Reaching New Heights Together - The New York Times

Shortly before their wedding on November 3, 2018, Ian Mitchard and Steph Davis were sitting in their home in Moab, Utah, talking about t...


Shortly before their wedding on November 3, 2018, Ian Mitchard and Steph Davis were sitting in their home in Moab, Utah, talking about the death. For them, it wasn’t an uncomfortable or even an unusual conversation. As wingsuit flyers, BASE jumpers and paratroopers, 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,” said Mr. Mitchard, now 40.

Their wedding took place outside their secluded octagonal cabin near Monticello, Utah. They arrived by helicopter, with Mr Mitchard in a gray tuxedo and Ms Davis in a dress and a white sheepskin jacket a friend gave her years ago. Both are lean, understated, and frugal daredevils who avoid debt, sugar, meat, TV, and shopping for clothes. Neither of them ever wanted children, but if they did, they agreed to adopt. “We’re very harmonious together, that’s the foundation of our relationship,” said Ms. Davis, who is also a professional climber (she sometimes gives up a rope) and a blogger, author and speaker.

It was Mrs. Davis’ third marriage. Her two previous husbands, Dean Potter and Mario Richard, both died in wingsuit crashes. Mr Richard crashed while flying with Ms Davis in Italy in 2013 and he remains a kind of benevolent presence in his relationship with Mr Mitchard. “Having lost Mario it really gave me a lot of perspective on life and love,” said Ms. Davis, 48. “Ian is always my # 1 priority above everything else. I know things aren’t permanent.

Impermanence and loss are themes that run through Ms. Davis’ writings and speeches, including her TEDx 2014 Lecture, “Choose to Fly. “ On Instagram, she often posts messages like, “Let us move slowly on the earth, because nothing lasts forever.

Two months after the start of her marriage to Mr. Mitchard, she remembered it once again. On January 7, 2019, Mr. Mitchard was paragliding alone and was caught in an updraft. “I made the decision to do a top-down move, which was a bad decision, obviously,” he said. It crashed, badly. He remained conscious and carried a satellite phone, which enabled him to contact Ms Davis. “I was hoping he had just broken his legs,” she said. (In their world of extreme sports, that would be considered a minor injury.)

Indeed, he broke his back, ankles, as well as the tibia, calcaneus and navicular bones. “He had so much crush damage to the bottom of his feet that they thought they might have to amputate him,” Ms. Davis said.

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He spent about a month in an Intermountain health care hospital in Salt Lake City with Ms. Davis in her 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 that it was at a level that I didn’t. ‘Could never have expected me in terms of letting it all down and being by my side. “

He added: “She was my lawyer when I was pretty much on another planet because of drugs.”

After two surgeries, one on the back and another on the feet, his prognosis was not good. Doctors told him he could be in a wheelchair all the time. Ideally, it would be able to cover short distances indoors.

Back at his home in Moab, Mr. Mitchard set out to build a machine to help him get around town. He found a hand bike on eBay and found a way to tie up 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 like a windsock as it climbed, initially with a plaster cast on each foot. “My immediate goal was to relieve Steph from needing to take care of myself,” he said. “Our relationship has always been the one where we thrive in being athletic.”

In solidarity with him, she takes the plane less. “It wasn’t that inspiring and I didn’t want him to be sad,” she said. Instead, they attempted outings with her pushing her wheelchair, which easily got stuck in the sand or gravel. It was the opposite of flying together.

He found new ways to exercise, like kayaking, which he called “getting spastic in plastic.” He and Ms Davis built a home gym in their backyard, including weights they cast in concrete. (Lots of things in their home are homemade, found, recycled, or reused, and its rehabilitation was also primarily a DIY project.) They planted a garden and Ms Davis, posting on Instagram, complimented Mr Mitchard’s roses as as well as its resilience. “You never let pain or uncertainty or doubt or anything at all get you down.”

Since the accident, Mr. Mitchard has been in constant pain. “Every day I struggle to get out of the pain,” he said. “It’s a very heavy coat to wear. He takes over. He added: “I have to be very careful how I let him affect my interactions with Steph.”

After six months in a wheelchair, he began to walk, first with crutches and exoskeleton orthotics, then finally without. He started hiking, slacklining and even rock climbing, with Ms. Davis cheering him on. She summed up the way they treated her injuries this way: “Never give up. Humans are amazing creatures.

Then, on December 22, 2019, he posted a video on Instagram of his first BASE jump since the crash. He seemed almost casual as he descended a sandstone cliff, fell a bit, then deployed his parachute. “I listened to medical advice on how to heal bones and flesh, but I never listened to predictions of what I would be able to do,” he captioned. “The mind rules the body and I have been visualizing since January.”

He recently returned to work as an instructor at Moab Skydive, his pre-crash job, and he and Ms. Davis are flying wingsuit and BASE jumping together again. Both tend to laugh on landing, as if they’ve just heard a good joke.

“BASE jumping is like an expression of freedom,” Mitchard said. “People think of it as an adrenaline-seeking sport, but a lot of it is about finding a community that rejects the way the world tells you how you are meant to be and what you can and cannot. to do.”

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