Choosing to Fly: Steph Davis at TEDxBoulder (Full Transcript)

I want to tell you what it feels like to fly. On top of the mountain, you’re a little tired and sweaty. You’ve been marching uphill for three and a half hours with a pack on your back, wingsuit and parachute, helmet, ski goggles, water, food, radio, emergency GPS device, gloves, a hat. The temperature drops for every 1,000 feet you go up, so it feels good to get zipped into the wingsuit. It’s just a single layer of nylon fabric, but it makes you feel warm and safe. Standing at the edge, dressed up to fly, your heart beats harder. You try to separate intensity from fear, and ask yourself if this feels right, if you belong here, right now.

Once you leave the edge, you can’t go back. Suddenly, it’s time. You dive straight out, and time slows. In two seconds you open your leg wing. In the third second, your wings fill with air, and you shoot forward. You roll your shoulders down to build speed, follow the wall until it drops away, and then pull your arms back and dive hard skimming over the carpet of steep forest as it unrolls below.

If you could, you would stay forever (Music). When I was 18, in college in Maryland, I went rock climbing, and it changed my life. I got a master’s degree in Fort Collins, attended law school in Boulder for a week and then, in one fell swoop, I moved into my car. I didn’t know I would become a professional climber, I was pretty concerned I might become a bag lady.

Stepping off the known road was one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken. I didn’t have a plan, I just knew I had to go. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t lost things in life. But what’s funny to me is how we always talk about taking risks, like it’s an option or a decision we get to make; like there might be some version of life in which just getting out of bed doesn’t open you up to an endless gamut of risks; some version of life in which things don’t change, and nothing happens.

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Seven years ago, I started BASE jumping. I’ll be honest, I’d lost a lot of things at that point in life. I divorced, lost a job I really loved, lost a lot of friends in the mountains, lost a house, lost an ACL, and lost my dog. I could have written a great country song but instead, I kept climbing and started learning to fly. Not long after that, I fell in love with a pilot from Quebec named Mario. He was also a BASE jumper, and a wingsuit pilot, and a legend in the BASE community.

Mario was a magical person: playful, grounded, generous, a fixer of problems, someone who saw the good in everything. He was the closest I’ve ever seen to a perfect human, and he was a perfect husband. We spent five years together making a home in Moab, building a business, traveling together, flying together, and loving each other. Last summer, we made a wingsuit flight together from a mountain in Italy. I was in front, and Mario jumped right after me.

When I landed, he wasn’t there. I called his radio for five minutes, and then I called for a helicopter. When someone disappears in a wingsuit, it means one thing. Through the excruciating hours of searching, I already knew I would not see him again. I thought I’d become pretty good at losing things.

I’ve been a full-time climber for 20 years, and I know how to endure. In the mountains, when you’re cold and wet, and hungry, and dehydrated, and exhausted, and it’s dark, and it’s storming, you turn-off your emotions, and you keep going because you have no other option. No one is going to get you off the mountain but you. Crying is just a waste of water. And by extension, I used this way to deal with adversity in real life.

Lost your job, lost your husband, dog died? Slam in the ice tools and keep going! But enduring is really about being numb, it’s about choking off all possible emotion, it’s about getting the job done instead of falling apart and giving up. There’s a lot to be said for enduring, and I know I’m good at it. I’ve dealt with a lot of loss, but never with the kind of grief on the level of losing Mario.

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If you’ve lost the other half of yourself without warning, you know the shock you feel as it starts to dawn on you; that in one second, you’ve just lost everything: your partner, your best friend your beloved, your present, your past, and your future. In the first months, every morning when I woke from dreams of Mario I thought about walking to the top of a cliff without my parachute and stepping off.

It’s not like I don’t know how to jump off a cliff and in Moab we have plenty of them. It was actually very comforting knowing I had that option. Leaving is final, but understanding that staying is not final really took the pressure off and made it possible for me to just keep going one minute at a time. So at first, I did what I know how to do: I endured. After a couple of months, I started to see a difference between endurance and resilience.

Endurance is grey. It’s stoic, it’s silent. It doesn’t laugh, it doesn’t cry. It just gets it done. Resilience is like a rainbow super ball. You can spike that thing on the concrete, and it’s going to bounce up even higher and ricochet around all over the place. Endurance is about holding on. Resilience is about letting go. Most things in life, you don’t get to choose. Most things in life, you’ll never see coming. Most things in life, you don’t get to keep. No matter what, things are going to keep happening, and most of them are not going to be the things you picked out.

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