There’s a granola bar company, I won’t say which company, but you know this company. This company has a logo of a man climbing a mountain. This company hired some of the best mountain climbers in the world as spokespeople for their product. This company hired Steph Davis, because she is unarguably in that group.
Then this company fired Steph Davis, because the way she climbed mountains was so extreme, so dangerous, so spiteful to every sense of human logic and self-preservation that she made them feel uncomfortable.
And the granola bar company was right; the way Steph Davis climbs mountains is goddamn terrifying.
Steph Davis doesn’t just climb the tallest, the most difficult, the most dangerous mountains on Earth. Steph Davis climbs those mountains without ropes or carabiners or any of the other equipment that makes something as fundamentally unreasonable as mountain climbing at least somewhat reasonable. She climbs those mountains with nothing more than pointy shoes and calloused fingers and a fanny pack full of chalk. And when she reaches the top of those mountains, she jumps off. First, she jumped with a parachute; later, she soon flew off those mountains on nylon wings.
With every video of Steph Davis that I watched, one thing became increasingly clear: this woman isn’t just a mountain climber, she isn’t just a daredevil, she isn’t just a failed granola bar spokeswoman; Steph Davis is an actual action hero.
This woman right here. The one who looks like a college writing professor. The one who also happens to have been a college writing professor. This woman is an action hero.
The “what” that Steph Davis does is so impressive, so dangerous, so difficult to comprehend, that it is easy to overlook the “who” that is doing them. Even watching videos of her climbing and jumping and flying requires a certain level of detachment. Not just detachment in the “peeking through fingers/what if she slips/what if she falls” sense, but a greater detachment; the distance that is created in knowing Steph regularly experiences something that few other humans have experienced, that few other humans could ever experience. Because for those hours on those mountains and those seconds in the air, Steph is experiencing something that most of us strive to attain and never even come close. She is conquering; not just nature, not just gravity, she is conquering fear. That is not to say she has made the fear disappear — the fear has never gone away for her, the fear will never go away — but she has learned to use that fear as just another tool, both in her climbs and in her life.
“[Climbing is] a lot of pure focus. You know, you’re way more focused suddenly than you were before and it’s also a really good exercise in fear management because if you’ve never done this before, you’re going to get up there and just be petrified and then you have to ask yourself, ‘Why should I be so petrified on this climb that I’ve done plenty of times? I know it’s not that hard for me. I know there’s no reason I should fall off. Why am I suddenly so petrified?’ It’s a really interesting question to ask yourself. Having these experiences is really an exercise in understanding that and just getting more comfortable with the idea of fear and what it means. That directly translates to life…we’re all scared about things all the time, and the more we practice it, the more we figure out how to cope with it, and work through it positively, then the better we are at that. And that’s something that we all have to do all our lives.” – Steph Davis
Before I interviewed Steph, I expected to feel the same disconnect during our conversation that I experienced when I watched the videos of her climbs. I expected to have her describe sensations I would never experience, and heights I would never visit, and emotions I would never feel. I expected to interview an action hero, a living video game character, not a person. What I did not expect was how approachable Steph was, how relatable, how she immediately made me understand the simple reason why she climbs and flies and does the many other dangerous and insane and terrifying things that she does. The simple reason is that Steph has dedicated her life to the pursuit of her greatest passion. It just so happens that her life’s greatest passion happens to be dangerous and insane and terrifying.
“In my 20s, I was doing a lot of expedition climbing and summited all the seven major peaks of the Fitzroy Range. I made the first one-day ascent of Toriagera, which is a major peak down in the Andes. In Yosemite, I’m the second woman to free El Cap[itan] in a day and the first woman to free the Salathe Wall, which is another kind of famous hard free route on El Cap. With free soloing, I did a bunch of free solos on the Longs Peak Diamond, which is a kind of high altitude granite wall in Colorado on one of the famous fourteeners, Longs Peak, and free soloed that multiple times.”
Steph Davis has spent her life following her passion, truly following her passion, with all the struggle (and there has been lots of struggle) and the tragedy (and there has been even more tragedy) that comes along with that. And despite all the mountains she has climbed, and the mountains she has jumped off, and the flying she has done in between, this overwhelming commitment to doing what she loves, doing what makes her happy, is the most impressive thing about Steph Davis.
“I think the happiest people I know out there are the people that are really pursuing the things that lights them up in life. I think that can be really hard to do sometimes. So whenever I see someone like that, it really inspires me to keep chasing my passions, and keep chasing my dream.”
I repeat, Steph Davis is a hero, an actual action hero. Not because she climbs mountains, and not because she jumps off mountains, and not because she flies through the air in a glorified track suit. Steph Davis is a hero because she has done something far harder than all that, something far scarier; she has chased what makes her happy, actually chased, across the world, to the top of mountains, through clouds, back again, up again, down again.
“For me, I really love the air, and I love being up high, I like being in the mountains. For me, this is really the ultimate experience, and the environment I want to be in…I’m pretty happy with the things I get to do. I think it’s pretty phenomenal; my goal is to be able to keep doing these things and having these amazing experiences.”
Steph Davis has chased happiness, through the pain and the danger and the heartbreak, and it appears she has caught it.
“I just feel a really strong sense of well-being when I’m up in high places. I know that if I don’t feel happy and I go hike up a hill, I always feel really happy at the top of the hill and it just feels good.”
And she may have lost the sponsorship of a granola bar company in the process, but she has gained something far more valuable.