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Mark Obenhaus - Steep
This 90-minute film attempts to do two things. First, it chronicles the development of "extreme skiing" in North America. Second, it tries to explain why a small group of skiers pursues this sport, despite its obvious risks. At the beginning of the film, the narrator says, "The idea is simple: Ski where no one thought to ski before. Ski the backcountry, away from the resorts and the rules and restraints that go with them. Ski where the sport of skiing can still be an adventure."
The film is reasonably successful in documenting the history of American extreme skiing, although it blurs two very different branches of the sport, steep ski mountaineering and steep, helicopter assisted "free skiing." In its attempt to justify the risks of the sport, the film fails. The participants never adequately explain why it is necessary to court extreme risk to enjoy backcountry skiing, when thousands of skiers around the world enjoy the sport on a more safe and sane level. The filmmakers, in fact, never acknowledge that such a choice is possible. To the world of "Steep" and its proponents, embracing risk is an all or nothing proposition.
Lou Dawson offers the most compelling explanation of the appeal of backcountry skiing. He explains: "John Muir said it really beautifully. He said, 'Go to the mountains and get their good tidings.' What he meant is that there is so much out there that you can receive from that environment. We receive these amazing feelings when we're up there. We feel so strong. Sometimes you do bring those things back. And it's special. It's like you've been blessed (3:00)." Yet Dawson seems to realize that extreme risk is impossible to justify to the viewer. He observes, "Anything that produces this much joy in people's lives is worth a certain amount of risk--physical risk, emotional risk, whatever. But how much risk it's worth is an open question (20:07)." An unidentified speaker at the start of the film says simply, "The risks are very high, but I think most of us have decided that the risk is worth it."
Ski descent of the Grand Teton (05:58)According to the narrator, in the early 1970s only a handful of people saw big, wild mountains as a place to ski. "One of the first who did was Bill Briggs." The film describes his June 16, 1971 ski descent of the Grand Teton in Wyoming. Briggs was climbing and skiing on a surgically fused right hip that caused him to walk with a limp. "If there's no risk, there's no adventure," says Briggs. "I think adventure is a great part of life. For me it's 'Why am I living?' Gee, it's to have an adventure." The film does not mention that there were backcountry skiers in other parts of the country who routinely skied major peaks down less extreme slopes. It also does not mention earlier steep descents in America by visiting Swiss skier Sylvain Saudan (Mt Hood in March 1971) and New Englander Brooks Dodge (Tuckerman Ravine in the 1950s). After completing his five-hour descent, Briggs said he was physically beat, yet overjoyed. "I did it, okay?" he recalled "Man, this is the biggest thing I'll do in my life."
Introducing Doug Coombs (13:53)Doug Coombs was a teenager in New England at the time of Bill Briggs' Grand Teton descent. In the opening scenes of the film, he says, "I didn't choose my life in the mountains. It just happened. I tried to become a normal person and have a normal job, but that didn't work." Coombs describes the importance of respecting the moods of the mountains. "They're alive," he says. "They're totally alive. And they'll make you more alive. Or they'll make you dead if you don't read them. There's always bad luck, and I don't know where bad luck comes in, but it's definitely there." Coombs muses on what drives him to keep climbing and skiing: "When I go out I become more alive. It's probably the endorphins that everyone talks about. And I guess the more you produce, the more you want. And so, I think I've been producing a lot for a long time, because I want 'em all the time."
Birth of extreme skiing in Chamonix (20:22)In the 1970s and 1980s extreme skiing became a sport in the Mont Blanc range above Chamonix, France. (Extreme skiing started before 1970, but the film does not mention this.) Tim Petrick says, "It's the place. You're not a big-mountain skier unless you've skied Chamonix." The film includes footage of early extreme descents. Anselme Baud quotes Jean-Marc Boivin: "'You can either live your life like a lamb or live your life like a lion.' [...] There was no shortage of lions in Chamonix." Steve Casimiro observes that Bill Briggs' descent of the Grand Teton was a "singular, crystalizing moment" for American big-mountain skiing, but in Chamonix there were dozens of people doing things like that, including Patrick Vallencant, Anselme Baud, Jean-Marc Boivin, and Pierre Tardivel. Even the deaths of men like Vallencant and Boivin did little to slow the pursuit of bigger and steeper descents.
