Ten years ago this spring, Doug Coombs, one of American skiing’s most admired figures, died in a fall in one of the countless steep chutes at La Grave, France, the wild ski area where he lived with his wife, Emily, and their two-year-old son, David. Coombs, along with Chad VanderHam, died while working as mountain guides, the career Coombs had carved out after a career in ski films and extreme skiing competitions. He was much more than a gifted athlete, helping to bring backcountry skiing into the mainstream, and having a hand in the evolution of ski gear to handle that rough terrain. A ceremony in La Grave, organized by his friends, is scheduled this weekend to celebrate the man and his legacy.
Today, Emily and David Coombs live in Jackson, Wyoming, where Emily Coombs directs the Doug Coombs Foundation, enabling low-income families the opportunity to participate in skiing and other mountain experiences. SKI Magazine interviewed her this week.
SKI: What have the last 10 years been like for you and David?
Coombs: It’s been quite a journey. Having a child for one thing. Without that child piece, I don’t know what I’d have done. The chapter with Doug ended and the chapter with David began. Despite the tragedy of losing Doug, I had so much to look forward to. It was a mixture of emotions for those first years, healing and being with David. When I started to get my footing, I wanted to have a meaningful career. I wanted to do something for Doug. I got involved with kids. I saw the need here. I had a very strange set of skills that weren’t really suitable for getting a job.
SKI: Describe the foundation’s work.
Coombs: It’s mostly Mexican immigrants with American born children. They are often invisible in Jackson. The only reason I knew they were here was going into school with David and seeing them. I noticed they weren’t present in the sports programs. This population came here when the wealth came. Now we have 180 kids skiing all winter long. The more I was with these kids, the more I saw them benefiting from what they were doing outdoors.
SKI: What do you think is the biggest contribution to the sport that Doug left behind?
Coombs: He had an amazing life. Everybody wishes he were here. He inspired so many people. He gave them the best day of their lives—that’s something I heard over and over again. There are so many people who say he helped them break through barriers. It’s that never-say-never thing: Dream big, and do the things people think aren’t possible. Doug did that not only with himself, but he inspired so many others to have that confidence.
SKI: You haven’t been back to La Grave in 10 years. Do you plan to attend?
Coombs: There is a big ceremony April 3, and I was planning to go, with David, and we even had tickets booked, but I’ve decided against it. It would have been hard. David didn’t want to go and I wondered if I really wanted to open that door. There’s still a lot of mixed emotions about it. Doug and I had some of our best years together there and have a lot of friends there...I want to go back, just not when it’s such a big hype. I’ll take David. We’ll just try to see some of our close friends there and ski that mountain a bit. Doug’s presence is going to be pretty powerful there. La Grave was a really good place for us. It was so perfect.