The Doug Coombs storyFebruary 14, 2009
This blog would not be complete without the Doug Coombs story – he was, is and always will be, a legend in his chosen persuit – freeskiing.
Coombs was one of the true pioneers of Extreme Skiing, he found his ski legs in backcountry stomping ground of Jackson Hole. After becoming a heli-ski guide in Wyoming, he was crowned World Extreme Champion in 1991 in Valdez, Alaska. His experiences there led him to return to set up Valdez Heli-Ski Guides with his wife Emily, an operation that became one of the catalysts for the rapid progression of what became the freeskiing scene.
Below is part 1 of JakeCastDotCom’s video tributes to Doug Coombs.
Original reports of his death in April 2006 suggested that a small slab slide may have taken Coombs and a friend over the edge. Subsequent accounts said Coombs was skiing at the end of the day with three friends. The group were descending a very steep couloir (possibly Couloir de Polichinelle) in the Freaux sector.
One of the four, Chad Vanderham, a La Grave regular from Colorado, began skiing down, while Coombs and the others watched from above. He apparently hit a patch with an ice layer underneath and fell in what was described as a definite “no-fall” zone. The Coloradoan reportedly washed over a cliff and disappeared from view.
Coombs is said to have wanted to get a rope in order to check on his fallen friend’s condition. While assessing the situation, Coombs also fell. Both men went over what was reported to be an 200m cliff. The remaining two skiers in the party then called for a heli rescue.
When the helicopter arrived some 20 to 30 minutes later, Doug Coombs was already dead. Vanderham was still breathing, but unfortunately died later in the hospital.
In part 2 of JakeCastDotCom’s tribute video he comments:
‘”It was once said the best skier is the one having the most fun. Based on this criteria, Doug Coombs was the best skier in the world, no question.”
Douglas Coombs was born in Boston and grew up skiing in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. He went to Montana State University in Bozeman, where he began steep-skiing at Bridger Bowl.
Steeps are slopes with a pitch of more than 45 degrees. Extreme skiing is done on mountains where there are no lifts, no trails, no boundaries and no ski patrols. Skiers ascend peaks in helicopters or climb them on foot before making their runs.
Over the years, he was the first person to descend on some 250 slopes in Antarctica, Chile, France, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, Alaska and elsewhere in the United States. He appeared in several documentary films about the sport.
Although Coombs performed feats of remarkable daring, he did not take unreasonable risks, his colleagues said.
“Doug did things that were very extreme and cutting-edge, but he did them safely and had an excellent safety record,” said Scott Raynor.
With his wife Emily, Coombs pioneered the first descents in the formidable Chugach range in Alaska. “We were infatuated with the Chugach terrain,” he wrote on his Web site.
He and his wife started a business there, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides. Within five years, he said, they were guiding as many as 1,000 skiers a year. They sold the company to Raynor in 2001.
In 1993, the couple founded the Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide in Jackson, Wyo., and they moved the business to Europe in 1997, setting up operations in La Grave and in Verbier, Switzerland. The couple said Europe offered fewer constraints on what skiers were permitted to do.
“When I first arrived at La Grave,” he wrote, “and stared at the majestic glaciated peak of La Meije [13,065 feet], I imagined endless ski runs that would last a lifetime.”
They were prophetic words and all we can add is from Doug’s wife Emily who said:
“You know, the mountains are full of dangers, and they swallow you up. But mostly, they give.”