Extreme sports, whether it be skateboarding, surfing or skiing have only come into popularity within the last decade or so. However, their roots often go back many more years. Take the case of extreme skiing. That kind of skiing is not usually found in the United States and forces patrons to go off to slopes like Chamonix in France. Origins of the sport suggest that we can go back almost 40 years to find a true source. The documentary Steep tells the tale of extreme skiing from the fathers of the sport and listens to the pioneers creating new and exciting challenges going forward.
Back in 1971, Bill Briggs skied Wyoming’s Grand Teton and gave birth to the concept of extreme skiing. His claim, “Without risk, there is no adventure.”. However, due to the United States being more partial to insurance claims and protecting themselves from being sued, the sport was forced to move to Europe and slopes like Chamonix in France during the mid 80’s. Local types such as Anselme Baud or Stefano De Benedetti led the way with a great show of skill and escaping death. But the sport didn’t get recognized here in the United States until Glen Planke came onto the scene. His movie, The Blizzard of AAHHH’s and his foot high mohawk brought the sport into the mainstream.
The documentary shifts to the Valdez mountains in Alaska who was once only famous for a giant oil spill caused by a drunken ship captain. Here the spotlight shifts onto Doug Coombs where the film spends a lot of time on. He shows off some of his skills and explains how he turned his love of extreme skiing into a business venture with his wife Emily. Get rich clients to give him cash to make him rich and continue doing what he loves. Sounds like a good plan to me. Doug also speaks about his desire of skiing and how one becomes numb to the dangers of the sport.
The film shifts again into the modern era where the spotlight shifts to Shane McConkey who pushes the sport into a different direction. His idea? Take base jumping, or jumping off high structures with nothing but a parachute and incorporate skiing. Something such as a sheer mountain face could literally be jumped off of and create tremendous spectacles. Shane even likes to add little somersault jumps to add to the excitement and difficulty. The footage ends with the stars of today showcasing various talents like Andrew McClean and Ingrid Backstrom and how they want to push the sport further into the next decade and beyond.
For some reason, the film reminds me very much of Touching the Void. Void was a lot more dramatic and tragic and dealt with mountain climbing rather than extreme skiing but the same feel was there. Steep is also a different animal at the same time. The time that is spent with the history of the sport and talking with the various personalities is very in-depth and helps to show the excitement and also speak on the danger that exists. The shots are beautiful and the personalities are colorful and intelligent unlike those who do ski boards for example where they usually look like they are more interested in their next toke.
Good points aside, my major issue with Steep lies where most documentaries do, the promotional aspects. Steep plays like a piece you might find on your coffee table at the ski lodge the night before you take your first experience on the bunny slope. The only difference here is there is no bunny slope, this is sheer craziness where many athletes have spun to their untimely demise. A lot of the cast explain how they become almost numb to the deaths and injuries that happen to their friends, family and even themselves. While I don’t fault them for feeling that, I do feel the film should have done more to explain the dangers should anybody might try this.
The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. One would think that with so much footage of snow and so much focused on the cable cam that the footage would look crystal clear and be reference worthy. For the interviews and some shots, this is the case. However, a lot of the footage is dated or appears not clear enough. Pixilation is rampant and a lot of the prized shots appear grainy. To the casual eye, one will probably not notice however as you will be focused primarily on the tremendous skill that this athletes exhibit.
The same could be said of the audio. This documentary is presented in 5.1 English Dolby Digital and mostly sits in the front center speaker. There are unfortunately no real ambient sounds that you would find in nature dvds of the same locales. The film is narrated by Peter Krause and we find that is a very strong and clear speaker. The score is done by Anton Sanko and it is majestic. However, it is repeated a bit too much for my tastes and almost becomes an annoyance to one enjoying the film. Subtitles are provided in English & French.
- Automatic Trailers: Persepolis, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, & Blu-Ray
- Audio Commentary with Director Mark Obenhaus and Skiers Ingrid Blackstrom & Andrew McClean: A rather laid back and interesting commentary with the people mentioned. It almost plays out like a second documentary, just with the same footage on camera. A lot of good insights to how the movie was shot and how the action was acquired. Required viewing if you liked the documentary.
- Q&A with Director Mark Obenhaus and Skiers Ingrid Blackstrom & Andrew McClean 13:09: The little Question and Answer session goes over everything from why they didn’t shoot some footage in the Himalayans to weather conditions and why snowboarders were not included. The session is recorded with very low volume, so feel free to adjust your volume knob.
- Shooting Steep 17:11: The major emphasis of this featurette is on the cable cam that was used. It is the same sort of camera work that is often used on the football field. But it was actually invented by another skier. They also explain how the whole process was a complete gamble to collect the shots they did.
- Photo Montage: The Skiers of Steep 2:34: A brief montage showing off all of the people involved in the shoot. Some nice still photos.
- Interview with Doug Coombs 6:42: This interview was recorded on March 16th, 2006 at La Grave, France. It was exactly eighteen days before Doug Coombs passed away in a skiing accident. This same footage is used in the film but serves as what I assume to be the last recorded interview with Doug. He talks about gravitational pull, and how he skied over many types of different terrain including lava. He also talks about how the brain turns off due to various skiing deaths. The interview needed to be included, however the somber moment is a reminder that it is a very dangerous sport.
- Previews: Saawariya, Across the Universe, The Jane Austen Book Club, Riding Giants, Lords of Dogtown, My Kid could Paint That, The Natural: Director’s Cut & Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
The director, Mark Obenhaus did a fine job with Steep. His love of skiing shows and it reflects on all of the participants in the film. This is a thoroughly enjoyable documentary of a sport that is high in danger but high in excitement and adventure. Doug Coombs, Bill Briggs, Ingrid Backstorm among others serve as interesting fodder for information in the film and show off their love of extreme skiing to the world. The dvd’s technical features can be overlooked to a certain point once one takes into account how difficult the shots were in the first place. The extras are fantastic for the most part and it is a very sound package. Despite the film being a promotional piece, I do recommend the documentary. A word of caution to fans of the sport or those interested about trying it out. Steep makes the sport look enticing and might cause folks to jump on board. Hopefully if they decide to do so, they exercise caution. The adventure is high, but so is the risk.
- DvdVerdict.com – “If you plan on conquering the mountains on skis yourself in the near future, watching Steep is a great way to start your research.”