Twenty years ago, The Blizzard of AAHHH’s gave thousands of amateur athletes their first look at extreme skiing: people going down slopes so steep humans could barely imagine not just pitching off. Just as impressively, this film and others that followed were often filmed by another skier who was obviously skiing right there with the subject.
Since that time, ski and snowboarding films have exploded into a familiar genre here at the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, where our own dramatic peaks are but a two-hour drive from home. Nowadays, we Coloradans are accustomed to finding snowsport films everywhere, like background music, in bars, on TV channels dedicated to nothing else, often regardless of the season.
For many of the past ten years, I’ve participated in the ritual of anticipating the coming ski season by attending one of the yearly Warren Miller movie screenings at the Boulder Theater. These predictable confections of skiing have become a sign of the holidays: a comfortingly familiar blend of the breathtaking deeds of fearless skiers and snowboarders, with some clownish pratfalls and the requisite up-to-the-minute soundtrack of roaring rock tunes. As more and more ski- and film-enthusiasts take their cameras uphill these days, there are also more and more festivals to showcase these testimonials to guts, glory, and goofiness (after all, snow sports are fun, lest you have forgotten or never known the rush of pointing those skis downhill and feeling like you’ve learned to fly).
Most of these films keep the dream alive for us average snowriders (the term coined by filmmaker Warren Miller for skiing and snowboarding and their many variants), allowing us to imagine that like the apparently fearless subjects of these filmed frolics, if we could just step into a pair of skis or a board enough times, we too could be as talented and enjoy life as much as these athletes we see not only hucking themselves off cliffs but also sticking the landings. Like the Guitar Hero videogame craze, or Second Life, ski films are a new-millenium entertainment in which we can project ourselves into the starring roles and go forth to conquer our own peaks. I admit that I have seen so many films about people who beat the odds and do some amazing thing that it’s now difficult not to see myself as the star of my own drama. Snowsport films contribute to this effect. It’s easy for me to believe that watching someone else carve sinewy lines down an untouched slope or bounce lightly down a hill of Volkswagen-sized bumps will definitely help me achieve these gorgeous feats one day.
The Other Side of the Mountain
Steep, a documentary directed and written by Mark Obenhaus, tells another side of this story. Here we learn about the history and joys of big-mountain skiing but also about the constant threat of injury and death that continually haunt and sometimes claim its participants. Here at last we see not just the daring feats but also the difficult calculations involved in taking each risk. This movie is a great reminder that the words fate and fatal have the same origin.
Steep chronicles the history of big-mountain skiiing by starting with Bill Briggs’ summit and ski from the top of the Grand Teton, something that had never been done before. The film cuts between old and present-day interviews and footage of the elite climbers who attempted this in the early 1970s, before every mountain was scouted for landing sites for heli-skiers, before anyone else had any notion of skiing 50-degree slopes. Briggs studied his peak for years, waiting for the exact time of year when there would be enough snow to ski it; when the time came, he climbed up. His climbing partners got to a certain point and balked; he summited alone in the end. A tiny avalanche passed nearby a couple of hours later and his friends thought Briggs was gone for good, when their happy and proud friend skied up to them out of the trailing cloud of snow.
Briggs’ descent of the Grand Teton on skis marked the beginning of an era when elite mountaineers had started climbing up and skiing down mountains no one else had ever conceived of approaching with anything but ice picks, ropes, and crampons. On the heels of this exploratory spirit in skiing followed an explosion of filmmaking on the subject. Steep shows how the films in turn influenced the sport by attracting more people willing to take the kinds of risks necessary to ski mountains never before attempted.
Skiing the Highwire
One of these people, featured extensively in talking-head interview sequences and in ski footage, is Doug Coombs, a champion skier who became a ski film star and discovered the joys of reaching Alaskan peaks by helicopter in the 1980s. With his wife, he guided other skiers and shared the wealth of incredible skiing. In these interviews, Coombs is predictably abashed at his good fortune in being in the right place at the right time to fulfill his personal dream. His joy is sometimes muted by the losses of many friends, and by his awareness that he is walking a very high tightrope under which there is no net.
