Climber, wingsuit pilot and BASE jumper Steph Davis shares lessons from the air |

Climber, wingsuit pilot and BASE jumper Steph Davis shares lessons from the air

Melanie Wong
Climber, BASE jumper and wingsuit pilot Steph Davis speaks as part of Vail Symposium's Unlimited Adventure Series in Vail. She's shown here near her home in Moab, Utah, with her dog Cajun.
Tommy Chandler | Special to the Daily |

If you go ...

What: “Learning to Fly: Lessons from the Air,” with extreme athlete Steph Davis, part of the Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure Series.

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14.

Where: Donovan Pavilion, 1600 South Frontage Road W., Vail.

Cost: $10 suggested donation.

More info: Although the event is free, space is limited and expected to run out. Reserve your spot by registering online at or by calling 970-476-0954.

Steph Davis knows all about stepping into the unknown.

She did it when she quit law school and moved into her grandma’s hand-me-down Oldsmobile to pursue the climbing lifestyle. She does it when she climbs towering rock routes without rope and harness (a type of climbing called free soloing). She does it every time she jumps off the edge of a cliff with just a parachute as her safety net.

She has the distinction of being the only woman to free solo a 5.11-rated climb, the first woman to summit all peaks in the Fitzroy Range in Patagonia, the second woman to free climb El Capitan in a day and the first woman to free solo The Diamond on Longs Peak. Her adventures have made for two books, “High Infatuation” and “Learning to Fly.”

Along the way, she’s experienced some major losses. Her ex-husband Dean Potter and husband Mario Richard both died in separate wingsuit accidents. She calls moving forward from Richard’s death the hardest thing she’s ever done.

Davis has compiled all of these experiences from her nontraditional life into a talk that she’ll share with Vail audiences at Donovan Pavilion today at 5:30 p.m. The event is part of the Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure Series.

From classical pianist to pro climber

Davis stumbled across climbing at age 18 and got hooked. Amazingly, she said that before climbing, she was “not really an outdoors person at all.” She was focused on classical piano through college, but slowly her passion for climbing took priority, and she was spending more and more time on the rock.

She studied literature (because it was less time intensive than classical piano, allowing her to climb more) and even started law school before dropping out to pursue climbing. However, her classical training never left her.

“The discipline and the focus I had in classical piano for 15 years really helped me in climbing,” she said. “I grew up understanding that to be really good at something, you have to put in a lot of work and training. You also have to have a lot of passion for it. That’s always something that’s been important for me — finding something that lights me up.”

During the past eight years, that passion has expanded to BASE jumping and wingsuit flying. The experiences of jumping and flying are an exhilarating combination of a mountain experience and intensity, she said.

“People are so focused on the dramatic free-fall part, but the whole experience starts when you hike up the cliff of the mountain. Around Moab (Utah, where Davis lives,) you usually hike one hour uphill, so you get a mountain experience first,” she said. “Then, always right before you leave the edge, you make a decision to jump that you can’t undecide. It’s a very personal, intense moment.”

Fear, loss and life

In “Learning to Fly,” which was re-released this fall with a new final chapter, Davis writes about the adventures and heartaches she experienced during a time of her life in which she started to BASE jump and also lost her husband, Mario, during a wingsuit jump they did together.

She admits the time following the loss of her husband was extremely difficult, but that she found strength and solace in continuing in the things she loved — climbing, jumping and flying. She will talk to audiences about that decision to keep going.

“People dying from the sport doesn’t make me think I wouldn’t do it anymore. If people die, should I continue not to live? If your friend dies in a car accident, do you stop driving?” she said. “It was a hard grieving process when I lost him. Once I got over that, it didn’t make sense for me to not continue living.”

With fear and loss such a big part of her life, Davis said she hopes her insights will give others inspiration and comfort.

“I’ve gotten really powerful responses from a lot of people. It was written in a time of my life that had a lot of changes and ups and downs,” she said. “Everyone goes through this stuff in life, and while it’s really hard, something that helped me was talking to other people and reading others’ books. I’ve had people tell me this book helped them at a really important time in life. At the same time, it’s also an adventure book.”

Davis’ talk will include photos and videos from her adventures and global travels, and she’ll talk about her trips, close calls and hard experiences. Another aspect, which applies to daily life, includes managing risks and fear.

“That’s a big part of my talk. Anyone who doesn’t feel fear is either lying or a very risky person. But fear, in some ways, can be very helpful. It can keep us safe. We need to understand fear, listen to it and deal with it, rather than trying to ignore it, deny it or stop doing things,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve made friends with fear, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand it and understand its important elements in life.”

Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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