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The Magic Behind the Film "Steep"

Two years in the making, "Steep" shows the highlights of modern big mountain skiing
By Andrew McLean - November 30th, 2007

Editor's Note: ski correspondent Andrew McLean is one of the skiers featured in the new film "Steep," about big mountain skiing. In this piece Andrew gives us an insiders view on the making of the film, and how the two year project came to fruition.
It took equal parts of inspired genius and blissful ignorance to create the Sony Picture Classics film “Steep” (watch an excerpt) which documents the story of big mountain skiing in North America. With incredible scenery, deep powder and a group of skiers willing to passionately discuss why they risk their lives for the sport, the inspiration part was easy. The ignorance part was harder. At one point Tom Yellin, the Executive Producer of the film called up veteran ski film maker Greg Stump and said “Greg, I’m really mad at you!” Greg asked why, and Tom replied “You never told us how hard this was going to be!” But by then, the cast and crew were committed.

“Steep” got off to a tough start in 2005 when Peter Jennings Productions from New York City filmed a group of North Americans skiing in Chamonix, France. This foray ended up with one of the skiers being helicoptered off the mountain with a broken back and forced a complete rethinking of the project. Having created documentaries on everything from UFO’s to JFK, director Mark Obenhaus saw the potential for expanding the scope of the film from just Chamonix to an entire documentary on the sport as a whole. As an added incentive, the history of Big Mountain skiing in North America is roughly one generation, or about 35 years old, so many of the original pioneers of the sport are still alive and skiing.

After a spine-tingling intro of incredible skiing, the film begins with Bill Briggs’ monumental ski descent of the Grand Teton in 1971. In the history of North American big mountain skiing, this singular descent suddenly changed the definition of what was skiable. At this time, the Grand Teton was better known as a challenging peak just to climb, and if it could be skied, then that meant that almost any peak was now fair game for skiing. At the same time, extreme skiing was gaining notoriety in Europe, which “Steep” documents with rare vintage film of Patrick Valencant and Anselme Baud descending near-vertical walls in their unique tandem style.

Between the Euro extreme skiers and the descent of the Grand Teton, the flood gates opened in North America for a whole new type of skiing which went far beyond the ski resorts. Epitomized by the 1987 film “The Blizzard of Ahhs,” skiing suddenly became faster, steeper, more dynamic and included jumping big cliffs. Skiers like Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup, along with Canadian’s Erick Pehota and Trevor Peterson started showing up in magazines and videos skiing lines that were more MTV than Reader’s Digest and inspiring a whole new generation of skiers and boarders.

Moving forward to 1991, “Steep” captures the harmonic convergence of three major forces which have shaped big mountain skiing to this day. The first factor was the inaugural World Extreme Skiing Championships, which were held at the second factor, Valdez, Alaska (which even now remains a rite-of-passage for skiers), which was in turn won by the third factor, a force of nature named Doug Coombs of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Doug had found his calling in Valdez and along with his wife, Emily, would go on to create the Valdez Heli-Ski operation. While “The Blizzard of Ahhs” showed people how to ski, it was Doug Coombs and Valdez Heli-Ski who gave them the perfect wide-open canvas to practice their new skills. Doug’s Wild West attitude attracted many of the skiers in “Steep” to Valdez, including Ingrid Backstrom, Seth Morrison and Shane McConkey, who pushed the sport even further by straight-lining entire peaks, throwing aerial acrobatics off of huge cliffs and melding base-jumping with ski mountaineering.

Big mountains are called that for a reason - they are remote, inaccessible, prone to bad weather, exposed to avalanches and have bad moods which can last for weeks. Adding hundreds of pounds of high-def camera gear, steep terrain, three different continents and the death of one of the main characters in the middle of the project makes filming them harder yet. The “Steep” crew not only preserved through all of these hardships, they excelled. Some of the more notable footage of the entire movie was shot by rigging a Cable Cam all the way down a slope. This technology had never been used before in the backcountry and creates the smooth, flowing sensation you get when you are skiing a line with a friend as they appear and disappear behind trees or as you cross paths with each other. Paired with the fluid skiing of Doug Coombs and Seth Morrison in Bella Coola, BC, it is as close to virtual skiing as you can get.

My involvement with “Steep” came as a result of twenty years of pursuing steep terrain in far-flung locations. Along with Dylan Freed, Matt Turley, a film crew and hundreds of pounds of camera gear, we spent two weeks exploring the couloirs of northern Iceland. The weather was horrible, but as luck (or perhaps, bad luck) would have it, we captured some incredible footage. A literally breath-taking scene happens at the end of the movie, and without spoiling the surprise, I can safely say that we were all lucky to be alive, and nobody was willing to go back for a second take, even if we could.

Big Mountain skiing is a hard thing to explain to family, friends and non-skiers who wonder why anyone would take such risks for such an obscure activity. Personally, I’m thrilled that “Steep” came along as it explains the irrational allure far better than I ever could. It also chronicles something much bigger than the actual mountains—the spirit of those who have committed themselves to this way of life. If I ever had to stop skiing, I’d miss the peaks, but even more, I’d miss all of the characters who inhabit them. To that end, “Steep” is a huge tribute to all past, present and future ski mountaineers and a beautifully crafted film.

