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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Steep Descent

Big mountain skiing

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In1920s Germany there emerged a genre called “mountain films.” They were fictional mountain-climbing adventure stories that strained the limits of cinematic technology and the endurance of actors as they ventured to places where movies had never gone, in the snowy wilderness on the roof of the world.

Many scenes from the documentary Steep rekindle the cobalt blue aura of those old German films. Steep concerns the origin and growth of big mountain skiing (or “extreme skiing” to use the current clich), a sport that involves climbing beyond the well-manicured hills of the ski resorts and onto the craggier summits.

The descents are exhilarating and dangerous. Until the 1970s no one had tried to ski down the side of Mont-Blanc or the Grand Teton. One of the first to try it, the American Bill Briggs, gets a good deal of screen time as he recounts the excitement of overcoming the physical and mental challenges of his adventure. But apparently he was at first the lone voice in the American wilderness. The sport of big mountain skiing actually coalesced in the 1970s around the French alpine region of Chamonix.

The motivations expressed by the first wave of European adventurers are much the same as those of the characters from the 1920s German mountain movies. They found the clarity above the tree line that is lacking in the valleys of human society. There is no room for error or dithering when one false move means a plunge into the abyss. Surmounting the seemingly impossible develops character.

In gliding on the razor’s edge between life and death, the big mountain skier can gain a sharp glimpse of the perilous nature of existence. It’s not a matter of fearlessness. “The one who is not afraid is crazy. He is a dead man,” says one of the French veterans.

American Doug Coombs, who died in a French skiing accident only days after being filmed for Steep, understood himself as being in a relationship with the ranges he skied. He called the mountains “a living, breathing thing” and insisted that an extreme skier must “listen to what the mountain is saying to you.” He added that there is also the X-factor of luck.

Since the earliest times humans have sought to transcend their limitations on mountain peaks, which are holy sites in many of the world’s faiths. A sense for that experience can be glimpsed in the visuals of Steep as intrepid skiers ascend and descend through stone spires that rise like a forest of cathedrals amid ice crystals shining with diamond brightness.

Steep opens soon at the Downer Theatre.