‘Steep’ in their hearts
Kristin Ulmer emerges from a screening of the documentary "Steep," wiping tears from her eyes. She says her past has just overwhelmed her: Much of the footage in the film — of skiers racing avalanches in plumes of snow, braving uncharted Alaskan mountaintops, and deploying parachutes off untouched peaks — was shot while she was standing by, waiting her turn.
"That was 15 years of my life," she says, a grin spreading over her face. "Those were my friends."
Wednesday at Gateway’s Megaplex, Ulmer, tall and slender, wearing a pencil skirt and holding a briefcase, looks more the part of the professional, but it’s a vision that betrays her wild past when she lived in ski boots and crampons. Starting in the early 1990s as a mogul specialist on the U.S. Ski Team, Ulmer became a pioneer in the male-dominated freeskiing world. LIke the skiers featured in "Steep," Ulmer made a living as a daredevil, tempting fate in Chamonix and Valdez, Alaska for big air and for first descents. At the turn of the millennium, Powder Magazine named her "The Biggest Icon the Ski Industry Never Expected."
But four years ago, Ulmer retired from extreme freesking to become a student of Zen Buddhism, and now teaches the Eastern practice to amateur and professional skiers in clinics called "Live to Ski" — one of which is slated to take place in Park City in late February.
Seeing Mark Obenhaus’ "Steep" moved her, in part, because it meant confronting that choice to leave it all behind. Outside the theater, Ulmer tells the story of the moment she decided to send out resignation letters to her sponsors, when she and fellow freeskier Stefano de Benedetti survived an avalanche in Chamonix in 2001.
"As the snow rolled down our backs, I was smiling — I didn’t understand fear," she recalls. "That was the same year I crashed my paraglider and I just thought, ‘I need therapy. I need to get out of this.’"
Ulmer was interviewed for "Steep," but her biography was left on the cutting-room floor. There are but two women interviewed in the fim Emily Coombs, freeskier and wife of freeskier and guide Doug Coombs, and Ingram Backstrom, of the younger generation of skiers.
During filming, Ulmer says she was surprised to learn that out of all her extreme freeskiing peers interviewed, she was the only one to leave the sport.
"I quit because it became obvious to me that if I stayed, I would die," she explains.
Yet, Ulmer insists she would never try to convince her old friends to follow her lead. In "Steep" it is clear that her fellow skiers are aware of the risk; in fact they seek it out — it defines the sport and their perception of themselves. As Bill Briggs, credited as the first to descend 6,000 feet off the Grand Teton in 1971, explains, the risk defines the reason for living.
"If there’s no risk there’s no adventure … and why am I living?" he asks. "Gee, it’s to have an adventure."
"Steep" cameramen come closest to capturing the duality of the danger and delight of the sport while following Park City skier Andrew McLean, an extreme skier who bypasses modern convenience for bare-bones mountaineering, allowing him to access the remotest of locations throughout the world.
In the scene, while cinematographers keep their focus on McLean and two companions in Iceland, the skiers are caught by surprise in an avalanche and helplessly swallowed by snow. For a few moments, they call out to one another, but eventually all three recover unscathed. They hug each other and laugh, their recent survival sweetening their adventure, and continue their journey.
McLean acknowledges it might not be wise to live life this way and jokes that he uses "creative rationalization" to overcome near misses and the tragedies of friends, reasoning that an event might have been prevented. But like all the subjects in the film, he also recognizes that threat is partly what urges him on, and what makes it hard for him to leave the sport behind.
"The closer you come to dying, the more alive you feel," says Doug Coombs, 1991 and 1993 World Extreme Skiing champion, in his interviews for "Steep
Coombs, a touchstone figure in "Steep," admits he has experienced situations similar to Ulmer’s and McLean’s calling him to be more cautious. Friends of his have died and he has come close. Still, he "hasn’t slowed down much."
"You almost become numb to it — it’s terrible," Coombs confesses. "You hate seeing the people you know die, but … at least you know they loved what they were doing."
Sadly, in April 2006, before production for the movie wrapped, Coombs died in La Grave, France, trying to help his friend who had fallen in the Alps. His story is perhaps the most haunting reminder in the movie of the consequences these skiers face in order to live out their dreams.
Still, it’s not risk for risk’s sake, according William Kerig, publisher of the Wasatch Journal and co-producer of "Steep." The reason Kerig says he believes in the project is because he hopes to ennoble the 35-year-old sport beyond its usual stigma.
"We set off to make a film that would elevate what had been considered trivial and stupid life choices," he told The Park Record. "I have been a skier my whole life and made life choices based on skiing and I have always seen a dignity and daring in those choices. But I had never really seen that communicated."
Ironically, among the most poetic responses to the question of why anyone dares to ski couloirs and 50-degree slopes, is that of Ulmer’s friend de Benedetti, who stood beside her as she smiled in the avalanche.
"When you know if you fall you die, you act like a different person," he explains in "Steep." "You act with all yourself. You are discovering yourself.
"To live so close to the possibility of dying makes you a better person. In the perfect moment, I felt to be like a little superman."
"Steep" is now playing at Redstone 8 Cinemas at Kimball Junction. Call (435) 575-0221. To learn more about "Steep," visit http://www.steepfilm.com.
When they came on the scene
The following daredevil skiers are featured in "Steep," the new documentary that chronicles the rise of big mountain skiing:
The first skier on record to ski the Grand Teton in 1971.
Chamonix guide and France’s extreme skiing pioneer.
Stefano De Benedetti
De Benedetti, an Italian freeskier who skied the Innominata face on the Italian side of Mont Blanc.
One of the most flamboyant American freestyle skiers. With his big mohawk and brightly colored suits, Plake was the star of the ski film "The Blizzard of Aahs" — a touchstone in the world of freeskiing.
Pehota helped define big mountain skiing in ski films and has reportedly made more than 40 first descents.
A backcountry freeskiing guide largely responsible for leading fresh-tracks in Alaska who sadly died before "Steep" was completed in April of 2006.
World Extreme Skiing Champion in 1996.
Colorado-based skier known for skiing Alaskan mountains. Distinguished as the oldest member of the K2 Factory team.
One of the first skiers to introduce parachutes to big mountain skiing, McConkey is the heir of original freeskiing pioneer Jim McConkey, of Alta, Utah.
One of the few women big mountain skiers, and one of two interviewed in "Steep."
Park City extreme skier and mountaineer who bypasses helicopters for old techniques to reach remote areas.
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