They were the first “illegal” skiers.
No idea what to do with their lives, so they do what they love.
Tell them they can’t and they begin plotting how, fiercely.
Which was the case for Augusta native Bill Briggs on his first descent of Grand Teton — a sharkfin-shaped hulk of granite 13,770 feet in the Wyoming sky.
“I had been a guide there for a little while, and I’d begun to take a look at these peaks around here and thought, ‘These could be skied’,” Briggs said in a phone interview from his home in Jackson, Wyo. “Well, but there weren’t many people saying that about Grand Teton at the time. The fact of the descent was that it looked virtually impossible to do.”
“Well, we did it,” said Briggs, 76, who noted he’s probably skied tens of thousands of days despite being born with a dislocated hip. “It was an extraordinary experience. I’ll never match it again.”
Most will never match it at all.
“It was just a matter of routefinding,” Briggs says.
Such do-or-die metaphors for life — not to mention vertiginous slopes, extreme skiing, knockout photography and simple twists of grueling, snowbound fate — are the stuff of “Steep,” a new ski mountaineering documentary being screened Feb. 29 at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.
Written and directed by Mark Obenhaus, “Steep” (PG, 92 minutes) pegs the start of big mountain skiing at Briggs’ first descent from Grand Teton. Then the film cuts between interviews of old and current extreme skiers before circling back to Briggs at the film’s conclusion.
Bet you didn’t know a guy from Augusta, Maine, “invented” extreme skiing.
“Once we’d been skiing that,” Briggs said breathlessly, referring to Grand Teton, “skiing that and having a crew photograph our ski tracks the next day, we became famous. There’s this wonderfully artistic poster of the ski tracks on Grand Teton that virtually sold the sport of ski mountaineering.”
It was 1971.
Briggs had studied the peak — one of the grandest in the Lower 48 — for years, waiting for the exact time of year there would be enough snow to ski it.
But when the time came, his climbing partners balked.
So he went to the summit alone.
Think of driving a Lamborghini too fast, backwards, down a foggy cobblestone street in a foreign country, and you have the hiccup before the gasp that comes with making a first descent, alone, down an unmarked Alpine slope full of crevasses, couloirs and cliffs.
A tiny avalanche passed him.
At the bottom, a couple of hours went by.
Then, out of a billowing puff of powder, a whip-stop and a calico grin.
Deathwish? People like Briggs tell you it’s more like a “life wish.”
“Steep” tells of the joy and freedom that comes from surmounting the superhuman obstacles of big mountain skiing, but also the sport’s substantial dark side: the constant threat of injury or death, never knowing how far to push, the daring feats . . . and the faulty calculations.
Briggs said the film “places me at the top of the ski mountaineering hierarchy internationally, which I don’t think is correct, but I can take credit for being that for this country.”
His conquest begat a voracious curiosity, especially in these over-the-top times, to go one better.
That part of the extreme skiing legacy isn’t so flattering to Briggs.
“They’ve gotten rather radical about the whole thing, jumping off cliffs . . . they take it straight down these couloirs with these huge runouts. That’s not what I was interested in. I was interested in skiing something in which you were in control the whole time. That was my attitude about it. Jumping was out of the question.”
But in the wake of Briggs’ descent came a new sport, and an explosion of filmmaking about it.
“Steep” seems a more mature type of ski documentary, offering a serious, almost scholarly take compared to the frat house antics of “The Blizzard of Aahhhs” (Greg Stump, 1987), widely viewed as the genre’s pioneer; or Warren Miller, whose numerous skiing-as-art-films made “the lifestyle” suddenly accessible to anyone with a van, a pair of boards and a trust fund.
In sum: More people taking more risks, skiing mountains never before attempted.
Skiers profiled in “Steep” include Briggs, Stefano De Benedetti, Eric Pehota, Glen Plake, Shane McConkey, Seth Morrison, Chris Davenport, Ingrid Backstrom and Andrew McLean, who discuss what drives them to absurd heights.
The common thread: In the early 1970s, no one had any notion 50-degree slopes were skiable.
In the film, Briggs recalls flying past the peak with a news reporter after the historic Grand Teton descent.
He saw the curves he’d lain on the snow . . . “the beauty of the mountain enhanced by human contact,” he told the reporter.
A long way from graduating Cony High School in the 1950s.
Studying to be a doctor in the premed program at Dartmouth College, Briggs said he “wasn’t getting anywhere. I became disenchanted with the situation and eventually got booted from there.”
One of the things he used to do on study breaks was head to Franconia Notch to ski Tuckerman’s Ravine. Briggs still recites the runs on The Headwall, Hillman’s Highway and the West Gully as if from a mental photo album.
“I was skiing mostly with my sister’s husband-to-be. We’d go to Bridgton; to High Point, a ski area outside of Augusta; what is now Camden Snow Bowl . . . I got taken, taken in by the adventure of the thing,” Briggs said.
All the while, the dislocated hip was nary a hindrance: Briggs only had surgery to repair it in the past several months.
“It seemed worthwhile, exciting, the ideal life for me. I didn’t know how that would work at all. I did go back to Dartmouth and try to teach people how to ski. I wasn’t successful at all.
“Then what happened was (friend) Dana Wallace (of Augusta) wound up teaching at Sugarloaf and said, ‘C’mon, Bill, were going over to Franconia to take a course to be a ski instructor.’ He simply announced that’s what he and I are going to do.”
Consider it the push off the headwall.
“In his mind, I think he said, ‘This is where you belong,’ and he was right. It was really nice to have someone in Augusta who had this energy, enthusiasm for an outdoor life.”
An outdoor life that magnetized Briggs to high peaks and made him a ski mountaineering legend.
He skied Mount Rainier in 1961 before anyone but the legendary 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army.
He started teaching and doing instructional DVDs — the idea is “to get people doing things on skis they never thought they could” — and now owns the ski school at Snow King, a community ski area near Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Though he still skis “every other day” at age 76, it seems he’d probably ski every day — bad hip or no — were it not for ski school administrative headaches seeping in.
And he’s also the leader and banjo player in a country-western band that’s played every Sunday night for the last 38 years at The Stagecoach in Wilson, Wyo., credited with preserving a 70-year tradition of skiing songs.
His sister, Mary Kendall, still lives in Auburn.
He still gets back to visit occasionally.
But, as with most extreme-skiing refugees — and fugitives in general — he’ll stay holed up in the high air and oceanic vistas of the hardpan intermountain West, a Brahmin of the twin boards, waiting for the next storm, the next chance to test the bounds of his freedom.
“It’s turned out to be a great life,” Briggs said. “Oh, God, I don’t regret any piece of it.”
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