'Steep' Reveals Extreme Skiers' Dangerous Feats The documentary Steep profiles the history and lives of "extreme skiers." The film induces vertigo with its helicopter shots of skiers charging down sheer cliffs, far from any ski resorts with trails or lodges.
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'Steep' Reveals Extreme Skiers' Dangerous Feats

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'Steep' Reveals Extreme Skiers' Dangerous Feats

'Steep' Reveals Extreme Skiers' Dangerous Feats

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We stay in frigid climes for our next story, a new documentary on the sport of extreme skiing. The film "Steep" literally induces vertigo with its helicopter shots of skiers charging down sheer cliffs off some of the world's most rugged mountains. There are no resorts, no trails and almost no second chances.

These extreme athletes can be chased by avalanches as they race down mountains at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. They defied death, though, not always. One of the skiers in "Steep" died just days after he was interviewed for the film.

I spoke with the director and screenwriter of "Steep," Mark Obenhaus, about what sets extreme skiing apart from what we see from even the most proficient Olympic skier do.

Mr. MARK OBENHAUS (Director; Screenwriter, "Steep"): The force of gravity is tremendous. Your ability to stop is really compromised by the pitch. There are runs in the film that it would be impossible to stop on, and you have to ski him out. The phrase that's used by so many people in skiing, that in your fall, you die terrain. It's so steep and so dangerous there's no stopping. And if you were to fall, you would go over cliff or something and just throw - or just plummet for such a length of time that you've be pummeled to death.

LYDEN: Extreme skiing began as a sport in two places - in the French Alps and in 1971 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A skier named Bill Briggs had the unthinkable idea to climb the Grand Teton and ski down. A story we hear in the film.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Steep")

Unidentified Man: People in Jackson told Bill skiing the Grand was impossible. There were avalanches and falling rock. Sections were too steep. He would have to ski along cliffs that dropped off for thousands of feet. The smallest misstep could be fatal. And Briggs was climbing and skiing on a surgically fused right hip. It caused him to limp when he walked.

LYDEN: Screenwriter Mark Obenhaus picks up the story.

Mr. OBENHAUS: Once he had done it, he wanted the world to know it. And it was his good fortune that the weather conditions were such that his tracks, starting from the very, very top of the Grand Teton to near the bottom or the valley, were still on the mountain. And he was able to go to the local newspaper editor who had an airplane and fly around it, and she actually took a group of pictures, which later became a poster, which I believe you can still buy today. It really is the image that started the whole idea of big mountain or extreme skiing here in the United States.

LYDEN: Why do you think people want to do this?

Mr. OBENHAUS: I think people or humans have an appetite for adventure. And it takes many forms. And extreme skiing is just one of those forms. I don't think it's an aberrational activity. It's not that these people are not suicidal. I don't think there is some grand psychological profile that can be applied to them.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Steep")

Unidentified Man: John Muwer(ph) said it really beautifully. He said go to the mountains and get their good tidings.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Unidentified Man: What he meant is that there is so much out there that you can receive from that environment.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Steep")

Mr. LOU DAWSON (Big-Mountain Skier, "Steep"): Soon as I got out of jail, I went skiing. Soon as I got of broken legs, I went skiing. That's where I had to go to make it all right again. Rest alone is total chaos.

Mr. GLEN PLAKE (Big-Mountain Skier, "Steep"): I didn't choose my life in the mountains. It just happened.

Mr. DOUG COOMBS (Big-Mountain Skier, "Steep"): I tried to become a normal person and have a normal job but that didn't work.

LYDEN: Those were three of the skiers who appear in the documentary "Steep," Lou Dawson, Glen Plake and Doug Coombs. The sport of extreme skiing evolves from the early days as equipment improved - skis became shorter and wider, allowing straight shots down slopes with barely a twist or a turn - then there are the parachutes for the drop off from cliffs. And why they're dropping, why not show off with a couple of flips in the air.

Mr. OBENHAUS: You know, one of the other things that I find so remarkable about these skiers who ski in Alaska and places like that, they arrive in a helicopter over the top of a mountain. And the only real picture they have of that mountain is something that in their mind's eye or perhaps a Polaroid that they have taken of the slope as they approached the mountain.

And with that information, they set out from the top, on a course that they've never been on, perhaps nobody has ever been on, and it's from memory that they create their run. And it's quite a skill because when you're standing at the top of one of these peaks in Alaska, you do not see the face. You see the bottom, but you can - very often it's just skiing off the edge of a bowling bowl. You just don't see anything below you. So whatever plans you have, it have to be in your head because you can't sort of formulate them standing at the top.

LYDEN: You say that these people are not suicidal…

Mr. OBENHAUS: Right.

LYDEN: …but they talk over and over again throughout your film about having to fight back fear and losing friends to the mountain and becoming numb to it.

Mr. OBENHAUS: All true. There are many, many, many prominent big-mountain skiers over the years who have died in pursuit of the sport. That said, there are many, many, many, many more who have skied into old age - Bill Briggs being one of them. It is a dangerous sport. There is no question about it. But skiing's a very sensual activity. It's very satisfying when it's done well. And that's why you accept a certain amount of risk in pursuit of that.

LYDEN: Mark Obenhaus is the writer and director of the documentary "Steep." It's playing now in New York, Los Angeles and ski resorts. It will continue to roll out to ski towns in the United States through the winter.

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