Two years in the making, “Steep” will be released in theaters across the country beginning on December 21, 2007 and continuing through March.


DECEMBER 21, 2007

  • IRVINE, CA - University Town CTR 6 Cine
  • SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CA - Heavenly Village Cinemas
  • ASPEN, CO - Isis Theatre
  • BRECKENRIDGE , CO - Speakeasy Theatre
  • CRESTED BUTTE, CO - Majestic Theatre 3
  • BILLINGS, MT - Carmike 7
  • KALISPELL, MT - Strand
  • WHITEFISH, MT - Mountain Cinemas 1 & 2
  • HUNTER, NY - Hunter Theatre
  • NEW YORK, NY - Angelika Film Center 6
  • ASHLAND, OR - Varsity 5 Cinemas
  • PARK CITY, UT - Redstone 8 Cinemas
  • SALT LAKE CITY, UT - Regency Trolley Square
  • BURLINGTON, VT - Merrill's Roxy Theatre
  • JACKSON, WY - Movie Works Cinema 4

JANUARY 11, 2008

  • PALM SPRINGS, CA - Stadium 10 Palm Springs
  • ASPEN, CO - Isis Theatre
  • DENVER, CO - Mayan Three
  • PARK CITY, UT - Redstone 8 Cinemas

JANUARY 18, 2008

  • BERKELEY, CA - Shattuck 8
  • PALO ALTO, CA - Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square
  • SAN DIEGO, CA - Ken
  • SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Lumiere Cinemas 3
  • SAN JOSE, CA - Cinearts at Santana Row
  • SAUSALITO, CA - Marin Three
  • BOULDER, CO - Century 16
  • EVANSTON, IL - Cinearts 6
  • CAMBRIDGE, MA - Kendall Square Cinema 9
  • MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Lagoon Theatre 5
  • PHILADELPHIA, PA - Ritz at the Bourse 5
  • SEATTLE, WA - Varsity three Cinemas

JANUARY 25, 2008

  • SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA - Downtown Centre Cinema 7
  • BOCA RATON, FL - Shadwood Square 16
  • MIAMI BEACH, FL - South Beach 18
  • CHICAGO, IL - Music Box Theatre 2 (Art)
  • DALLAS, TX - Inwood 3
  • HOUSTON, TX - Angelika Theatre 8
  • WOODLANDS, TX - Cinemark at Market Street 5

FEBRUARY 1, 2008

  • NORTH FALMOUTH, MA - Nickelodeon 5
  • ST LOUIS, MO - Tivoli Theatre 3

FEBRUARY 8, 2008

  • BONITA SPRINGS, FL - Bonita Springs 12
  • JACKSONVILLE, FL - Beach Blvd Cinema 12
  • TALLAHASSEE, FL - Miracle Five
  • WINTER PARK, FL - Winter Park Village 20
  • ATLANTA, GA - UA Tara Cinema 4
  • NASHVILLE, TN - Green Hills Commons 16
  • AUSTIN, TX - Arbor Cinemas @ Great Hills
  • FT WORTH, TX - Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth
  • MILWAUKEE, WI - Oriental 3

FEBRUARY 15, 2008

  • ANCHORAGE, AK - Century 16 Anchorage
  • TUCSON, AZ - Centruy Elcon 20
  • DAVIS, CA - Davis Vasity Theatre
  • MONTEREY, CA - Oslo Plaza Theatre
  • INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Keystone Art Cinema
  • OLATHE, KS - AMC Studio 30
  • NEW ORLEANS, LA - Canal Place Cinema 14
  • KANSAS CITY, MO - Cinemark Palace 14
  • ALBUQUERQUE, NM - Century 14
  • SANTA FE, NM - UA Devargas Center 6
  • RENO, NV - Riverside 12
  • KNOXVILLE, TN - Regal Downtown West Eight

FEBRUARY 22, 2008

  • HUNTSVILLE, AL - Madison Square 12
  • TRUSSVILLE, AL - Trussville Cinema 16
  • WASHINGTON, DC - E-Street Cinema
  • GAINESVILLE, FL - Gainesville 14
  • SARASOTA, FL - Hollywood 20
  • LEXINGTON, KY - Lexington Green 8
  • LOUISVILLE, KY - Village 8 Theatre
  • DETROIT, MI - Detroit Institute of Art
  • CHARLOTTE, NC - Manor Twin
  • LAS VEGAS, NV - Village Square 18
  • BEND, OR - Pilot Butte 6 Plex
  • SAN ANTONIO, TX - Fiesta 16

FEBRUARY 29, 2008

  • BALTIMORE, MD - Charles Theatre
  • OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - AMC Quail Springs 24
  • RICHMOND, VA - Westhampton Theatre 2
  • SPOKANE, WA - River Park Square 20

MARCH 7, 2008

  • OMAHA, NE - AMC Oakview 24

CANADA - Coming in January
Stay tuned for details



I was watching a preview on a rented video. Living in Alaska I have seen some spectacular scenes. I see Valdez (Cordova) as a location. It would be very cool to re-release the Alaska scenes and other scenes, in Anchorage, in 3D, now!

Posted on November 13, 2010 - 9:38pm
by Ralph Nisenbaum

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