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Four of a Kind
Another day, another adventure. Doug Coombs has convinced the film crew to accompany him and his steep-camp clients on a short mountaineering tour beyond the Verbier boundaries. "You'll love it," he says. "Over 6,000 feet of vertical. And it's all powder. We did it last week, and there was barely a track on the whole run." He smiles. "Besides, you won't believe the scenery. It's spectacular!"
Coombs is nothing if not enthusiastic, and he carries the day. We take the tram to the top of Mont Fort, at 11,000 feet. The whole of southwestern Switzerland spreads below us.
Suddenly we find ourselves following a colorful posse of vacationing American skiers -- lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, mostly -- who've paid top dollar to learn about adventure skiing from one of the most unlikely ski stars you'll ever come across.
In fact, there is nobody quite like Doug Coombs. The Clark Kent of skiing, he's a totally unassuming-looking guy who could easily get lost in a crowd. Gangly, loose-limbed, and generous with his smiles, he could just as well be a good-hearted farmer or accountant -- or even a high school science teacher -- as an extreme-sport icon. But put him on a pair of skis, point him toward some ugly, vertical rock-and-snow puzzle, and he turns into Superman.
"Hey, what do you think of that line?" he asks in his most matter-of-fact voice. "Think it might make a good shot if I skied it from that angle with those mountains in the background?"
Day looks at him like he's crazy. Nods. "Sure. It would look really nice. But are you seriously gonna climb up there and ski it?"
The line in question is a nasty-looking fin of snow and rock that drops vertiginously into a no-excuses couloir. There's barely enough room for a turn in the fin's crux. And the entry into the couloir looks awkward as hell. The consequences of a fall here would be far too ugly to entertain. It's short, but it's seriously technical. Definitely not a place to make mistakes.
But Coombs is keen. "Sure. Nothing to it," he says, "we'll get it done in no time." And just like that, he's off. He climbs up the ridge through thigh-deep sugar, dances across a narrow swath of crumbly cliff, and sets himself up just above the fin.
"You guys ready down there?" he calls out. Day and his crew are frantically setting up their gear.
Finally: "Yeah. Okay, Doug. We're ready."
A countdown -- "Three. Two. One." -- and he's off. The snow is really ugly above the fin. Sun baked, old, rotten, crusty in spots. But Coombs cuts through it like he's on a groomed run. He hits the fin just where he wants to be. One turn. Two. Then he stops. The snow is even worse here -- soft and heavy -- and he has to work hard not to get thrown over his tips. Still, he threads the line like the human mountain goat that he is. Smooth. Easy. Effortless.
His final leap into the couloir is a thing of beauty. So understated, so controlled. "Gawd," says Szocs. "That was one hell of a move."
"What are we waiting for?" asks Coombs as soon as the cameras are packed away. "Let's go catch up to the campers."
Plake is a big fan of Coombs. So much so that he enrolled his wife, Kimberly, in the steep camp this week. "Doug's camps are very cool," he says. "That's because he's not afraid to show people what skiing is really all about. And I love that about him. I love his enthusiasm and I love his innocence."
Says Coombs: "It's pretty simple, I guess. I just get a big kick from turning people on to real big-mountain skiing. I love what I do. It's not like a job for me. It's like a privilege."
He laughs. "And it's not just the skiing, either. It's the sensations. The changes you get to experience. I love the way the mountain changes. So suddenly. So drastically. I mean, you think you know the weather and still, you're constantly surprised. It's nature. It's special. It's different than anything else."
Like Plake, Cooombs has a keen appreciation for the skiers who came before him. "When I was growing up, it was Swedish ski racer Ingemar Stenmark. The guy was a god. Then when I started getting involved with big-mountain stuff, I started following guys like European ski mountaineers Patrick Vallençant and Pierre Tardivel. They redefined skiing for me." It's fitting, then, that he has helped redefine skiing yet again.
"I didn't come here to do pretty powder shots," says Szocs. "This film segment is supposed to be about who we are as skiers. And I want to make sure that comes across clearly on the screen."
Indeed. One of the pioneers of new school, the 27-year-old Whistler-ite has built a career on jibbing and jumping. His annual summer camp attracts hundreds of kids from North America and Japan to Whistler/ Blackcomb's glacier each year.
"The camp is a way of giving something back to the sport that I love," says Szocs. "Besides, it's a lot of fun. I get to bring together a bunch of my buddies to coach all these keen young kids. I tell ya, there's nothing more inspiring than working with a hill full of go-for-it groms."
Szocs has been prowling Verbier all week looking for the perfect urban sequence to shoot. He's cased out the local church -- "nice rail, but probably too sensitive a spot" -- and the grocery store and the city hall. Then he finds what he's looking for.
"Seth and I found it this afternoon. There's this big mother of a hedge that runs between these two classic Swiss chalets and all the way down to the road. It's probably 60 to 70 feet long. Maybe 15 feet high. We can build a ramp onto the hedge way up by the houses. And I'll ride it all the way to the street. Whaddaya think?"
Day is quick to agree. "We'll do it tomorrow morning."
Szocs heads off to build his ramp.
The hedge is in a quiet corner of Upper Verbier, and it's everything Szocs says it was. Big and beefy and tightly woven together, the branches of the hedge definitely look solid enough to hold Szocs's weight. But we won't really know till he rides it.
While the crew sets up for the shot, well-heeled Swiss burghers walk by, too polite to say anything but intensely curious anyway.
The crew is ready. Shane is ready. "Three. Two. One. Dropping." Szocs negotiates the ramp easily, hops onto the top of the hedge, and proceeds to ski it. A cascade of snow follows behind. The hedge is as strong as it looks, and Szocs makes it all the way down to the road.
Everybody cheers as he hits the asphalt, including the Verbier citizens who've stopped to watch. The top of the hedge is now bare. "That was a one-take stunt," says Day. "Lucky for us, we got it all on film the first time."
Like many other Gen-X jibbers, Szocs started his skiing career as a racer, skiing in suburban Vancouver. "We'd go up to the hill every day after school and keep skiing until way after dark. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a ski racer, a downhiller like Crazy Canucks Steve Podborski and Dave Murray. Getting paid to ski -- that sounded like the bomb to me."
But after a few years of bashing gates, he got bored. "Then I started into moguls. But that got pretty anal pretty fast," he says. As a member of Canada's national B team, Szocs found himself hanging out on the hill with Mike Douglas and other disillusioned bumpers. "It wasn't like we planned anything," he explains. "We would just get together, build a kicker, and see who could pull off the raddest moves."
While Szocs has built a career on pulling off rad moves -- such as skiing a hedge in downtown Verbier -- he's not so naive as to miss the point of what's going on in the ski industry. "The new school thing, it's just a convenient label," he explains. "People need labels. They want to identify with trends and new happenings. Skiing is skiing. You can see that in the people here. We're all part of the same tribe. We just do different things."