At the International Mountain Summit 2014 I had the opportunity to have an interview with Steph Davis, US American Climber and BASE Jumper, one of the bright lights of female alpinism. At the IMS she gave an awe-inspiring talk about her life and her career. She was the first woman to climb Salathé Wall on El Capitan, free-soloed Castleton Tower North Face, Utah (probably first female free-solo in 5.11b), was the first woman to summit Torre Egger and the first American woman to summit Fitzroy, both in Patagonia. She published books which deal with problems she had to struggle with in her career such as overcoming fear in climbing and base-jumping as well as emotional set-backs like the death of her former partner. We talked about that and aspects of her strong personality as well as about media and literature.
At the IMS, you participated in a discussion about the role of media and publicity in alpinism and climbing. What role do discussions like those play in your own activities? Are you interested or rather far away from that?
Well, the media is how I make my living. And so I find it a very positive force. If I had a lot of money by myself I probably wouldn’t do anything with the media. But I don’t have, so it’s important in my job which is partly interacting, creating media, to create something, and to share. I think it’s a powerful force and you can either be like a victim and be afraid of it or you can try to learn and be a part of it and understand how to work with it. And as a climber the only value that you could be paid for is to create something or to give something back. So that’s why we need the media and we have to work with it and create things.
You also said you like social media, too, for creating community. Can you explain that? What do you mean by community?
The community is the group of people that you have something in common with. And the really great thing is when you find each other and become a community instead of all the people being separately out there. So the power of social media is that I can make my own place, like my own website or my Facebook page and I can say, “hey, this is my place, this is where I show things that are interesting to me” and then if other people have the same interest, they are going to come there. And we can talk to each other and help each other, share interesting things, find out what each other wants. So that’s really powerful because, although everything is connected sometimes you can’t find each other.
When you come to South Tyrol or the Dolomites, what are your feelings? Are you only looking forward to your activities and what you are going to do here or are there also some negative feelings, too, like sad memories?
Because of Mario dying? In a strange way I feel more connected to the Dolomites because of that, because now it is a part of my life and I always loved this place and Mario loved this place and that’s why we’ve come here and in some ways it’s very meaningful to me that he died here. Because I feel like, there’s a stronger connection now. And I didn’t choose it but I have it. So I don’t wanna go back to Sass Pordoi anytime soon, where he actually died. I think that’s gonna be a really hard experience if I would go back there, so I’m not gonna do that now. But the Dolomites is a lot more than that one place, it’s a huge reason and I have a lot of good memories here. I spent time in the Tre Cime with Mario and I was happy to go back there last summer and to Cortina, and all the places.
Your parents didn’t endorse your sports. Has this also been a cause for becoming such a mentally strong athlete, and not only that but also getting such a strong character? Was it the foundation to be able to endure all the bad things that happened in your life?
I think that when I was younger I was really sad that my parents didn’t support my climbing and also I felt sometimes jealous of my friends whose parents helped them and took them on trips, things like that (laughs). But now my parents are more accepting anyway now, so we feel better together. But I think now I feel kind of proud that I had to fight for everything I did and nothing was handed to me. There wasn’t help, it was just because I really wanted to do it. And so I have never questioned my motivation for climbing, I’ve never had to and I don’t feel very affected by the outside. If somebody likes my climb or if they don’t like my climb – it doesn’t matter because it’s always been a very strong emotion coming from myself to do the things I do. And I think when you really have to give a lot for something you value it.
In your lecture, you talked about endurance and resilience. What’s the difference in both?
What I believe from my experience now is that endurance is very emotional and it’s important to use that sometimes. But I now think of endurance as like a step towards resilience. And resilience is the goal and resilience is happiness. And not just weathering the storm, but having a lot of joy.
Is that necessary also for BASE jumping? When you try to separate intensity from fear, as you explained it in your talk. How can I imagine how it works?
I teach people to basejump in my business and spend a lot of time with jumpers I think that everybody’s different: Some people don’t care if they’re scared, they go for it, do it anyway. I think that’s a little dangerous, that makes me nervous when I see people like that, or even really scares me. But I also see people the other way: when they get towards an intense situation they have really strong feelings of intensity and they think that’s fear, they wanna get away from it. They’ll do anything to stop feeling that way so they go back.
