A brief history of extreme skiing
BY JASON BLAIR
STEEP: Written and directed by Mark Obenhaus. Cinematography, Erich Roland. Music, Anton Sanko. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. PG. 92 minutes.
If you’re like me, the idea of skiing vertical terrain sounds like a complicated way to kill yourself. It’s something to be done once, if at all, under perfect conditions, and then talked about with friends over beers forever. Imagine then a group of adventuresome thrill-seekers who ski steep slopes every day — and in some cases, several times per day — and you have a good idea of the kind of people you’ll meet in Steep, a documentary about the skiers who helped invent extreme skiing and who continue to reinvent the sport today. These alpinists are, as you would imagine, feisty and independent by nature. They share courage, athleticism and a deep enthusiasm for snow, as well as a simple motto: “Ski where no one thought to ski before.”
Like other documentaries about extreme pursuits, Steep wants to convince you that something deeper is going on than a handful of daredevils bent on outdoing one another. From that standpoint, Steep is a success. It begins with the development of extreme skiing atop Mount Blanc during the 1970s, a time of relative purity in the sport. Lacking the helicopters so prevalent in extreme skiing today, these men viewed their climbs as an extension of the mountaineering tradition, employing only skis, backpacks and a profound absence of vertigo to ski chasms never to be attempted again. Those who survived to appear in Steep are refreshingly philosophical about their accomplishments. They refer to “perfect moments” of concentration, to skiing as a mode of self-discovery, and ultimately to the transformation, both physical and spiritual, that results from living so close to death.
Then the sport enters its North American period, marked as you might expect — or remember, if you were a skier during the 1980s — by mohawks, day-glo and a noticeable lack of eloquence. Americans made extreme skiing faster and louder, providing film stock for thousands of ski shops worldwide. When Steep turns to footage from American extreme ski films, it unwittingly adopts the elements of those films, which have always emphasized style over substance, appearance over technique. As a result, Steep lacks the grace of the best Banff Film Festival entries, which tend to be intimate portraits of extreme behavior, but you can’t say Steep lacks jaw-dropping feats among the world’s most beautiful mountains. After a relatively wild adolescence, the film, like the sport whose development it chronicles, reaches maturity in the furthest reaches of Alaska. Helicopters enter the picture, putting the most remote mountains of Valdez, Alaska, within tantalizing reach.
You won’t soon forget Stefano De Benedetti, an early alpinist who looks like Tony Soprano but speaks like Schopenhauer, or Doug Coombs, arguably the American pioneer of the sport. Coombs’ helicopter pilot, Chet Simmons, is a Vietnam vet who loves the backcountry, he says, because “nobody is shooting at me.” His comment only underscores the various other ways a mountain can kill you. In the end, Steep does something special in regard to the inevitable specter hanging over the sport — death — by avoiding footage of killer avalanches and deadly falls altogether. So it is that late in the film, when one of the featured athletes dies offscreen, the impact is enormous. Steep avoids hyperbole when it matters most, proving that a little restraint goes a long way toward grace.
Steep opens Friday, Feb. 15, at the Bijou.