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By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 2/27/2008

For the uninitiated, extreme skiing--shorthand for skiing off steep, dangerous, and difficult to access slopes--looks like an expensive form of suicide. In Mark Obenhaus' Steep you get to meet a number of the world's most prominent extreme skiers, who share their aspirations and fears, most of which have to do with finding the next undiscovered slope.

Extreme skiing begins in the United States in 1971, when Bill Briggs skied down Wyoming's 13,770-foot Grand Teton by rappelling down a cliff face with his skis to get to the slope. While Steep does justice to this initial feat, it also acknowledges that it began a cycle that plagues the risk takers and adventure seekers in the movie. Each time someone accomplishes something remarkable, such as skiing the Tetons, others follow, making the feat less unusual and extreme with each attempt.

So once it's possible for the average skier to hire a guide to ski the Tetons, the extreme skiers move on to new, undiscovered, and more dangerous slopes that promise even greater thrills. Thus, Steep follows skiers to the French Alps, where extreme skiing was born, Alaska, British Columbia, Iceland, and back to the French Alps, with each stop leaving in its wake a trail of tour companies and videos--the most famous of which is 1988's The Blizzard of AAHHH's--that are destroying the very pristine conditions that draw these competitors to extreme skiing in the first place.

The movie's rhythm--shots of snowy white landscapes followed by daredevil stunts followed by the skiers themselves talking about what went wrong with the last best place--starts to wear at about the 60-minute mark. But Steep is much more engaging than the ski movies it excerpts, which are just endless shots of skiing in dangerous places, and some of the characters are genuinely likable. As is the case for other sports, the most popular extreme skiers are known for daring physical feats as well as winning personalities, and there are moments where the life of the extreme skier is enviable. No one appears to want for money, and at least one skier manages to make other good things in life, like family and fresh bread, compatible with his skiing addiction.

Beyond the environmental damage caused by extreme skiers--in the movie, Alaska suffers the most--Steep leaves open the question of whether a sport that is so risky is worth pursuing. Obenhaus doesn't take a stand on the sport's dangers, and most of the skiers interviewed accept the fact that they are risking their lives each time they set out on the slopes. It's hard to deny the thrill that comes with watching a skier defy death as he speeds down a rocky slope. But it's even harder to forget the lives lost pursuing what is, in the end, just an indulgent hobby.

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