Steep provides a skin-deep history lesson on extreme skiing, a sport in which adventurous men and women seek out—via mountain climbing or helicopter—the most dangerous and challenging downhill skiing opportunities imaginable. Writer-director Mark Obenhaus’s beginner’s guide details the inception and various mutations of the pastime, which began in the ‘70s in Chamonix, France and then gravitated to the States (specifically, the Alaskan peaks of Valdez) during the ensuing two decades. As one would expect from a documentary of this sort, the filmmaker supplies copious quantities of gorgeous daredevil footage apt to make one squeamish. Skiers plummet down 45-degree mountain faces or, in the case of hotdog Seth Morrison, leap off monumental ridges and cliffs, twirling about in mid-air as if they were jumping off a diving board into a backyard pool. Pioneers discuss the exaltation of taking massive risks with their lives, such as Stefano De Benedetti, who describes his groundbreaking descent of Mont Blanc’s East face as “my way of becoming a man.”
Aside from revealing his subjects as adrenaline addicts, however, Obenhaus doesn’t attempt to truly comprehend the psychological forces compelling people to repeatedly court death in such a way, offering up only cursory portraits that fail to investigate or challenge any of the skiers’ rosy assumptions and assertions. Legends of the field including Bill Briggs, Eric Pehota, and Doug Coombs wax rhapsodic about the exhilaration derived from being the first to tame a rugged course as well as from living life on the edge, and there’s certainly no denying the thrill that comes from watching them traverse majestically treacherous terrain. But what of the possibility of leaving the mountain in a body bag? The topic unavoidably comes to the fore courtesy of the fact that Coombs, shortly after his interviews were conducted, died in a skiing accident, but whenever Steep interrupts its good-time vibe by addressing the omnipresent specter of death, it does so in a superficial, let’s-get-this-over-with way that downplays it as a mere pesky potentiality rather than an immediate and likely hazard. Which is to say, the film succeeds at making extreme skiing look downright awesome, but someone forgot to slap it with a “Don’t Ever Try This” warning label.