The focus of "Steep," a new documentary about big-mountain skiing that opens Friday at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, changed dramatically when Doug Coombs, one of the athletes profiled in the film, died skiing with friends in April 2006 in La Grave, France.
"We were very close to being done with the shooting," says executive producer, director and writer Mark Obenhaus. "I was very much prepared to make a film where [death] was in the background, because it is such a large question anyone observing the sport asks. But when Doug died, it just made the film more serious, to be blunt about it."
"Steep" examines the history of big-mountain skiing -- from its beginnings in the early 1970s when Bill Briggs skied down the majestic Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, Wyo., while, in the mountains above Chamonix, France, skiers such as Anselme Baud and Patrick Vallencant also began tackling extreme descents -- to the current day, in which enthusiasts ski remote Alaskan and Icelandic peaks.
Obenhaus and his production team began making "Steep" in 2005. "When I do anything, I look for a narrative that can be run through the film and a cast of characters. When I was with my two producers in Jackson Hole and we interviewed Bill Briggs and then later in the day met Doug, it was very clear that here were two characters and a story that kind of starts with a dream that someone like Bill has . . . and eventually becomes the kind of skiing everyone aspires to do now."
Coombs died 18 days after Obenhaus' last interview with him. "The subject [of the interview] was partially initiated by my line of questioning," Obenhaus recalls. "But it was also initiated by Doug. And that subject was mortality. He sort of chose to grapple with it in the interview."
Why do these skiers choose to challenge death with their exploits?
"I don't think anyone ever has answered that question adequately," says Obenhaus, who limits his skiing to resort slopes. "I don't pretend the film does."
But, he adds, "skiing as an act, if you are really good at it, is very sensual. It is extremely pleasurable when you are in sync with the mountains and when the snow conditions are wonderful. There is a tremendous physical pleasure that comes from the perfect execution in great snow on a difficult run."
-- Susan King