And I think you need to be able to separate that and say “Okay I’m feeling strong emotion – don’t just run away, stop and try to understand it”. I think it’s really hard in the beginning if you’re not used to doing things this scary, because as soon as you feel all that stuff it feels bad, so you want it to stop. I think it just takes time, you have to get an understanding of yourself: Are you the person that always does it? Or are you the person that always doesn’t do it? And then, where is the balance?
I want to ask you something about your studies. You read a lot of books, since you studied literature and did research work in alpinist literature. Was there some kind of interchange between your studies or your research work on the one hand and your climbing on the other? Or in other words: did one profit from the other?
The topic I did my Master’s thesis on was called “The reality of experience in mountaineering literature” and it was very interesting to me because I read a lot of the classic mountaineering books. And what really stood out to me was the idea that one person’s experience is totally different from the other person’s experience, even if they’re on the same climb together and so that really taught me some lessons about my own experiences. So if I will be on a climb with somebody else I might not see it the same way as them. And that taught me a lot when I became a writer, too. Because I’ve started to write stories about my trips and my climbs with other people and it reminded me that my story is my story. So I try to be very careful about assigning things to other people in my story because they could have a totally different experience. So what I learned is: you can only know what you experienced yourself.
That sounds very much like skepticism.
I believe there is no “objective reality”, there is only each person’s reality and you cannot expect those to be the same. What this means for a writer is that you do not have the authority to write about anyone else’s experience or to assume anything about anyone else’s motivations or actions–only your own. Obviously this makes it pretty difficult to tell stories about your own experience when someone else is a part of that story. But having this perspective will dramatically affect the way you tell stories about your climbing experiences and how it includes others – it will make you really careful about how you write about other people, which is a good thing based on some of the mountaineering stories I have read.
Who is your favorite alpinist writer? Or do you have a favorite alpinist story or book?
I really like the book “No picnic on Mt. Kenya” which is by Felice Beluzzi, that’s a great book.
The psychologist Thomas Fuchs said that a lack of ability to be satisfied after reaching an objective is a problem and it could lead to regard climbing as a never-ending process, because after you finish one project or you reach a goal there’s always another one, mostly a bigger one. Do you agree with him?
Well that’s the beauty of life, it always keeps going. If you don’t want it to keep going, you’ve done.
In your lecture you told the audience, that for a period of a month or so when you woke up every morning you thought about jumping off without a parachute. What was it that kept you from doing it?
Because I talked to friends who lost their partner. And all I wanted to know was if they were happy now and they were. So then I felt I can do that. I was not committing to stay. So I just stayed to see if that would be true.
Did climbing or jumping take part in this process? Did it help you coming over everything?
I think it’s just that you’re really hurt, you’re very wounded in a time like that. So you just have to try to heal. And for me, of course I will go climbing. And of course I will jump. I wasn’t like having fun, but I was just doing it, for that time. You have to do things. But that’s just all a part of healing.
How do you manage living vegan during your travels or your expeditions or your climbing projects?
The hardest time being vegan is doing normal travel, like driving around or being in airplanes, things like that. When you’re climbing you bring what you want with you. But it’s not usually that hard. It’s a little harder in Switzerland and Germany, I would say. But it’s generally not that hard.
You give basejumping courses for women. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, I do basejumping courses for anybody. I also do climbing clinics where a bunch of people come and we go crack-climbing and hang out for a couple of days and I do some womens clinics only for women climbing in Moab. So just kind of a lot of different things.
Is there something different about it, something special, and what is it?
I really didn’t want to do womens-only-courses first and first I didn’t. Because I thought I don’t want to exclude people, we should all go climbing. So my first clinics were never womens-only. And still my main Indian creek clinics are not womens-only, they are for everyone. But then women kept asking me: “would you do womens clinic?” And then I said “Okay! We’ll do one and see how it goes!” And honestly, they haven’t found them that different. It seems like the people who come to the regular ones are really interesting and having a good time and the people who come to the womens clinics are like a very similar kind of people. So I haven’t seen a difference. The women signed up for the womens one, but when they come they’re the same as the others (laughs).
You have pushed female alpinism forward a lot, I think. But how do you see women in alpinism today and what has changed since you started climbing?
I just see a lot more women climbing now, than 20 years ago, so that means there’s more women in all types of climbing and they are doing more stuff.
And you see it growing in the future, too? Is there still potential?
It looks like, for sure. I mean, climbing is really exploding in the last 20 years already. So it’s just gonna keep growing, I think.
Thank you for the interview.