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Professional rock climber Steph Davis talks about facing fear

Think the best way to overcome fear is to just jump in feet first?

Not so, says Steph Davis, who as someone who faces fear on a daily basis should know. “For a while I had this idea that if I was afraid of something, I have to force myself to go through it in order to overcome it,” she says. Now, with a lot of experience under her belt, she uses a more balanced and thoughtful approach.

“I’m a big fan of the step-by-step approach and making a list,” she says, both physical and mental ones. Plus, she adds, it’s important to accept that everyone is different when it comes to challenges. “For some people it can all be done in a day, others it will take multiple attempts and for some it could take years to get to that point where they are finally comfortable to do the ultimate thing they are afraid,” says Davis. “But you will grow a lot during the whole process.”

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Updated: September 11, 2013 9:08PM

She skydives, leaps off cliffs and climbs skinny, steep mountains without ropes, harnesses or protective gear. Steph Davis sounds like she is the definition of fearless. Yet while she might regularly participate in activities most would deem extreme, when it comes to dealing with life’s unexpected twists and turns, Davis isn’t that different from the rest of us after all.

And that’s a big part of her new book, “Learning to Fly: An Uncommon Memoir of Human Flight, Unexpected Love, and One Amazing Dog” (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, Inc, $24.99), which tells the story of how Davis overcame some big obstacles and learned that if she was going to find joy in her life, she needed to let go.

Born in Glen Ellyn , the 39-year-old Davis is no stranger to the roads less traveled. After receiving a master’s degree at Colorado State University and five days into law school, she quit to pursue climbing full-time, often living out of her car and waiting tables to earn money.

Eventually all her hard work and the accolades that followed — Davis was the first woman to free climb Salathe Wall in Yosemite National Park — paid off with a number of sponsors. But when her husband participated in a controversial climb in 2006, the fallout affected not only him but Davis, and eventually their marriage too.

“The things I’d been most afraid of losing — my life partner, my support system, my career, everything I believed in to be my past, present, and future — I’d lost,” writes Davis.

Looking back now, though, she wouldn’t have had it any other way. “All those things, which at the time seemed like the worst things that ever happened to me, were the things that brought me to this place,” she says. That place being Moab, Utah, where Davis runs a tandem BASE jumping business.

But to get to where she is now, Davis had to learn to fall — literally. It was through skydiving and later BASE jumping (the acronym for four types of jumps off fixed objects: buildings, antennas, spans and the earth) that Davis regained her confidence and learned to believe in herself again.

In the beginning, the attraction of jumping out of airplanes and later from mountaintops was a way for this “naturally happy and optimistic person” to escape the sadness and confusion she was feeling. “For whatever reason, when I started jumping, I was, ‘Wow, this makes me fool good,’ ” she says. “Initially, it was as simple as that.” Or, as she writes in the book, “Skydiving was a life preserver I could grab onto.”

Eventually it turned into much more, teaching her some valuable life lessons, including ones gained after two jumping accidents. “With climbing, you’re trying not to fall,” says Davis. “With skydiving, basically the whole point is that you are trying to fall.”

But pushing beyond that fear did have a payoff. “When you’re scared of doing something and then figure out a way to do it anyways, it’s empowering. From there, it’s not such a big leap to take that process and lay it over something else in your life that’s scary,” says Davis.

“It sets you free.”

Lisa Shames is Chicago-based freelance writer.

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