the area. “One of my favourite places is a small octagonal cabin in the desert that I designed and built together with some of my closest friends. It’s not big and doesn’t have many amenities but it has everything you need: a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchenette … and eight windows allowing me to take in nature around me. That’s pretty much all I need.” Steph Davis cherishes the simple things. She has found her place, and she doesn’t let go.
Castleton Tower is home turf for Steph. She has climbed the iconic red sandstone tower so many times she’s lost count. The iconic 120-metre obelisk on top of a 300-metre cone is popular among rock climbers as well as with BASE jumpers. Its isolated position makes it a perfect plunging point and it can easily be summited with little equipment – at least for experienced climbers like Steph Davis.
“It would be reckless not to be afraid. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.”
Steph is a free solo climber, which means she relies on her hands and feet only – not on ropes, hooks or harnesses. She loves to free solo, using only what’s absolutely necessary. She squeezes her hands into the tiniest cracks in the stone and her feet find support on the smallest outcroppings, where others would see only a smooth surface. Steph climbs walls that might be 100 metres tall – sometimes rising up 900 metres – with nothing below her but thin air and the ground far below. She knows that any mistake while climbing can be fatal.
The possibility of falling accompanies Steph whenever she climbs. Is she afraid? “Of course – it would be reckless not to be. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.” She has learned to transform it into power, prudence, and strength. “It’s up to us to stay in control.”
“You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”
That’s what, according to her, free soloing and BASE jumping are all about: to be in control and to trust in one’s abilities. “It’s not about showing off how brave I am. It’s about trusting myself to be good enough not to fall. It takes a lot of strength, both physical and mental. You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”
Steph Davis likes to laugh and she does so a lot. She chooses her words with care, and she doesn’t rush. Why would she? There’s no point in rushing when you’re hanging on a vertical wall, with nothing but your hands and feet. Just like climbing, she prefers to approach things carefully and analytically. That’s how she got as far as she did. “I didn’t grow up as an athlete, and started climbing when I was 18,” she smiles, shrugging. But her work ethic is meticulous and she knows how to improve herself. Whenever she prepares for an ascent, she does so for months, practising each section over and over again – on the wall and in her head – until she has internalised it all. She does the same before a BASE jump and practices the exact moves in her head until she knows the movement is consummate.
“Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear.”
Would Steph consider herself brave? She says that she wouldn’t know how to answer that, you can see the small wrinkles around Steph’s eyes that always appear whenever she laughs. In any case, she doesn’t consider herself to be exceptional. “I’m not a heroine just because I jump off mountaintops,” Steph says she has weaknesses just like everyone else. But she might overcome them a little better than most of us do, just as she has learned to work with fear. “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear. It is brave to accept fear for what it is, as a companion that you should sometimes listen to, but one you shouldn’t be obedient to.”
She slows the car down. We have reached Castleton Tower. It rises majestically in front of us while the sun has left its zenith. If Steph started walking now, she’d reach the top at the moment the sun went down, bathing the surrounding area in a golden light. She takes her shoes and the little parachute; all she needs today. Then she smiles again, says “see you in a bit”, and starts walking. Not fast, not hastily, but without hesitation.