An interview with Steph Davis, the world's leading vegan climber

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» An interview with Steph Davis, the world's leading vegan climber

Top level climber, skydiver and BASE jumper Steph Davis discusses nutrition, compassion and trusting yourself in high-risk environments

Few could pursue a life so fearlessly on the edge while being as down to earth as Steph Davis. A world-leading professional climber, skydiver and base-jumper, Steph is the only woman to have climbed a 5.11 grade route without safety equipment, and the first woman to summit the 2685m icy peak of Torre Egger in Argentina. From her first climb aged 18 which left her feeling ‘lit up’, she continues to push herself to new heights in her athletic performance. 

Living in the back of a converted van in Colorado while completing her master’s degree in English, Steph found herself becoming increasingly fascinated by and appreciative of her surroundings. Enjoying the need to adapt to nature, and being respectful of yourself and your environment, Steph sees rock climbing as a ‘metaphor for life’.

Steph began skydiving in 2007 and soon became thrilled by BASE jumping and wingsuit flying as well as free-climbing, which involves no safety equipment. When asked how she keeps calm in such risky situations, she says, “I focus on breathing and clearing my mind, and I trust myself to make the right choices.”

Changing perspectives

Steph made the decision to become vegan in 2003 following a boundless interest in the link between nutrition and athletic performance. “I tried four different eating systems, for a total of a year. At the end I did the Master Cleanse. After the cleansing fast, I ate what I wanted to eat, and after a few weeks I realised I was eating vegan. So I stayed with it, and was amazed by the results athletically.”

"I have found that eating a vegan diet gives me optimum physical and mental awareness.”

Following a plant-based diet and remaining at the highest level of performance is not something that traditionalist climbers had previously believed possible. “Twelve years ago, people were generally very negative and unsupportive of veganism in general, and especially relative to climbing. Now it seems like most people know about the health and athletic benefits of veganism. There are a lot of vegan climbers and athletes demonstrating the advantages of eating plant-based.”

Since changing her diet, every aspect of Steph’s life has been positively transformed. “I’ve been vegan for 10 years now, and there’s nothing in my life that hasn’t become better as a result.” She attributes her abilities and powerful connection with her sport and surroundings to this new perspective. “To perform my sports and to stay alive in high risk environments, I need to be at top level athletic fitness. I also need to be highly attuned to the natural environment, and able to listen to myself and any outside messages. I have found that eating a vegan diet gives me optimum physical and mental awareness.”

Eating to thrive

Steph’s vegan diet is as stripped back and naturalistic as her way of life. “I like simplicity and purity. That is very much in line with my eating style: whole foods, whole grains. Nothing processed, nothing pre-made.”

Despite calling a whole range of locations home (including an octagonal cabin, a tent, and a converted van), Steph’s simplistic style of eating allows her to adapt her food to suit her environment wherever she may be. “I eat the same everywhere, except when I don't have a refrigerator I don't eat as many salads – that's when I eat more broccoli and more durable vegetables and lentils. The beauty of vegetables and grains is that they don't spoil quickly like animal products do. I use powdered soymilk too when I'm in a more backcountry environment.”

After a day’s training, Steph creates inspired and delicious vegan dishes, many of which can be found in the recipe section of her website. “Right now I'm really into fermentation, so I've been making kombucha tea, and kim chi, a vegetable side dish. For dinner, I love a big salad with grilled tofu and shredded yellow beetroot and carrots. Or a stir-fry with ginger, garlic, serrano pepper and tofu, or broccoli and shitake mushrooms with brown rice.”

Compassionate choices

Steph and CajunA long-standing campaigner and advocate for animal rights organisations, a profound respect for animals has been a significant part of Steph’s life for as long as she can remember. One fundamental reason Steph remains vegan is her awareness of the need for sustainable, ethical farming practices. “A vegan diet keeps consumer dollars out of the marketplace that supports factory farming, which I believe to be evil.”

Closer to home, Steph has adopted two strays as her beloved companions. “Mao is a little black cat who came in through the dog door one day, announced his name, and has been here for about six years. Cajun was found starving on the Navajo reservation as a puppy, and she is about four and a half.” Cajun is Steph’s reliable companion on her adventures. “She runs down to the bottom of the cliff when I BASE jump, and meets me at the bottom.”

Best foot forward

Steph teamed up with climbing shoe company Evolv in 2012, working to create a vegan shoe that is suitable for a variety of terrains. “They are releasing a line of all vegan climbing shoes this season to include my shoe, the vegan Addict slipper. They have put a lot of energy into vegan shoes, and have been very supportive!” 

Steph Davis is a pioneering vegan athlete from a breath-taking area of extreme sports. The way she emanates such positivity and focus in response to extreme situations is truly inspiring. To find out more about Steph you can follow her adventures on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram or explore her story and blog further at stephdavis.com.

By  Charlotte Willis and Elena Orde

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