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Many writers and commentaries will record that Doug took skiing to a new level, pushed the boundaries of the sport, that sort of talk. Maybe. The boundaries, by the late ’80s and ’90s when Doug dominated the scene, had been drawn by guys like Patrick Vallencent and Pierre Tardivel for steep you-fall-you-die skiing, by Scot Schmidt for big air and fluidity, by Bill Briggs for technical ski mountaineering, and Hans Kammerlander and others in Himalayan ski mountaineering.
But Doug came along with a liquid-smooth, deceivingly powerful, utterly natural turn, the likes of which had not been seen before in skiing. And he had an incomprehensibly fast reaction speed combined with a sixth sense that kept him always on but never over the sharp edge of disaster. This combination of qualities made him unique. He was truly King of the steeps when it came to the realm of big mountains and big faces. He could ski a 3,000-vertical-foot, 45- to 50-degree big mountain face like it was a blue groomer. He would link perfect turns at remarkable speeds, making what would be a radical, once-in-winter test piece run look like a Vail moderate. For those of us who often tried following his tracks, where he was making perfect turns, we were making twice as many turns with many hesitations.
He was made for film. His speed, his power, his keen sense of the perfect line. He could look at a slope and know immediately how water would flow down it, and he would take the same line, deftly stepping out of the way of his slough, or juicing it and simply outrunning it—we’re talking 50-60 miles per hour in extreme terrain.
But that was just his skiing. His personality is really what placed him apart. Always laughing, always enthusiastic, always upbeat and positive. He was utterly approachable, whether you were a total novice or Kent Kreitler.
He loved skiing, he loved pushing himself, but he equally enjoyed seeing others push themselves, acquire new skills, and improve. It was a joyful, romping pursuit of perfection. And he had a way of communicating with clients in clear, direct, uncomplicated instructions that would at once calm their fears and get them to ski terrain beyond what they thought themselves capable of.
He never followed. Not anyone. Not Scot 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 in the bar, his remarkable memory rehashing the day, this turn here, that turn there, that terrain feature. He physically skied every run, then mentally skied them all again, often out loud. And again, you sat and listened and learned. And laughed. A lot.
Give us your thoughts and read others’ in the Doug Coombs blog. [NEXT]I met Doug as he was pushing into the realm of, shall we say, non-lift-assisted ski mountaineering. Along with being king of the steeps, he was also the king of the poach, finagling more free lift, tram, and heli-rides than any ten ski bums put together. But ultimately he loved the mountains and realized that many stunning lines could only be accessed the old fashioned way, by climbing or hiking.
I watched Doug’s mountain climbing skills progress from starting up the beginner walls at the local rock climbing gym (I first taught him how to use the belay device there) to waltzing up 5.11 rock climbs and passing his AMGA Rock Guide Exum (with very strict requirements on rock climbing ability). And his mountaineering skills and judgment made a similarly steep and rapid progression.
Raw energy, endless energy. No body fat, just steel cables in ceaseless motion. Until a deep low pressure and a big storm, at which point he could sleep for hours. In Antarctica, during a storm, he slept for 20 hours straight.
I never saw him lose a chess match. Probably not something peopple knew him for. He was a brilliant chess player. And he ran field operations in Valdez like a chess game, carefully placing all his “pawns, us mere mortal guides, so that we never beat him to the best line of the day.
Doug guided extreme lines and peaks primarily because that was what he wanted to ski. But closely followed by his passion to ski beautiful terrain was his passion for taking other people to new levels. He always had a plan, a line, a peak he wanted to ski. If you, a client, or anyone he was skiing with weren’t quite ready for it, then he got you ready. Or he took you there anyway and, with his careful instruction, got you down it, ready or not. It wasn’t reckless. It was calculated and precise and carried out with the complete conviction that you could handle it. And you always could. His faith inspired your faith. Ultimately, he was probably the most empowering guide I’ve ever spent time with.
So, no. Skiing wise, I don’t know if Doug opened new frontiers. But he brought the common skier into that terrain. Perhaps it’s a new understanding of skiing. It’s skiing the way it’s meant to be. A groomed run was the last place you would ever find him and the last place he would ever think of taking anyone skiing.
The ski world just lost measurable energy, passion and enthusiasm. He had so much enthusiasm that it was pushing the entire sport to step it up and ski all that beautiful mountain terrain, every nook and cranny.
“I think I’m getting rusty, Doug told me once during an Exum Ski Mountaineering Camp. “I haven’t skied much for a while. It was June 10th. “Really? I replied. “How long has it been? “Five days. He replied with a straight face. Then he laughed.
We all laughed.
-As told to Tracy Ross