Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Lessons of the Free Solo

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado

As a student of exploration, it would be fun to tell you that my eureka moments come at the end of long days of dog-sledding, bear-wrestling, and artifact-gathering. In truth, there are very few eureka moments and no bears. Most of my discoveries appear in hermetically-sealed, humidity-controlled Special Collections rooms. I’m usually wearing cotton gloves and the librarian watching me has taken away my pens.

The Room of Discovery

The Special Collections Room

But I had a eureka moment last night, ex bibliotheca. I was at a holiday party, sitting with a small group of people I had never met, cradling a large gin and tonic. We took on a whirl of topics: Apple computers, school bus driving, Thai massage, history education, and technical rock climbing. On this last point, people had much to say because, despite our different backgrounds, everyone was either a hiker or rock-climber. (This might seem a remarkable coincidence except for the fact that our hosts, Michael Kodas and Carolyn Moreau, are uber-climbers themselves, something probably reflected in their pool of guests).

Gerry, sitting to my left, picked up a copy of The Alpinist and showed me an article about solo free-climber Steph Davis. In the article, Davis is free climbing an outrageously sheer cliff, the “Pervertical Sanctuary” of 14, 255 ft Longs Peak in Colorado. Davis has no ropes, no parachute, no net, no way of preventing death if she falls.

Steph Davis free soloing The Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado

Steph Davis

“What’s up with this ?” I asked Michael (not Michael Kodas), a highly skilled rock climber to my left.  “I mean, after all, would ropes and harness be that much of a buzz-kill?”

“Ultimately it’s about focus. The climber has to be in the moment. Make this hold or die. Now the next one. Now the next one.”

Although Michael uses ropes, he remembers his most dangerous climbs with searing clarity: the texture of the rock, the shape of the flake, the tortured movements he uses to pivot his body in space.

Although I write often about the commercial hypocrisy of Arctic explorers of old (and some Everest climbers of new), I can appreciate the beauty of a mind in focus. It shines brightly to me through the thicket of distractions, of cellphones and Blackberrys, of text messages and twittering feeds, of listservs and Netflix deliveries. The ability to cast one’s mind on something and fix it there is powerfully appealing.

Would I dangle my body off a 4000 ft cliff to find it? Probably not. But I understand how intoxicating others would find it. And this bears on a bigger issue. Sometimes it’s easy for historians to forget the human beings behind their historical subjects. Or in my case, to see explorers’ drive for fame and glory and forget the powerful psychological underpinnings of dangerous travel. Historians do this on purpose, I think, for fear of imparting motives that are not borne out by the texts. After all, it’s easy to track faked photos, product endorsements, and publishing contracts, but harder to read minds and motivations. And yet these psychological motives are real, something I need to take more seriously in my work.

So to Michael, Gerry, Nikki, Trace, and Topher, it was great to meet you last night. Thanks for including me on your voyage of discovery.


  Kevin Z wrote @

The focus is an interesting and important part of explorer psyche. Doing my research at sea and diving down in submersibles to witness the endless amazing forms hidden within the ocean’s depths, I am away from the nagging undergrads, the endless supply of email (well not so much anymore with modern communications), the necessity of multi-tasking every waking moment.

At sea my focus is on observing animals, finding new or interesting sites/behaviors/interactions/etc., discussing with colleagues, chatting with ship/sub/ROV crew, Fishing for mahi mahi on my “free time” or drinking cheap rum and playing guitar on the top deck. I try to absorb as much of “at-sea” life as possible. When I return, it back to constant emails, lab work under the fluorescent lighting with no windows, dry writing, worrying about how my next year of salary is going to be covered…

The schizophrenia of the non-adventurous part of my life drives me insane. Surely, the explorer explores to escape the insanity of modern trappings and regain a sense of focus. Living in the moment and concentrating on that next move.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Kevin, good points…especially about the cheap rum and guitar on deck. I’ll need to talk to my Dean about this as required “experiential education” for my research. On motives: a lot of the 19th century explorers talk about escaping civilization but their writings and actions show they are deeply connected to the most commercial aspects of modern society. Robert Peary is a good example of this – his “field notes” during his North Pole expedition of 1909 have more to do with book contracts, designs for his geographical medal of honor, etc than his experiences in the Arctic. But I take your point – motives are complicated as are desires – as you point out in your experience of life aboard (and below ship). How can I get aboard one of these vessels? There must be a berth for historians with no skills.

  California Prevailing Wage Expert wrote @

I really love the picture of Stephen on the side of the mountain. I have watched many people climb in Yosemite so the images in your article brought back some nice memories.

  Pennsylvania Dog wrote @

I feel the same way about skiing in the outback. It is all about being in the moment. It not that you cant do it, its that you must be 100% in it to not make a mistake.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

My route to “living in the moment” is slightly different: I like to go running at the National Seashore at Cape Cod in the middle of summer when its really hot, then dive into the 58 degree water at Coast Guard beach. No threat of death or broken limbs, but its hard to focus on anything else but the electric jolt of icy water on hot skin.

  Interview with Steph Davis « Time to Eat the Dogs wrote @

[…] For more on Davis’s writings and climbing career, visit High Infatuation and read my earlier post Lessons of the Free Solo. […]

  Adealia Artist wrote @

Everyone falls at one point or another. So will the life of Steph Davis mean anything at all when her time to fall comes or is she just another narcissist saying “look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me.”

  Jen wrote @

I have many friends who do free climbing. Always been interested, but I don’t think I could ever do it

  Ironbark wrote @

@Adealia Artist – If Steph Davis for a moment was thinking ‘Look at me, look at me’ as she free-soloed, she’d be dead already. I’ve always been terrified of free soloing, but I’ve never thought that those who do it are narcissists. Ultimately, it’s a very private thing, I think. All climbing is a private battle, even in the best company. You’re trying to quiet the voices, the doubt. The stakes are just a lot higher when climbing without a rope.

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