Over the past few decades, climber and wingsuit pilot Steph Davis has established herself as one of the most innovative and fearless adventurers in the world. Even more impressive? She isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Several years ago, climber, BASE jumper, and wingsuit pilot Steph Davis embarked on an ambitious adventure in the West Desert of southern Utah. Bone-dry and accented by rugged, remote mountain ranges, the West Desert is, as tour guides say, “very different from other parts of the state.” There are few roads. Few towns. And even fewer campgrounds. The Bonneville Salt Flats, a 30,000-acre cracked-earth pancake so barren that not even the simplest life forms can exist there, fan across the area.
From the small town of Delta, Davis and her husband, Mario Richard, drove 140 miles on isolated roads until the dirt road became impassable. From there, they hiked a rocky wash and climbed up a narrowing canyon that led them to their objective: the northwest prow of Notch Peak. Rising 4,450 feet from the desert floor, with a sheer and uninterrupted 2,000-foot-high face, it’s the second-tallest vertical cliff face in America, second only to El Cap.
With Davis leading, she and Richard climbed all 12 of the limestone pitches on the vertical face. At 2 p.m., they reached the summit, but topping out wasn’t the finale. High up in the cool air, Davis and Richard traded climbing harnesses for wingsuits, walked to the monolith’s edge, leaned out, and leapt into the void. As Davis began falling through the air, she assumed the position of a flying squirrel. For almost a minute, she soared over the desert’s starkly beautiful terrain, before deploying her parachute and maneuvering it down to land in the rugged gravel wash they’d walked up eight hours earlier.
The sequence of events above could easily make for one of those epic, make-your-palms-sweat scenes in a climbing film. For Davis, it was a Tuesday in the middle of a busy week that would include several other forms of adventure. Ever since she was a student at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, the 45-year-old adventurer has consistently knocked off record-breaking feat after record-breaking feat in multiple outdoor disciplines.
Over the past two decades, Davis has logged a ticker tape of first ascents and notable climbs. She was the first woman to free-climb the Salathė Wall, on El Capitan (5.13 VI, 35 pitches), and first to free solo the infamous Diamond route on Longs Peak. She’s also made first ascents in Baffin Island, Patagonia, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Many of Davis’s most impressive feats were “free solos”—that is, climbing the wall without a rope or harness. “When you’re someone like me,” says Davis, “doing a lot of free soloing in no-fall environments, it’s hard to feel good about falling,” she says. “The thought is if I fall, I die, and it can become inhibiting to think that way as a climber.” Rather than let those thoughts and fears interfere with her climbing, she decided to face them head-on: by falling, literally, from the sky.
She jumped out of her first plane, over Longmont, Colorado, in June 2007. Her first BASE jump—off Idaho’s Perrine Bridge, spanning the Snake River—followed months later. Her knack for extreme focus contributed to her “accelerated progression,” and soon she was seeking out features she could jump off near her home in Moab.
BASE stands for “buildings, antennas, spans, and earth,” and the earth features around her hometown—sandstone spires and short cliffs—were too low to be safe for a new jumper. To learn her craft, she went to Europe, where the cliffs are taller, and soon she was back in Moab, concentrating most of her attention on parachuting from cliffs and increasing her skills with a wingsuit. Between 2008 and 2012, she found a way to combine her sports by doing several notable BASE climbs around Moab—climbing to the tops of spires and jumping off—then, seeking still more opportunity for “absolute commitment,” she found a site suitably high to add wingsuiting into the mix.
For Davis, the laser focus required to climb at such a high level, BASE jump, and wingsuit is what she calls a “superpower,” allowing her to push out the noise of the modern world and reach clarity in her life. It’s how she defeats what she calls the “attention merchants” of the modern world—Twitter and Facebook, the never-ending stream of news, fake news, Instagrams, and updates that constantly disrupt our daily lives. “As soon as you tune in to this, you become very protective of your attention,” she says. “I decided that I wasn’t going to give mine away anymore, because whatever you put your attention in is where you’re going to go.”