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THE WHOS, wheres, whens and hows of Steep, a new documentary on extreme, backcountry skiing, are enough to hold anaudience—-especially the wheres (the severe peaks of Chamonix, the vast sweep of Alaska's Chugach range) and the hows (you need ropes, crampons and technical climbing chops to get where some of these guys go; you need a parachute to make it to where some of them end up). Steep wouldn't be great theater, though, without its exploration into the question that tugs at anyone watching a grown man, with a wife and child at home, drop into a 55-degree couloir, one sloppy turn from athousand-foot fall: Why?
The specter of death by misstep or avalanche attends every descent in Steep, and judging by the thread of interviews that runs through the film a lot of existential issues rise up when you're with a couple of guys on a treacherous, windswept mountaintop—the purpose and measure of life for one, the insignificance of man for another. Come showtime, though, the issues melt away to leave a narrow point of focus: how to ski down unfamiliar, unforgiving and, yes, very steep terrain without being buried by sliding snow.
"You have to do something right. There's no way to do something wrong, because you die," says French mountain guide Stephane Dan in the film. Or, in the words of Italian skier Stefano De Benedetti, "You act like a different person. You act with all [of] yourself ... to live so close to the possibility of dying, you understand what is really important and what is not." To approximate the metaphysical experience that De Benedetti is going on about, you might head to the ocean, row out 200 yards and jump in. Then pause to weigh your immediate priorities.
Steep, written and directed by Emmy-award-winning TV producer Mark Obenhaus, provides a history of backcountry skiing, starting with Bill Briggs's audacious descent of the Grand Teton in 1971. It was a solo effort and the photos of Briggs's tracks in otherwise virgin snow on the seemingly vertical east face (the pictures were taken a day later by a newspaper photographer) have the power of a footprint on the moon. Briggs inspired priapic pilgrimages to the world's most remote and dangerous ski spots—of the dozen featured skiers in Steep only one, Seattle-raised Ingrid Backstrom, is a woman; she's described by a male peer as "a guy with a ponytail." The sport's evolution was sped along by events like 1988's balls-to-the-wall ski film Blizzard of Aahhh's and skiers like Shane McConkey, who invented ski basing, in which, Bondlike, he shusses a perilous line, then goes off a cliff before pulling his chute and wafting down.
Then there's Massachusetts-born Doug Coombs, perhaps the best extreme skier ever, who says his goal is simply to earn enough to do what he loves. "That was our plan," he says of his time as a heli--skiing guide in Alaska. "To take other people's money so we could go skiing in the greatest place in the world." If Coombs and his ilk don't seem the type to be socking money into a 401(k), it's because they've had friends die on a mountain. While the skiers reflect somberly upon the mortality rate, they do so without perceptible fear or grief. That's true even after Coombs, days after filming segments for Steep, falls off a cliff near La Grave, France. He was 48.
"He knew and I knew that you're never above the mountains," says Emily Coombs, Doug's wife and also a skier of improbable slopes. "I can't imagine a better way for Doug to have gone, even if it was too soon."
Though the skiers face death in the world's most sublime mountain settings, never in Steep do they turn their discussion to God. Rather, their life's work is revealed as a deeply human pursuit. As McConkey says, describing the sport's allure, "It's real."