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Out of Devotion

The final credits reveal the true story behind Steep

Posted: Wednesday January 16, 2008 5:25PM; Updated: Wednesday January 16, 2008 9:27PM
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Peter Jennings
Peter Jennings risked his life covering news in Iraq, but he eventually lost it to cancer. He never got to see his first film completed.
Courtesy of Kayce Freed Jennings

When Peter Jennings left the killing fields of Iraq in 2004 for a Swiss ski trip with his wife, he had no idea he'd never be on skis again. Death comes like a thief in the night, right? Cancer claimed the newsman the next year, but a production company he co-founded continued to make its first film, a documentary about extreme skiing called Steep.

The star of it is Doug Coombs, a 48-year-old man oozing with life, a skiing legend. Eighteen days after his final interview for the film, Coombs was helping a fallen skier when he slipped and fell several hundred feet to his death. That's how close to the edge he lived.

The movie's out now, in maybe a dozen theaters across the country. It deserves to be widely seen. The athletes in Steep, unaccustomed to being interviewed, talk with a candor you seldom hear from our televised sporting heroes. They talk about fear. They use the word "afraid." Death looms. Coombs spoke of it in his final interview.

But it's not a gloomy 91 minutes. Just the opposite. The skiers in Steep aren't trying to get rich. They're trying to make enough money to keep skiing. They're amateurs at heart, like the rowers in the old David Halberstam book The Amateurs. It's rejuvenating. Coombs would guide Wall Street princes to places with thin air, fresh snow and craggy peaks, out-of-this-world spots where you might find your misplaced soul. Coombs saw these gilded men at their best. A mountain will bring that out in you.

His death on a mountain, some would say, was inevitable. Coombs was too prepared to ever be called reckless, but a commuter pass has only so many punches on it and the word "extreme" is not used casually here. Just looking at the sun-drenched pitches in Steep, in their 0.35 mm wonder, will make you shudder.

"On the first day of shooting, we were with a group of skiers and they were saying, 'My friend died here, another friend died there,'" recalled Jennings's widow, Kayce Freed Jennings. She is one of the movie's producers. "A boy said, `My father died here.'"

Her husband wasn't that kind of reporter, or skier. Peter Jennings wasn't looking to tango with the reaper. He went to war zones because the job demanded it, not for the adrenaline rush. Coombs's skiing terrain was far afield for him. "Peter was a beautiful skier--on wide, groomed slopes, no bumps," Kayce Freed Jennings said. (She likes the moguls.) What drew the lifelong reporter to the idea of Steep were the skiers, and the chance to learn about people who lived life differently. Finding something new was his life's M.O. For Coombs, in his own way, it was the same. He was always looking for a new line to ski, unchartered powder.

Peter Jennings was supposed to make the trip to Chamonix, France, for the first day of shooting, in March 2005, but he backed out. He wasn't feeling right. The whole thing was jinxed. On that first day one of the crewmen, a world-class Italian skier, had to be evacuated by helicopter after a severe fall. He had a broken neck and leg. The American producers were stymied in their shock. The European skiers were asking, "Where do we shoot tomorrow?"

Back in New York, Peter Jennings went in for tests and they came out all wrong. Within a month, he was closing World News Tonight with an announcement about his lung cancer. He referred to the 10 million Americans "living" with cancer, he now among them. He said, "I will continue to do the broadcast on good days." The shooting of the movie, likewise, continued.

The director, Mark Obenhaus, had never been around elite athletes before. In Steep, you hear the skiers' answers but not the director's questions. But you can tell what happened. Obenhaus got them to reveal their true selves--no commercial filter, only sporadic macho posturing--even as the skiers describe their willingness to die in pursuit of the sport they love. Long after his final interviews for the documentary, Obenhaus remains mystified by that attitude. His wonder fills the movie.

Tom Yellin, another of the movie's producers and an accomplished amateur golfer, found himself thinking about Tiger Woods while watching Steep in its various stages. He realized that Woods and Doug Coombs and Peter Jennings, with whom he worked for 18 years, all did (do) the same thing: prepare thoroughly, assess risk ruthlessly. Yellin now wonders if the skier, the golfer and the network anchor all found (find) motivation in the same place, "in the fear of being ordinary."

Everybody who made the film sees it as a memoriam to Doug Coombs, whose brio infects Steep. The movie's formal dedication is to its other guide. It appears in white typeface just before the final credits: "To our friend, colleague and ski buddy, Peter Charles Jennings."

Somebody asked Kayce Freed Jennings if Steep had a message. "Push yourself," she said. "Test yourself. Live life completely. Go out and look around." The lesson of her husband's life is really the same thing.

In drips and drabs, the moral of the story is getting out. At a recent late-afternoon showing of Steep, at a theater in Irvine, Cal., a family of eight representing three generations filled a row in a screening room that had only four other people in it. The final credits played and the family began to applaud. You might have thought they were at a play or a debate or a concert. You might have thought they had just seen something live.