High Infatuation, A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity. Steph Davis. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2007.224 pages. Black and white photos. $16.95
High Infatuation, Steph Davis’ collection of memoirs and essays, is a journey through her climbing career, starting at age 18 on the cliffs of the Potomac in Maryland. Davis quickly fell in love with climbing and moved to Colorado for grad school, learning to trad and alpine climb in places like the Diamond, Indian Creek, and Yosemite. After school she lived in her grandmother’s old station wagon with her dog, following the seasonal cycles on the dirt bag climbing tour and returning to Moab, Patagonia, and Yosemite year after year.
Written more like a journal, chapters range from climbing stories to personal vignettes and are not all connected in chronology or theme. By the book’s end though, Davis has grown and found her passions through climbing. Numerous black and white photos add character and context. During travels to Patagonia, Baffin Island, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan, she accepts challenges and her own insecurities, finally learning to trust herself: “Pummeled by doubts,... I craved the uncertainty of knowing that success or failure was entirely up to me,” she writes, before rope-soloing Peak 4,520m in Kyrgyzstan. In Baffin, Davis spends a month on a wall with two friends, and her writing becomes calmer as time under the midnight sun ticks by without a clock. There, her landscape descriptions are more creative: “I sit for hours...watching low clouds creep like dragons along the ice corridors below.”
As her world-view widens, the writing becomes richer with descriptions of people and interactions, humor and humility. In Pakistan, Davis’ team befriends a military general, who allows them access to the remote Kondus Valley where they hope to climb. There, close to the war-ravaged Kashmir region, she connects with local Muslim women.
Between climbs and expeditions, Davis ruminates on her complex relationship with climber Dean Potter, whom she eventually marries. While their emotionally charged relationship is trying, they do come together for some incredible climbs, including the first one-day ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia.
When Davis moves away from expedition climbing to harder free routes, she encounters a new set of challenges. At first, she admits, she preferred the risk of real physical danger on big routes to the artificial pressure of failing on a sport route. Overcoming this, she free-climbs El Cap, first by way of Freerider, then Freerider in a day, and finally on the Salathe. She realizes her strongest tools are her determination and strategy and uses them to her advantage on the route. “It took all my drive and more discipline than I knew I had to free the Salathe,” she says.
Davis has been visible in the U.S. climbing community in the past 10 years and has not escaped criticism, which she discusses: “After all the years I’d spent as a climber, trying to get away from being judged as a young woman,” she says, “I realized I’d been judging myself that way”
Davis’ writing is at times eloquent, woven with lovely metaphors, and the stories are very personal, giving the reader insight into her perspective. Some of these, like the essay in which she explains her reasons for being vegan, are more intimate than some readers may like. This is a double-edged sword, though, because the same qualities of honesty and humanness are Davis’ strongest suits as a narrator.