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Peak Performance

Mark Obenhaus' new documentary Steep (TFF '07) is both a chronicle of big-mountain skiing and an homage to the awesome beauty of nature.

Even the most passionate powder junkie probably hasn’t seen the kind of snow that appears Steep, Mark Obenhaus' magnificently photographed history of big mountain skiing, and that’s half the pleasure of the film. Shot mostly on “bluebird days”—those clear, crisp days that are a skiier’s delight in the United States, Canada, Iceland, and France, Steep is both a chronicle of the sport and an homage to the places where it happens: majestic landscapes of open skies, vertiginous gray peaks, and blinding snow fields. "What a great subject to photograph," says Obenhaus of taking on the project. "I like to be in the mountains, I like to make images in that kind of environment. The people in our film are mountain people, and I guess I would say that I am too. That's the environment I find most beautiful, and most comforting."

The film's provenance may come as a surprise: The late, great news anchor Peter Jennings, an avid skier, helped conceive the project shortly before his death, with executive producer Tom Yellin and wife Kayce Freed Jennings through his PJ Productions (now the Documentary Group). When Obenhaus got involved, the idea was to make sprawling history of skiing, from the Vikings to the present day; he immediately began looking for a smaller, more contained story to tell. "It became very clear that in the late '60s and early '70s, things started changing in skiing," he says. "It went from a sport that resembled golf, in its comforts, to a sport that resembled big-wave riding, with real drama and danger. So the question was, 'How did that happen?'"

To answer that question, Obenhaus and producers Jordan Kronick and Gabrielle Tenenbaum turned to the people who helped orchestrate the change: back-country pioneers like Bill Briggs, who in 1971 became the first person to ski Wyoming's Grand Teton, and Doug Coombs, who helped establish Alaska as a premier destination for big-mountain skiing in the '90s. Both men, along with numerous other extreme skiers, thoughtfully contemplate the considerable risks and rewards of their sport, but Steep's ultimate power comes from showing you just what they're contemplating.

How long did it take?

Steep benefits from archival material, like footage shot by the Italian skier Stefano de Benedetti and from the seminal 1988 American ski film The Blizzard of AAHHH's, which shows both the evolution of the sport and the impact of filmmaking on it. But its original footage is nothing short of astonishing. Obenhaus used alpine climbers and POV cameras, as well as those CableCam rigs designed for shooting football games—a "signature technology" to set the film apart from other ski movies, he says—to capture the panorama of the experience. The film especially revels in helicopter shots that pull back slowly from skiers in mid-run to reveal the vastness of the landscape around them, instantly turning these supermen (and women) into ants.

As with many memorable surfing movies, the terrific production values serve to highlight the scale of man's confrontation with nature at its most elemental. And Steep doesn't shy away from the perils of the confrontation. A tone point, an avalanche miraculously spares three mountaineers climbing a peak in Iceland (Obenhaus credits camera operator John Armstrong for realizing he was helpless to do anything in the situation and keeping his camera rolling, capturing the weak-kneed relief of the men once they realize they've come out unscathed). Later, Obenhaus reveals that Coombs, one of the film's most likable and forthcoming subjects, has died while skiing in France. "Doug's death had the effect of making us more serious, and the film more serious," he says. "It's as simple as that."

Obenhaus bristles, however, at a recent review that compared extreme skiers' behavior to that of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. "This is not even remotely as dangerous as hanging out with Grizzly bears," he exclaims. "For heaven's sake, that's suicide! There are people like Bill Briggs who have been doing this their whole lives and are in their seventies. The risk is not that great. But nonetheless, it's there, and you'd be a fool if you didn't spend some time contemplating it.

"As a group, I don't believe these people think what they do is in any way irrational, crazy, or ill-conceived," he continues. "They are convinced of the richness of the experience, and they're fully aware of the risks involved."


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