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Touching all the BASEs: Two outdoor adventurers are sure to go to extremes in their talk at Aspen Institute

Headshots of Reinhold Messner and Steph Davis
Courtesy of the Aspen Institute
Climber and BASE jumper Steph Davis will speak with renowned mountaineer Reinhold Messner at the Aspen Institute on Wednesday night for a talk called “Mountain vs. Human Nature: Sustaining Alpinism as a Way of Life.”

Steph Davis has climbed some of the most challenging routes on Earth, and she spends plenty of time airborne as an accomplished BASE jumper and wingsuit flyer.

Davis and Reinhold Messner, widely considered one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, will appear together at the at the Aspen Institute on Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Their talk, “Mountain vs. Human Nature: Sustaining Alpinism as a Way of Life,” is part of the institute’s "Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Series."

Aspen Public Radio's Kaya Williams spoke with Davis over Zoom on Monday about risk, sustainability and inspiration in the mountains. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What's the point of life? I think the point of it is to live in a way that feels right and feels good, where you're getting better, where you're kind of experiencing everything it has to offer. ... That's what it's all about.
Steph Davis

Williams: This talk that’s coming up on Wednesday is part of the "Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Series," which is a reference to the “Aspen idea.” How do you see those three elements intersecting in your own life and your own pursuit of adventure?

Davis: I think, for me, that always has been the driving force of adventures.

First of all, this feeling of curiosity, I think, is very compelling, but also, trying to figure out how to pursue that feeling of curiosity in the physical world, and then realizing what that requires of a human, which brings it to a more interior space, and then does kind of bring together all those elements of mind and body and spirit.

Williams: Do you think that this lifestyle of adventure and risk-seeking in these very large, mountainous environments is sustainable or even replicable for other people?

Davis: I think that's one of the reasons that, I mean, I think Reinhold is obviously inspiring to a lot of people. He has been for his entire life and continues to be.

And I think that is a big part of the inspiration, is watching someone like him who has been really at the forefront of what I would call some of the most extreme styles of adventure for decade after decade, and breaking barriers and setting standards and just being so prolific, and then slightly changing directions in the ways that he has done.

But he's definitely an example, I think, of somebody who's shown a very highly sustainable approach, even as he's really been on the cutting edge of this very high-risk sport that he has chosen to do.

Obviously, his direction has changed, but the stuff that he has done, it's really at the peak of what people do in those venues. So I find him a really neat inspiration and example of that.

Williams: Do you find that your own direction has changed over the course of your career?

Davis: I think part of what sustainability has always meant to me has been that you just don't do the exact same thing all the time.

Because, first of all, in high-risk pursuits, if you do the exact same thing all the time, there's this statistical reality where an accident will occur at some number, so there's that piece of it.

But then there's also the piece of just inspiration. And I know, for myself, I've always kind of embraced diversity, even within the tiny category of climbing, as a climber, because if I just do the same thing all the time, I kind of lose that excitement about it.

And so sustainability, you know, it's not just survival. It's also about inspiration, and motivation. And, for me, that's always meant that you just have to mix it up a little bit, you have to keep things changing, because otherwise, it's just all the same thing. There's a point where it's just not that interesting.

Williams: There's a lot of risk and a lot of loss, I would imagine, in living life at the extremes of human performance. How do you navigate that as you continue to move forward and pursue new things?

Davis: That is such a tough question, you know, because I spend so much of my time mitigating risk and managing risk, and basically just trying to make it so that I do get to keep doing the things that I love doing, and keep the risk levels reasonable.

If you do spend a lot of your time focusing on risk, it's just this undeniable fact that, you know, humans just don't last forever. And that's just part of the deal.

But no matter what, for everybody, there is this time and place when you really have to just look at life and realize that it is finite.

I think, for humans, that this is the main thing that we spend really all of our lives trying to come to terms with. And, for myself, as somebody that does pursue things that are potentially more high-risk, I think that I have kind of bobbed in and out of that awareness in different ways over time.

But ultimately, what it always comes down to for me is, you know, why are we here? What's the point of being here? What's the point of life?

I think the point of it is to live in a way that feels right and feels good, where you're getting better, where you're kind of experiencing everything it has to offer, and if you can do that, I mean, that's what it's all about.

Risk is one of these things that I just kind of work with, I assess, I try to reduce, but I also try to not let it hold me back from really living.

Williams: For someone who isn't a professional adventurer, how can they apply the values and lessons of mountaineering and climbing and alpinism to their own lives?

Davis: Honestly, that's one reason I think it'll be really neat talking to Reinhold, because I think he has such probably interesting perspectives on this with, like, his life trajectory of being first this incredible mountaineer, and then this overland adventurer, and then, you know, like a member of Parliament, and then somebody that's purchasing old castles and having to get permissions to renovate them.

Because I have found it, in my life, really interesting that sometimes the qualities that serve you well when you're in the mountains, and in kind of life-or-death situations, those same qualities kind of have to be adjusted when dealing with more human-based community or social constructs.

Learning how to take on really big projects, and things that don't have a clear end in sight, I think you get that from being in the mountains.

I think that can really serve you well, or I've found that that has served me well, in life that is not in the mountains. Because sometimes it's just really hard to get going on something that seems big, and then the path is a little unclear, and there's a lot of sacrifice and a lot of risk and a lot of commitment. And you're sort of questioning it, and it's taking a very, very long time.

I know, for myself, when I kind of go down those roads in what I would call maybe more “normal” life, it's very helpful to be able to say to myself, “Hey, you know, this is just like wanting to free (climb) El Cap. It might take a really long time, and you just have to toil away bit by bit.” I think that has a lot of value.

Williams: What do you hope that people take away from this talk on Wednesday night at the institute?

Davis: I just think it's a really ... fascinating opportunity to talk to Reinhold Messner, who is just such a legend, such an icon, and has been so prolific in so many different ways in the world of just finding something that sparked his curiosity, that does spark his curiosity and things that are just massive undertakings.

What an interesting human spirit that is. That's why I'm just very excited to get a chance to talk with him and ask him a little bit about the things he's done.

And I guess when I think of it all, I just really think of the concept of vision, and manifestation. I don't really think there's anybody else like him in that way.

Tickets for “Mountain vs. Human Nature: Sustaining Alpinism as a Way of Life” are available at aspenshowtix.com


Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.