HOLLYWOOD - The focus of

Steep

, a documentary about big-mountain skiing that opens Jan. 18 in Philadelphia, changed when Doug Coombs, an athlete profiled in the film, died skiing with friends in April 2006 in La Grave, France.

"We were very close to being done with the shooting," said executive producer, director and writer Mark Obenhaus. "I was very much prepared to make a film where [death] was in the background, because it is such a large question anyone observing the sport asks. But when Doug died, it just made the film more serious, to be blunt about it."

Steep

examines the history of big-mountain skiing - from its beginnings in the '70s when Bill Briggs skied down Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, Wyo., while, in the mountains over Chamonix, France, skiers such as Anselme Baud began tackling extreme descents - to the current day, in which enthusiasts ski remote Alaskan and Icelandic peaks.

Obenhaus and his production team began making

Steep

in 2005. "I look for a narrative that can be run through the film and a cast of characters. When I was with my two producers in Jackson Hole and we interviewed Bill Briggs and then . . . met Doug, it was very clear that here were two characters and a story that kind of starts with a dream that someone like Bill has . . . and eventually becomes the kind of skiing everyone aspires to do now."

Why do these skiers choose to challenge death with their exploits? "I don't think anyone ever has answered that question adequately," Obenhaus said.