Schuss! Daredevils at Work!

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

An intimate brush with death is one way to reaffirm the joy of being alive -- as any cancer or road accident survivor will tell you. But how many of us actively seek out this experience?

Meet the extreme skiers of "Steep," who never met a 70-degree slope they didn't want to master. Maybe they can't cheat the Grim Reaper, but they can sure streak down the most spectacular slopes in the world trying.

That's the yee-haw glory, the contemplative appeal and -- let's face it -- the sheer nuttiness of this sports documentary, which is as much about our inexplicable addiction to death-wish glory as it is about the jones of off-road downhill.

These guys (and gals) don't do Aspen or apr¿s-ski cappuccinos. They want unsupervised, wild, crazy, thrilling and scary. So they go to the Grand Tetons, the tallest, loneliest peaks in Alaska or the drop-away mountainsides of France's Chamonix/Mont-Blanc. Some of these altitudinous starting points are accessible only by helicopter. Most of the gradients are so sheer, it looks as though the skiers are free-falling and using the mountain as a mere reference point.

They never know if they're going to come home alive.

"You don't know when your time is up," says Douglas Coombs, who was a teenager when he heard about Bill Briggs, the super granddaddy of extreme skiing who descended all the way down the Grand Teton in 1971. All 6,000 feet. There were no witnesses, so Briggs took a helicopter flight with a journalist to prove it happened -- showing his fellow passenger the zigzag tracks in the snow.

Coombs was hooked for life. So are the rest of these extremistas, including Ingrid Backstrom, who proves (with her incredibly vertiginous descents) that insanity is not the exclusive domain of men. (Phew.) Their on-camera conversations are all about the ecstasy of speed, the triumph of "conquering" the steepest slopes that God -- in His infinite humor -- ever hewed out of granite. The way they feel that glow of life when they come home.

As we watch these hot-doggers from our safe, risk-averse nooks, we think: T hese people are padded-suit crazy. They rue how many fellow skiers they've had to bury. Yet, they still take the plunge. We also feel a mounting dread. It's in the way one person -- we won't say who -- suddenly starts speaking about another in the past tense. And we realize the terrible price they pay for those ecstatic swoops and somersaults.

But over the course of this movie, after we have vicariously experienced their thrills, courtesy of spectacular footage and point-of-view shots from atop the heads of downhillers, well, it's easy enough to buy into. Even as most of us recoil with head-shaking self-preservation, we secretly applaud them for pushing the envelope of mortality.

Steep (92 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG for extreme sports danger and mild profanity.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company