Reaching New Heights Together
Not long before their wedding on Nov. 3, 2018, Ian Mitchard and Steph Davis were sitting in their home in Moab, Utah, talking about death. For them, it was not an uncomfortable or even uncommon conversation. As wingsuit flyers, BASE jumpers and sky divers, they regularly spent more time in the air than some species of birds. The possibility of dying? “It’s in our face all the time,” Mr. Mitchard, now 40, said.
Their wedding took place outside their remote octagonal cabin near Monticello, Utah. They arrived by helicopter, with Mr. Mitchard wearing a gray tuxedo and Ms. Davis in a gown and a white shearling jacket a friend gave her years ago. Both are slim, understated, frugal daredevils who avoid debt, sugar, meat, television and shopping for clothes. Neither have ever wanted children but if they did, they agreed they would adopt. “We are very harmonious together, that’s the foundation of our relationship,” said Ms. Davis, who is also a professional rock climber (she sometimes foregoes a rope) and ablogger, author and speaker.
This was Ms. Davis’s third marriage. Her two previous husbands, Dean Potter and Mario Richard, both died in wingsuit flying accidents. Mr. Richard crashed while flying with Ms. Davis in Italy in 2013 and he remains a kind of benevolent presence in her relationship with Mr. Mitchard. “Having lost Mario, it really gave me a lot of perspective about life and love,” said Ms. Davis, 48. “Ian is always my No. 1 priority above everything else. I know things aren’t permanent.”
Impermanence and loss are themes running through Ms. Davis’s writing and speeches, including her 2014 TEDx Talk, “Choosing to Fly.” On Instagram, she often posts messages like, “Let’s move gently over the earth, because nothing lasts forever.”
Two months into her marriage with Mr. Mitchard, she was reminded of that, again. On Jan. 7, 2019, Mr. Mitchard went paragliding alone and got caught in an updraft. “I made a decision to do a descending move, which was a poor decision, obviously,” he said. He crashed, badly. He remained conscious and was carrying a satellite phone so he was able to contact Ms. Davis. “I was hopeful he just broke his legs,” she said. (In their world of extreme sports, that would be considered a minor injury.)
In fact, he broke his back, ankles, as well as his tibia, calcaneus and navicular bones. “He had so much crush damage to the bottom of his feet there was a point where they thought they might have to amputate,” Ms. Davis said.
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He spent about a month at an Intermountain Healthcare Hospital in Salt Lake City with Ms. Davis staying in his room in a sleeping bag on the floor. “I always knew she was an extremely loyal partner and my greatest cheerleader,” he said, “but this situation just showed me it was on a level I could never have expected in terms of her dropping everything and being by my side.”
He added: “She was my advocate when I was pretty much on another planet due to the drugs.”
After two surgeries, one on his back and another on his feet, his prognosis was not good. Doctors told him he might be in a wheelchair permanently. Best case scenario, he’d be able to walk short distances indoors.
Back home in Moab, Mr. Mitchard got busy building a contraption to help him get around town. He found a hand bike on eBay and figured out a way to attach his wheelchair, which a friend had given him. He added a milk crate for the couple’s dog, Cajun, and an orange flag that whipped around like a wind sock when he rode, initially with a cast on each foot. “My immediate goal was to relieve Steph of needing to take care of me,” he said. “Our relationship has always been one where we thrive by being athletic.”
Out of solidarity with him, she flew less often. “It wasn’t that inspiring and I didn’t want him to be sad,” she said. Instead, they attempted outings with her pushing his wheelchair, which easily became stuck in sand or gravel. It was the opposite of being airborne together.
He found new ways to exercise such as kayaking, which he called “getting spastic in plastic.” He and Ms. Davis built a home gym in their yard, including weights they molded out of concrete. (Many things in their house are homemade, found, recycled, or repurposed and his rehabilitation was mainly a do-it-yourself project, too.) They planted a garden and Ms. Davis, posting on Instagram, complimented Mr. Mitchard’s roses as well as his resiliency. “You have never let the pain, uncertainty or doubt or anything at all get you down.”
Since the accident, Mr. Mitchard has been in constant pain. “Every day, I fight to get out of pain,” he said. “It’s a very heavy coat to wear. It takes over.” He added, “I have to be very careful about how I let it impact my interactions with Steph.”
After six months in a wheelchair, he started walking, at first with crutches and exoskeleton braces, then eventually without. He began hiking, slacklining and even rock climbing, with Ms. Davis cheering him on. She summarized the way they dealt with his injuries this way: “Don’t ever give up. Humans are incredible creatures.”
Then, on Dec. 22, 2019, he posted a video on Instagram of his first BASE jump since the crash. He appeared almost casual as he stepped off a sandstone cliff, fell for a bit, then deployed his parachute. “I listened to the medical advice on how to heal bone and flesh but I never listened to any predictions on what I would be able to do,” he wrote in the caption. “The mind leads the body and I’ve been visualizing since January.”
He recently returned to work as an instructor at Skydive Moab, the job he had before the accident, and he and Ms. Davis are once again wingsuit flying and BASE jumping together. Both tend to laugh upon landing, as if they’ve just heard a great joke.
“BASE jumping is like an expression of freedom,” Mr. Mitchard said. “People think of it as an Adrenalin-seeking sport, but a lot of it is finding a community that rejects the way in which the world tells you how you’re supposed to be and what you can and cannot do.”