Steph Davis checks her climbing harness one more time, her figure-eight knot and the tape she’s wrapped around her hands to protect them from the Yosemite granite. Silver carabiners, blue cord and multicolored quickdraws and cams – the tools of her trade – hang from her harness like elaborate jewelry. Behind her, is 3,000 vertical feet of air.
Davis’ partner, Cybele Blood, whom Davis met only days before their climb, feeds her some rope and good vibes– You can do this, Steph.
Davis places her fingers into the just-wide-enough crack and twists hard. Solid. She places her foot on a crumbly, dime-thin edge that her feet are too numb to feel and powers up the wall. A cold October wind rushes up the rock face from the Yosemite Valley below and swirls Davis’ long dark hair.
Only two more pitches (rope lengths) tower between 33-year-old Steph Davis and the top of the Salath/ Wall route on Yosemite’s El Capitan. If she makes it, she’ll be the first woman and ninth person to free-climb the mountain, Davis planned on spending five days climbing this route, but it’s taken her seven just to reach this point, and the two hardest sections of climbing remain.
At the top of this second to last pitch, which climbers call the “Enduro Pitch” for its 150 feet of hard, sustained climbing, Davis is so worn out that she struggles to lift the 8.9 millimeter rope that stands between her and ten seconds of free fall.
She clenches the rope in her teeth, pushes the slack through the anchor carabiner and goes for the last moves. Just as she reaches for the second-to-last hand-hold, she feels her hands slipping out of the smooth rock. Suddenly her right foot slips off and Davis flies. The rope stretches taught against the anchor and Davis bounces twenty feet below.
She’s fallen for the umpteenth time. Everything seems to be going wrong on this climb. Freezing and tearful with frustration, she lowers back to Blood.
Out of food and growing skinnier by the day, the climbers decide Blood will climb fixed ropes up to the top of the rock, hike to the bottom of the valley, buy food and return in the morning. Then they’ll keep trying.
Davis spends another night on her sidewalk-sized ledge, alone with her doubt and exhaustion.
A Fort Collins Homecoming
Two years later the sun is hanging low over the big “A” and the Horsetooth bouldering areas. From campus, Davis looks west with joyous nostalgia. She hasn’t been back to Fort Collins since graduating with a master’s degree in literature in 1995.
“Fort Collins was the best,” Davis said. “I came from Maryland, but that was never home. Then I got here and I was like, ‘Oh my God’, this is where I belong. When I had to go back to Maryland, it was like being put in jail. This school is perfect. Everything’s just the right size.”
Fort Collins is where Davis’ “road to nowhere” (the climbing life, that is) really blossomed as she climbed the Horsetooth Reservoir boulders and the Estes Park crags during her year of undergrad work at CSU in the early 90’s and later during her Master’s program.
Rodney Ley, assistant director of the CSU Outdoor Adventure Program where Davis taught climbing classes in grad school, remembers Davis as a good climber back then, “but not a climber you’d expect to be one of the best in the world a few years later.”
After finishing her master’s degree, Davis surrendered to her true love: climbing. Her parents certainly weren’t happy when she quit law school at CU Boulder to follow her passion, but she implies that to have done anything else would have simply been unnatural.
Davis writes in her recently-published first book, “High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity”: “My pursuit of climbing was … a surrender to the inevitable. Even now, supposedly older and wiser, I make most fundamental life decisions impetuously, based on what feels right inside, and I never look back. It’s the only thing I can do.”
For seven years, what “felt right to do” for Davis was to first live out of her grandmother’s hand-me-down Oldsmobile sedan with the seats removed, and later – “luxuriously” – out of the back of a Ford Ranger pickup, all the while climbing hard, traveling far and occasionally supporting her habit by waiting tables or guiding climbers.
During those nomadic years, Davis put up many thousands of feet of first ascents on hard rock, snow and ice climbing routes in places like Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Baffin Islands and the Argentine Patagonia.
“I constantly worried my life was a wreck and careening toward destitution,” Davis writes, but following her path has led her to more contentment than she says she could have predicted.
Along the way she fell in love with Moab, Utah, and made it her home by “acquiring a storage unit and a library card.” She now has a home base in Moab as well as Yosemite with her husband, professional adventurer Dean Potter, and canine running partner, Fletcher. Salath/ High, Salath/ Low
The following morning, Blood rappels to Davis with fresh food, a Scrabble board, a bottle of wine (for the top) and gifts from fellow climbers in the valley below.
After resting for a day and feeling replenished by food and encouragement radioed from below, Davis finally climbs the “Enduro” pitch, but the climb is far from over. The next day she falls various times off the last move of the final pitch before finally “sending” it a day later and becoming the first woman to free climb the Salath/ Wall, which, with its 5.13c difficulty rating, would be like scaling a 300-story high-rise on holds barely big enough to pinch.
After ten days Davis’ strength, focus and determination paid off. For weeks afterward, she was in “ecstasy.”
“I had used every scrap of reserve I possessed and had to fight harder than I ever thought possible to climb [the Salath/]” Davis writes. “For the first time in my life, I truly believed that I could do anything I put my mind to, and it was an amazing feeling.”
But that high was not without its low.
After the thrill of climbing one of the hardest routes in Yosemite had worn off, Davis felt “drained.”
“The Salath/ was a humongous psychological and spiritual crux for me,” Davis says, “and the low was every bit as intense as the high, to a degree I had never experienced before. I was like, ‘whoa – I am totally obliterated.’ I felt crushed by doubt.”
Davis found herself questioning her highly-motivated, goal-driven attitude on the Salath/ given that her spiritual and philosophical beliefs call to “surrender to the flow, to never force outcomes.”
“I recognized the conflict between my spiritual philosophies and my personal ethic of hard work and determination, and I was filled with confusion,” Davis writes in her book.
She says she knows other climbers who’ve given their all to a project have had similar experiences.
Although she hasn’t fully reconciled this dilemma even now, two years after climbing the Salath/, Davis seems to have regained her joy and wonder for life.
“I think I’m trying to be at a slightly more peaceful place right now. I’m finding myself more comfortable with my big climbing projects, but I’m also happy without that now,” she said. “I think it’s a special balance to be able to put so much energy and focus on something – because that’s a beautiful thing – but also to not be controlled by it. There was a time, like on the Salath/, that I was controlled by my climbing projects, and I don’t think it was necessarily healthy. It seems in the climbing world it’s generally okay to be selfish – encouraged, even – but I’m starting not to feel that anymore.”
Writing her book, “High Infatuation” helped Davis sort through these personal conflicts.
“Writing that story and having to piece it all together helped me recover from those feelings,” she said.
Davis presented her book and climbing adventures at the Lory Student Center last Wednesday. She blended reading passages with thrilling climbing videos and photographs set to soulful music.
Ley, who coordinated Davis’ visit, said, “Steph hasn’t changed that much. She’s still got all that ‘ha-ha-ha!'”
In the end, it’s all about living simply and naturally for Davis.
“Climbing,” she writes in her book, “Simply and joyfully, is the way I love the world.”
Staff writer Francisco Tharp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.