For Stephano de Benedetti, extreme skiing was "my way to become a man." Some of his descents from the 1980s were so dangerous that they have never been repeated. The film includes footage of his June 1984 descent of the East Face of Aiguille Blanche du Peuterey, a face so steep that it held snow just a few days a year. In the 1984 film, de Benedetti says, "This is my mode of expressing myself. This is my mode of speaking to the others of freedom." In a recent interview, he recalls, "In the perfect moment, I was so concentrated, there was no space for other thoughts. [...] When you are in a situation where if you fall you die, everything changes. [...] You act like a different person. You act with all yourself. You are making a completely different experience, and in some way you are discovering yourself. This is the magic of the mountain. You can accept to die for this. You don't want to die. But to live so close to the possibility of dying, you understand what is really important and what [is] not. And this makes you a better person. It's probably the highest moment of my life. Because in the perfect moment, I was, or I felt to be, a little superman."
Steep skiing in western Canada (31:05)The film jumps to Eric Pehota and Trevor Peterson, Canadian skiers from the Whistler area who pioneered extreme descents in the B.C. Coast Mountains starting in the mid-1980s. (The film passes over other North American skiers of that era, such as Fritz Stammberger, Doug Ward, Chris Landry, Rick Wyatt, and John Harlin, III.) Pehota recalls, "Back then I didn't have kids, I didn't have a wife, and it was 'me, me, I, I, me, me' right? You know, you just keep stepping it up and you just wanted to keep pushing it and see how big and steep you could go without killing yourself. It's the ultimate paradox--the closer you come to dying the more alive you feel." Trevor Peterson died in an avalanche while skiing in Chamonix in 1996. Pehota reflects: "I've lost a few friends--really close friends--blood brother type friends. That's kind of the life I guess I've chosen for myself. But, you know, I guess I've learned to accept that. You ski big mountains in an uncontrolled environment on a full-time basis, you're going to see death and you may succumb to it yourself, right?"
The Blizzard of Aahhhs (35:50)In 1988, American ski audiences were exposed to extreme skiing through the "The Blizzard of Aahhhs," a Greg Stump film featuring Scot Schmidt, Glen Plake and Mike Hattrup. Shot in Chamonix, the film portrayed a cinematic version of the sport in which big air and high speed skiing figured more prominently than must-not-fall descents. For the featured skiers, it was their first exposure to big mountains and Hattrup remembered it as both awe inspiring and intimidating. Younger skiers such as Shane McConkey, Rick Armstrong, and Chris Davenport recalled being strongly influenced by the film. In one of the opening scenes of the film, Glen Plake reflects on the role of skiing in his life. "Soon as I got out of jail, I went skiing," he said. "Soon as I got out of broken legs, I went skiing. That's where I had to go to make it all right again. The rest of the world is total chaos."
Valdez, Alaska (43:55)In 1991, the town of Valdez, Alaska got the idea of promoting the nearby Chugach Range as a helicopter skiing destination by hosting the World Extreme Skiing Championships. Doug Coombs won the event in 1991 and 1993. Skiers visiting Valdez found the high-latitude, maritime snowpack of the Chugach Range unique for its relative stability and velvet texture. Coombs returned with friends in subsequent years to explore the mountains, flown by a Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot named Chet Simmons. Emily Coombs recalled, "I just thought, well, either I'm going to die on this run because it's going to avalanche or it's going to be the best run of my life. So I'm just going to do it--it's worth it."
In 1995, Doug and Emily Coombs launched Valdez Heli-Ski Guides and began taking paying clients to ski in the Chugach Range. Guide Dave Miller said that funds from their clients enabled them to explore farther and farther into the range. Doug Coombs observed, "When you've got a guy from Kansas skiing 50 degrees in perfect snow--I mean, there's nothing like it--he'll never forget that for the rest of his life." Skiers came to Valdez from all around the world, just as they had done in Chamonix a generation earlier.
