To the extreme
The real story behind the insane skiing antics profiled in ‘Steep’
By Drew Tewksbury
Special to Metromix
December 19, 2007
They are high altitude snow artists.
Cutting swaths through unspoiled powder at heights only attainable by helicopter, they ski down the grandest of mountains in the most remote locations of Alaska, Iceland, and even Antarctica. They outrun avalanches, sail past jagged rock outcroppings, and ski dangerously close to cliffs dropping 5,000 feet down. These stunts may seem suicidal, but defying death is just another day for the fearless extreme skiers featured in Mark Obenhaus’ breathtakingly beautiful documentary “Steep.”
The film traces the evolution of the sport from its infancy during the 1970s in the mountains above Chamonix, France, where a handful of intrepid skiers first traded chateaus and multicolored scarves for the exhilarating freedom of skiing the untamed mountains.
“Steep” follows some of the top names in the game today as they take on the hazardous crags of Wyoming, Canada, and France while their adrenaline-drenched antics are captured in artfully shot in crisp HD. Also featured are insightful interviews with innovators including Ingrid Backstrom, Andrew McLean, and Doug Coombs—who died on in the mountains of France just days after he was filmed—as they share their love and respect for the sport.
Metromix chatted with extreme skier Backstrom (she jumps out of helicopters, then skis the mountain) and ski mountaineer McLean (he climbs the mountain, then hits the slope) about almost skiing off cliffs, adrenaline addiction, and breaking your ass.
Ingrid, when did you realize that you wanted to break the boundaries of the ski slopes and get extreme?
Ingrid Backstrom: That didn’t happen until after college. I had worked one temporary “real job,” and I decided I wasn’t ready to delve in quite yet, so I thought I would spend one year ski bumming in Squaw Valley. I really enjoyed skiing every day, but I missed the challenge that I was used to in sports [in high school and college] of competing and having goals to work towards, so on a whim I entered a free-skiing contest. That was what really opened my eyes, inspired me, and made me want to push myself, because I saw what other people were doing on skis and how fun it looked.
What are you thinking about right as the helicopter drops you off at the summit, and what are you thinking about as you speed down the mountain?
IB: I’m mainly thinking about how to get myself and my equipment out safely. After that, I try to just focus on where I will be skiing, how it will feel, my exit plan in case the original line doesn’t work out, and how fun it will be to ski out the bottom. Once you drop in, you don’t really have time to think if you’re going fast. That’s when your body and your instincts just take over.
Have you ever sustained any serious injuries on the mountain, and have you faced a situation where you didn’t think you were going to get out alive?
IB: Luckily, knock on wood, I haven’t experienced any serious injuries from skiing. Last year I hit a tree stump with my right butt cheek and got a pretty bad hematoma, and this past summer I compressed a vertebrae in my back going off of a jump in Whistler, but in both cases I was back doing things in a few weeks.
Andrew McLean: One of the basic rules of ski mountaineering is to only climb what you can actually ski. [My team and I had] climbed one area and thought it was going to soften up, but it didn’t so we skied this other area. All of a sudden on our fourth turn we hit blue ice, and just barely skidded to a stop. We just barely stopped sliding down the hill. From there it took us a couple of hours to side step our way down the mountain. That was a pretty close call.
What do you do after something like that happens?
AM: [If you live] hopefully you brought some scotch or something with you. So you just go back to the tent and toast your experience and survival. If you live through it, though you’re not just jumping back onto it, you live and learn.
Does facing these extreme situations help you in your life off the mountains?
IB: It’s really helped me to believe in myself more, to accept challenges more readily, and to try to not take myself so seriously, because in the end, skiing is really all about fun. Another important and sort of accidental benefit is that I’ve been able to travel to amazing places and meet some of the most interesting people, which has helped me open up more socially, and really be more interested in what other people have going on. I love talking to people, which I couldn’t necessarily say about myself before—I was more of a shy, reticent person in certain social situations.
Are you addicted to adrenaline? Do you think it’s important to push yourself to the limit?
IB: I suppose that in some way I am addicted to adrenaline, but I think that it’s a temporary thing and not one that will last my whole life. I think it’s an OK thing to be addicted to as long as I manage it well. And for me, pushing myself is a natural part of being a human. We are built with the capabilities to test our bodies and minds, and I wouldn’t feel as alive if I didn’t take advantage of that part of me. It is a very elemental satisfaction that I get from challenging myself and meeting that challenge.
Is it difficult to get close to other skiers, knowing that they could die on the mountain?
IB: No, not at all. Being on a trip together where you’re in a remote area, in sometimes difficult conditions, where trust and safety are the main concerns, it only brings you together. You see people at their best, and sometimes at their worst, and I have many amazing friends because of it.
AM: It’s always in the back of your mind, the reality of it. When it’s just a group of your buddies, it’s unspoken but everybody accepts the risk involved. When you go out into these extremely intense experiences with someone, it becomes hard to describe it to anyone else. There’s a huge amount of unknown to it, and you won’t succeed unless you take some risks and push it a bit. But if all of that works out you create these great long-term memories and friendships, because good partners are a crucial part of ski mountaineering.
Andrew, why are you more interested in ski mountaineering and why did you choose it over helicopter skiing?
AM: More than the slopes and the mountains and the turns, it’s about the people. There are a lot of characters and a lot of experiences you can [find] in the mountains that you can’t get anywhere else. Ski mountaineering is self-powered. You climb up what you ski down. I grew up Alpine skiing at resorts, then I got into rock climbing, and ski mountaineering combines those things.
Ski areas always seemed so tame. If you’ve been ski mountaineering for a while and you go back to the resorts, there’s people everywhere, closed signs and people telling you what you can and cannot do. With ski mountaineering, it’s up to you. If you want to go out and kill yourself you’re welcome to it.