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Steep: Backcountry Skiers Risking It All
Director Mark Obenhaus talks about the birth of big mountain skiing and the rewards and fatal consequences of the sport.
Text by Jesse Huffman   Video courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

January 24, 2008

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It's made clear right from the beginning of the new documentary Steep: big mountain skiers are willing to risk it all for the love of their sport. The film follows the development of backcountry skiing, from Bill Briggs' pioneering first descent down Wyoming's Grand Teton in 1971 to the exploits of the sport's current heavyweights BASE jumping into descents. But it is the life and death of Doug Coombs, the celebrated big mountain skier many credit with opening up the Alaska backcountry, that provides the thread that ties the story together. Coombs died in the mountains of La Grave, France just days after being filmed for Steep, providing a sobering example of the rewards and fatal consequences of backcountry skiing.

Adventure sat down with the film's director, Mark Obenhaus, to talk about the personalities and passions that take skiing to the furthest heights.


Photo: Mark ObenhausYour film company, The Documentary Group, has made movies about the U.S. constitution, the war in Iraq, and AIDS. With this background, making a movie about skiing seems like an odd choice.
Mark Obenhaus: The key people involved with this movie are all skiers. We're certainly not extreme skiers, but we all love to ski. It's as simple as that. We were presented with an opportunity to make a film on skiing. When the subject is something you really enjoy doing, and in places you really want to go, you start thinking really hard about the story and how to tell it.

When did you discover the big mountain skiing story line?

We went in this direction because it was very clear that skiing has changed over the last ten years. We wanted to examine the idea that people could leave the resorts, that there was another world out there beyond the lifts. Knowing the reality of that shift and looking around at skiing magazines, we began to wonder how that happened. When we discovered what went on, we found a really good story.

When did you feel you had found the right people to tell that story?
The turning point for us was when we were in Jackson Hole doing research. We met Bill Briggs—clearly a legend and someone who has been written about extensively—and Doug Coombs. In a sense, between the two of them, we felt that we could almost see the whole sport evolving. That was the moment we thought, Ah-ha, this is the story we want to tell.

Coombs is the central character for the film. Did you recognize his significance right away?
Yes. Coombs spans the whole history of the sport—as a young kid in New England he was unknowingly a backcountry skier, skiing in his backyard and off frozen waterfalls. He was 14 years old when Bill Brings climbed and skied the Grand. In college he went to Chamonix and interacted with Patrick Vallencant [one of the first skiers to start cutting routes down Mont Blanc]. Coombs was the first guide to actually take a client skiing down the Grand. He touched all these points of reference throughout the whole sport; and it was very apparent to us that there were a lot of ways of using Coombs's history to weave the story of skiing.

The way Coombs lived his life also becomes a prime example of how these athletes weigh the risk of their sport against the experience of skiing these huge mountains.
What intrigues me in any film I make is the mental composition of our characters. I am very aware, and anyone who watched the film will become very aware, that this is a sport involving great risks. Yet the balance is that the people in the film all feel that they receive tremendous satisfaction or pleasure from skiing. They make this existential decision that the risks are worth the rewards. As filmmakers interested in those kinds of calculations and thoughts, it was just a natural outgrowth of our own curiosity.

One of the most sobering moments in the film is when Coombs passes away in France. Would you say this event solidified that story track?
I think it would be fair to say also that if Coombs had not died during the production, the film's emphasis might not have been so great on that particular reality. But he was in many ways the central character to our game plan for the film, and once he died in La Grave, we really had to follow our story.

What about skiers who don't accept this level of consequence—did you run into any people who had walked away from big mountain skiing?
Yes. And it's something we could've dealt with in the film, but you always look back and think about all the things that could've been in there. We didn't include that aspect of the Italian, Stefano de Benedetti. Benedetti is without question one of the greatest extreme skiers, ever, and he walked away from the sport just about the time he turned 30.

He went on to do other things, quite successfully. But he said in the interview he did with us that he is ambivalent about having stopped, because he now looks back at his skiing career as the best days of his life. He was at the highest point in his game—there are a number of lines in the Mont Blanc massif that he skied that have never even been attempted again. And the other reality is that some of the other skiers in the film, like Eric Pehota, would say that they are certainly not skiing with the enthusiasm for risk that they did back in the day.

Was it surprising to learn about the fatal consequences of this type of skiing?
Theoretically, I knew that in the big mountain arena risks are greater. But if you're a resort skier, which is what I would classify myself as, you don't think of skiing in terms of life or death— you think of it in terms of broken limbs or twisted ankles. It didn't really hit home until I realized that most of the early figures in the sport died doing it.

As Doug Coombs says in the film, "You're always shocked when somebody dies, but then another person dies, and another person dies … ." That is the experience of so many of these people that have spent their lives in the big mountains. Once you start spending time with these athletes you start realizing what risk really means.

How do you see that relating to people who don't live this life?
I think the larger takeaway is that the skiers in the film are people who have followed their passions. And I think anyone can relate to that in some way, and it need not be an athletic passion, or a passion for the outdoor world, but things that are of deep and profound interest.

Another idea that is not in the film is the sacrifice that is being made—no one is getting rich being a big mountain skier. All the skiers in the film are living well, but they are living modestly. They're all bright individuals, and could be doing many other more lucrative careers, but they've chosen to do something that they love. The experience of big mountain skiing is so powerful to them that they will do anything they can to pursue it.

What was it like actually being there, on location, watching the skiing?
It's just very exciting. You don't sit there thinking that they are going to kill themselves. You're thinking they are going to make an incredible run, and 99 percent of the time they do. And it's just so beautiful to watch. I didn't ever sit around thinking that we were putting people at risk, or that they were taking great risk. You have to be cautious and careful, but don't sit there biting your nails.

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