The next generation (55:28)Shane McConkey became a big-mountain skier performing for the cameras in Alaska. He recalled, "Standing on those peaks in Alaska is, to me, one of the coolest feelings that I've ever had in my life. It's all up to you at that point to, like, take care of yourself. It's a pretty cool feeling, knowing you're about to do something dangerous, about to drop in. It's really addictive." Chris Davenport observed that skiers like McConkey found they were able to do things in Alaska that they couldn't do anywhere else because of the huge scale of the peaks and the superior snow. A new generation of skiers has come to Alaska to make their mark in ski films. They include Chris Davenport, who won the World Extreme Skiing Championships in 1996, Ingrid Backstrom, described as "a guy with a ponytail," and Seth Morrison, whose specialty is huge, acrobatic jumps. Rick Armstrong says, "We're always looking for that next thing. We're always looking for something new. And in this day and age it's hard to find those things. But they're still out there."
Shane McConkey has combined skiing with BASE jumping, schussing off huge cliffs and then deploying a parachute. He says, "I don't think I'm an adrenaline junkie, but I sure do love those kind of things that give you adrenaline." Steve Casimiro of Powder magazine comments, "For most of us it's a stunt. It's completely crazy and kooky. But for Shane it isn't. I mean if you have that ability to BASE jump and you have the ability to ski some of the steepest, most radical things around, putting the two of those together makes complete sense. It makes total sense. Why not?"
Death (1:09:55)"Complacency is what gets everybody," said Doug Coombs. After years of skiing in Alaska, he observed, "I was setting off Class 3 avalanches, six-foot fractures" running 1000 meters and piling 50 feet deep. "I almost got numb to it," he said. He decided to step back from Alaskan skiing and moved to La Grave, France, with his wife and son. Coombs described his wife Emily as, "the most tolerant person in the whole world," and added, "to make me stop doing something that I love, she knows that it's not possible."
Doug Coombs died on April 3, 2006 while skiing in the mountains above La Grave. He fell to his death trying to reach a friend who had slipped and fallen off a cliff while skiing a steep couloir. Emily Coombs later said, "We never questioned our life. [...] We knew that every risk that we encountered was worth every bit of it. [...] Mostly the mountains give you incredible amounts of pleasure, but sometimes they swallow you up." In an earlier interview Doug Coombs said, "I remember being really shocked when a friend died skiing. And then the next friend died skiing. And then the next friend died skiing. And you like, I don't know what it is, it's weird, you just become numb to it. It's still terrible, and you don't like it, but it doesn't make you stop. I hate seeing people that I know die, but I know it's going to happen. I think that's just part of it."
Ski mountaineering (1:16:15)Andrew McLean is described as a throwback because he likes to climb steep mountains and ski down them. No helicopters, no backup crew, no starring roles in ski movies, just exploring remote mountains on skis. The ideal, he says, is "taking a dangerous situation and figuring out how to do it safely." Rick Armstrong observes, "There's not many people out there pushing that envelope, and for good reason, because many of the people that have pushed that envelope, they're not with us anymore."
"Having friends die and seeing friends die and being involved in accidents definitely does give me pause," says McLean. "But I think I'm a slow learner. I just rationalize it. I have what's called creative rationalization. I always think, 'Well, you know, this was an accident. It happened because of these foreseeable circumstances, and those won't happen again. But it's always something else that happens." He continues, "If I really want to avoid being caught, or dying in an avalanche, it's not the idea of just scaling back on my skiing activities. It's more completely stopping. I know it's dangerous, but if I give it up, what's the future going to be like? Is it just going to be sitting at a desk job? You need to figure, what's going to take the place of that? Where are you going to get the same adventure or same excitement out of your life."
Closing (1:24:56)The film closes with quotes from Stephano de Benedetti, Stepane Dan, and Eric Pehota on the benefits of taking risks in life. Bill Briggs observes that people who desire risk and challenge are going to find it one way or another. He says, "This should be a common thing for Man to be doing. I think we get a little bit too safe in our lives these days."
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