Steep features fascinating interviews with and footage of other big-mountain mavericks including Bill Briggs, Stefano De Benedetti, Eric Pehota, Glen Plake, Shane McConkey, Seth Morrison, Chris Davenport, Ingrid Backstrom and Andrew McLean, who discuss what drives them up to absurd heights despite all the risks involved. Most of them, like Briggs and Coombs, say that they are in it for the pure joy of it and want to share that joy, that they are happy to see other people undertaking the same challenges that inspire them. For them, it’s not about setting records, not about being the first one or the only one to ski a particular place or peak. They all exhibit a near-religious zeal for pushing themselves in extreme conditions, but it was refreshing to find their enthusiasm moderated by their awareness of what can go wrong.
A Hunger For Adventure
The success of the IMAX film Everest and Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the film Touching the Void, and the proliferation of adventure documentaries that tell the tales of experiential extremists reveal our appetites for stories of real-life, near-death experiences. We also desire to understand how far people can stretch themselves, or what is necessary to achieve the kind of heights these people reach. As we get closer to the people who pursue their personal bests, we learn more about the things that drive us, too.
What I like about Steep compared with other films is its sobriety in the face of conditions that should always be capable of commanding our shock and awe. I’m all about safety, so I cringe every time I see one of those impossible-dream shots of someone leaping off a couloir into crystal space, one of those shots that can inspire a hundred kids to put off college for the year, get a van, and haul ass up to Alaska to ski for a winter. In the Inconvenient Truth era, I feel like a bit curmudgeonly as I fret about our many adventure film-inspired trips to the high country, for which we employ our gas-guzzling cars and resort chairlift engines and snowcat engines and helicopters to get us to the bases and tops of those heretofore untouched peaks.
“Nature Enhanced by Humans”
Yet Steep brings back into perspective for me the pure and beautiful reasons for this pursuit, the reasons that made me join my junior high school’s outdoor adventure club (even though physically I was not so adventurous in those days — I was the only one in our club who fell into the creek while cross-country skiing across the snow-covered log that served as a bridge). Back in 1971, Bill Briggs wasn’t just after the record for being the first to ski the Grand Teton, the nearest big daddy of the Rocky Mountain West. Instead it was that he truly believed people could ski slopes like that, and that this itself made it worth doing.
After Briggs summited the Grand Teton for the first time, he reflects in Steep, he flew past the peak with a news reporter later to see the line he had skied down that heretofore impossible slope. The curves on the snow inspired him and he speaks here about how he saw “the beauty of the mountain enhanced by human contact.” In these times of dire environmental news about people’s impact on the planet, I found this optimism about people’s potential to add something positive to nature one of the more reassuring things I’ve ever heard anyone say for a very long time. He and people like Doug Coombs reveal in this film that they ski to remind people of what is possible, not to grab the attention and peaks for themselves, or to get as many starring roles in ski movies as possible before that gravy train runs dry.
Today’s Big-mountain Skier
Even if one of the interviewees had not died skiing during the production of the film, I would still say Steep does a fine job of delving into the life-or-death choices made every day by skiers like the ones showcased here. They know each day is a battle against the odds of injury or death ending their careers or lives, and they want to get as much time in the mountains in as they can before any of this catches up with them. This film allows all of those truths, unlike the fun-fests we usually see in films about snowriders.
That may explain why I found Ingrid Backstrom’s appearance a little out-of-place in this film. Clearly, she’s in the film because she is a successful female big-mountain skier, yet she comes along and seems to say, “Oh, this? This is easy!” She’s like a Lance Armstrong character, blowing everyone away with her natural gifts. She makes it look too easy, like she’s not terribly worried about the risks. Perhaps more than any of the other interviewees in Steep, it is Backstrom who most exemplifies the modern skier, the product of The Blizzard of AAHHH’s, Into Thin Air, and Warren Miller’s oeuvre.
I liked Steep for sharing the thrill of extreme skiing, for its breathtaking cinematography, and for showing the pure joy that people experience after sailing down steep, snowy mountains. But I respected Steep and its participants for injecting some sobriety back into the proceedings. Watching what these people put themselves through every day made me glad these people can (or could) pursue their own place on the continuum; yet it left me perfectly happy with my own lot: my non-extreme place on the continuum of skiers. Trust me, this is a good thing for all of us.