‘Steep’: the evolution of big-mountain skiing
December 26, 2007
ASPEN ” Skiers in Aspen may want to turn down the volume as they relate the day’s exploits on the local hills while sipping apres-ski cocktails at Mezzaluna and The Little Nell. Even a couple of laps on Highland Bowl isn’t going to sound like much after witnessing the tales of Stefano De Benedetti, Doug Coombs and Andrew McLean.
Their stories are told in “Steep,” Mark Obenhaus’ documentary about big-mountain skiing. Consider the film a cold-weather, high-altitude companion to “Riding Giants,” the 2004 history of big-wave surfing. Both are about adventure-seeking iconoclasts who dare the unthinkable ” “towing in” to surf 50-foot waves miles off the coast of Tahiti, skiing the craggy rocks of Grand Teton ” in search of physical thrills and spiritual expansion. Like the earlier film, “Steep” features a surprisingly rich trove of historical footage (which tends to prompt the question: Weren’t these camera operators as worthy of mention as the athletes they were shooting?)
“Steep” begins with Bill Briggs’ early-’70s conquest of Grand Teton, near Jackson, Wyo. As the commentary explains, Briggs, like other extreme athletes, were doing things that others didn’t conceive. Not even the local skiers contemplated a descent of Grand Teton, which looks like a rock with some snow, rather than a ski mountain. Briggs’ feat was considered a monumental achievement toward the extreme era.
The film, however, moves backward in time to make the point that what was groundbreaking in the U.S. was nearly old hat in Europe, especially the classic French ski village of Chamonix. On Chamonix’s Mont Blanc, extreme skiing is known as simply … skiing. Unlike the well-defined, mostly manicured American ski resorts, in Chamonix, the lift essentially drops you off at the top of a mountain, and leaves skiers to find their own way down. There is no Skier Responsibility Code, no concept of suing a ski area for not sufficiently marking the terrain. French skiers were tackling Mont Blanc’s chutes, its pitches so close to vertical that they hold snow only a handful of days a year, before Briggs made his famed descent.
The comparison of France and the States is a way of making a point about extreme skiing: Downhilling on the trails of a resort is fun, recreation. Skiing in the backcountry ” Mont Blanc, the remote peaks of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, or even the preposterous walls of northern Iceland ” where there are no lifts, and the hot apres-ski spot is your tent, is another activity entirely. It is about pushing the limits of the mind, body and imagination to achieve a peak of joy, freedom, the defiance of death. The latest boundary to be pushed is the sick terrain that ends, unfortunately, in a cliff ” a problem solved by combining skiing with parachuting.
In a place where extreme-skiing footage is so much wallpaper ” you can see insane clips while waiting between acts at Belly Up ” “Steep” manages to distinguish itself. Everything in “Steep” is predictable ” the talk about how skirting death is the best way to feel alive, the powder, the falls, and yes, even death itself. But this is a bigger-budget project than has probably been attempted before; the cinematography is sumptuous, even poetic, rather than merely extreme, and the history of the sport is cohesive and informative.
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Thus, comparing “Steep” to your average thrills-and-spills ski video is like stacking Aspen’s West Buttermilk up against the gnarliest route down Mont Blanc.