Among the elite of rock climbers, Steph Davis was a success by anyone's measure, with major sponsors sending her around the world to places of astonishing beauty and excitement. She loved her husband and climbing partner, and the special dog that happily accommodated their athletic lifestyle. She seemed impervious to risk or fear.
Learning to Fly is Davis' memoir of losing all of those things. And then, with the tenacity of a climber's fist jammed in a rocky seam, she makes it a story of self-discovery. She will not let herself fall. She regains her grip by pushing herself further, taking on new frames of reference with skydiving, BASE jumping (jumping from a fixed object and using a parachute to break the fall), and then flying a wing suit. Making the technical seem simple, she gradually finds her way up the stone and then flings herself out, flying into a life that is even better than what she had before.
Explanations for how her endorsements were suddenly dropped and her marriage ended are cautiously lacking in specifics, but Davis tells us enough to show herself feeling wronged, abandoned, failed, and futureless. Her dog, Fletch, grows ill, and its need keeps Davis going. In fact, the dog's grace in dealing with its own increasing pain and limitation is a strong thread in this story, and the author's devotion is tender.
But it is her desire to climb that is at the heart of this chronology of cliffs and skills and connections with others who live the same dreams. That desire is amplified by grief into an irresistible urge to skydive and expands into the insistent impulse to BASE jump; when she moves into flying a wing suit, it begins to seem that Davis needs ever-greater risk, that she might be addicted to thrill. Yet each successful climb or jump acts as a visceral self-repair mechanism. More than once she discovers her fear and masters it. She pushes too fast and pays the consequences. She opens her heart and learns important things. What could be better?
Not many of us have the capacity, or the opportunity, to travel to Italy and spread our nylon wings to the sky with someone we love, but here we can happily share the armchair adventure, and be satisfied with the ending. And we can take it deeper. Learning to Fly provokes some powerful questions. How do we use risk? And what does it mean to risk the unique gift of life? How do we choose our lives? Our partners? Or do we choose? Steph Davis thoughtfully follows her instincts, and her book will surely inspire others to do the same, as she helps us think about risk, resilience, and getting a grip in tight places.
Steph Davis is an internationally famous rock climber, skydiver, and BASE jumper, who makes her home in Moab, Utah. This memoir, Learning to Fly, follows her 2007 book, High Infatuation, in tracing her adventurous life and thinking about what it means. She also writes a candid and fascinating blog on her website.
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