The mountains will be a lonelier place without Doug Coombs climbing and skiing them. On Monday, April 3, Coombs died when he slipped and fell over a cliff in the Freaux region of La Grave, France. He was 48 years old.
According to an email from guide and friend Pelle Lang, Coombs was skiing with three friends when Silverthorne, Colorado, resident Chad VanderHam fell in a no-fall zone and skidded over a cliff. Coombs was sidestepping down a rock slab to get a visual on his friend when he reportedly lost an edge and fell a total of 1,500 feet. Coombs was not breathing and had no pulse when authorities arrived. VanderHam died a short time later. Coombs leaves behind his wife, Emily, and their three-year-old son, David.
Coombs was born in Boston and started skiing at age three. In the early 80s, he moved to Bozeman, Montana, to race for Montana State University. There he met Bridger Ridge steep-skiing pioneers Tom Jungst, Jim Conway, and Emily Gladstone, who later became his wife. Between classes, the "daredevil skiers of Bridger Ridge would race each other up the 400-foot climb—sometimes 14 times in one day. During the winter of 1984, a photographer named Paul Dix started chasing the crew down the powder-choked hallways on the Ridge. Dix's shots appeared in a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone and the story, written by Tim Cahill, brought the world of extreme skiing into living rooms across the U.S.
But Bridger was merely a stopover for Coombs. "The Ridge was just mini-golf for Doug and the other guys skiing there in the '80s, said Tom Jungst in an interview earlier this year. "Very early on, Doug went to Chamonix. He skied with Patrick Vallencent. His eyes were wide open. In the mid-80s, Coombs moved to Jackson Hole, where he began guiding for High Mountain Helicopters in 1986.
In the early 1990s Coombs traveled to Valdez, Alaska, where he became obsessed with the miles of untracked lines that poured off the Chugach Mountains. He and Emily would go on 100-mile see-and-ski missions replete with hundreds of first descents. The following year, Coombs founded Valdez Heli Ski Guides, the first helicopter-assisted guide service in Valdez. He later sold his operation, but continued to guide there until last spring.
During the same period, Coombs founded Steep Ski Camps Worldwide, first operating out of Jackson, Wyoming, and later in La Grave and Verbier. In the spring and summer he worked for Exum Mountain Guides in Grand Teton National Park. Guiding was a perfect fit. "Doug never followed, says fellow Exum guide and friend Mark Newcomb. "Not Scott Schmidt. Not Dominique Perret. He led; you followed. You tried to keep up; you rarely did. But you learned—the angulation, the pole plant, the counter rotation, the power, the deft touch in variable snow. And at the end of the day, says Newcomb, "you sat and listened and learned again. And you laughed. A lot.
In his lifetime Coombs skied hundreds of first descents—and took many skiers to first descents of their own. In 2004, he and Newcomb successfully guided the first commercial ski-descent of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. His clients were blown away by what he would lead them down. But more than that, he gave them something to dream about while they plowed through their daily lives. "(Because of Doug), office-bound clients dreaming for months about their Alaska or French ski vacation get to realize their dreams, says Newcomb.
As a skier, Doug Coombs brought power and finesse to big technical faces. As a guide, he opened new frontiers for his clients and fellow guides. But his personality is what will be missed most. "The world just lost measurable energy, passion, and enthusiasm, says Newcomb. "So much enthusiasm that it was pushing the entire sport to step it up and ski all that beautiful mountain terrain, everry nook and cranny.
Editor's note: Doug Coombs was a tremendous friend to Skiing Magazine. A constant source of inspiration, we depended upon Doug for his expert counsel in all aspects of big mountain skiing and ski mountaineering. He was always willing to share that expertise, sometimes quite literally, once going so far as to loan us his guide pack so that we could dissect it for the benefit of everyone who dreamed of someday following Doug into the mountains he loved so much.
One of the smoothest, strongest, and most fluid skiers ever to ski in front of a camera, Doug made the extreme look easy. But perhaps more importantly, he made skiing challenging terrain look fun. Just looking at those images makes you yearn to ski.
Like his clients, his contemporaries, and the scores of budding skiers who've looked to him for inspiration, we rode upon Doug's coattails. And we always will. Our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends. —Marc Peruzzi
To make donations to the Coombs family, visit dougcoombsmemorialfund.com.