Remembering A Pioneer In The World Of Adventure Skiing

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Author Rob Cocuzzo in the WBUR offices. (Photo/Courtesy WBUR)
Author Rob Cocuzzo in the WBUR offices. (Photo/Courtesy WBUR)

Doug Coombs had a passion for skiing and a passion for life, and those two things were contagious for the people who knew and loved him. He was known as one of best adventure skiers in the world, famous for cutting trails down mountains that no one had ever even thought about skiing before. Tragically, he died in an accident on a mountain in France while he was trying to rescue a friend and fellow skier. He was just 48. Ten years after his death, Rob Cocuzzo's new book, "Tracking The Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs" traces his life. Cocuzzo speaks with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Book Excerpt: 'Tracking The Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs'

By Rob Cocuzzo

I’m not exactly certain when I first learned of Doug Coombs, but when I sift through my memory a video clip emerges. The footage is shot from a helicopter hovering alongside a mountaintop buried in brilliant white snow. The camera zooms in on a tiny dot trickling down from the highest peak, and then a skier comes into focus. He’s barreling down the mountain on two long skis, each of his turns sending snow cascading down around him like whitewater. The slope is so steep that I can gauge its severity only by the skier’s uphill shoulder as it brushes the mountain behind him. He looks like a surfer deep in the belly of a giant wave, the mountain looming over him and falling out from beneath his feet. And yet amid the chaos, the skier descends the mountain with fluidity that transcends athleticism. Doug Coombs looks like a genius at work.

Well over a decade after I first watched that video clip, I sat in Doug Coombs’s home office in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Set at my feet was Coombs’s backpack. Although I’d never seen this backpack in person before, I recognized it the moment I saw it. I remembered seeing this backpack in the New York Times in 2006. In the photo, you can’t see Coombs’s face, just this backpack. He is perched in the snow, watching another skier navigate a steep slope below him. It was the last photograph ever taken of both men.

If there was ever a shrine to Doug Coombs, it was here in this room. Shelves and cupboards and closets were stacked high with three-ring binders full of photos and negatives from his adventures in mountains around the world. Other binders brimmed with newspaper clippings and magazine articles and postcards and pamphlets telling of his many exploits and guiding operations. An upper shelf was devoted to VHS tapes, some still wrapped in plastic, with titles like World Extreme Skiing Championships 1991. Other labels were scrawled on by hand in black Sharpie: Alaska guiding footage’95. A string of climbing gear hung from a light fixture; jackets and skis and boots bulged from a closet; and an assortment of framed pictures, memorabilia, and ski passes covered every surface. I never met Doug Coombs, but here in this room, surrounded by seemingly every piece of evidence from his forty-eight years on earth, I might have been as close as I would ever get.

Doug Coombs and his wife, Emily, bought this home outside of the town of Jackson, Wyoming, right before the accident that claimed his life. Coombs himself never had the chance to live in it. The four-bedroom post and beam was set in a sprawling valley. Mountains crowded the sky around it. Two horses trotted around the property, often coming to the living room window for an apple or a carrot. This was truly western living out here, and the home possessed all the warm, rustic charm that you might hope for in a cabin in the mountains.

Coombs’s nine-year-old son, David, sat at a downstairs computer with a headset on. He was two years old at the time of the accident, perhaps too young to feel the full pain of his father’s loss and yet old enough to feel the void today. Emily told me that wherever David would go in Jackson Hole, there would always be someone telling him how great his father was, how amazing a skier he was, how fearless he was, how strong he was, and how modest he was. It’s difficult to imagine being surrounded by so many memories of your father, while at the same time having so few memories of your own with him. The only thing that David might have heard more than old stories of his dad was that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Doug Coombs might have been the greatest skier to ever slide down snow. I say “might have been” because there is no objective way to qualify that claim. One can’t tally up Coombs’s medals or records to understand the true brilliance of his skiing career. Yes, he won contests and races, but the arena of play where he excelled was big remote mountains, outside the race circuit, away from the resorts and audiences, beyond the boundaries, on slopes where only a fortunate few witnessed his prowess. In many ways Coombs’s rightful place as the world’s greatest adventure skier is a matter of opinion, an opinion that many in the world of skiing share.

Outside of skiing, however, Doug Coombs is as obscure as many other athletes and adventurers whose renown was forged in the realm of extreme. His legacy resides among those of climbers like Alex Lowe or surfers like Eddie Aikau. Yet based on athleticism alone, Coombs should be considered alongside more familiar names. Like Michael Jordan’s jump shot, Doug Coombs’s ski turn was more than sport. As the late Jackson Hole ski legend Howie Henderson once put it so perfectly, “The fluidity, the grace, the style, the effortless routefinding, the incredible angles, the easy athleticism . . . the man is simply so damn good that seeing him ski changes your whole life.” From that point forward, a skier’s relationship with the mountains was delineated as “Before Coombs” and “After Coombs.”

When I moved to Jackson Hole in the winter of 2011 to pursue my childhood dream of living in a western ski town, Doug Coombs was little more than a series of video clips to me. I’d never met him and knew next to nothing about his life or the circumstances of his tragic death. From videos I’d watched in my parents’ basement growing up, Doug Coombs existed fantastically in my mind as a man raised in the wilds of the mountains by wolves. His skiing exuded such a deep kinship with snow that I dreamed his childhood must been in a place rugged and untamed, where skiing was as second nature to him as a game of catch.

Only when I moved to Jackson Hole did I learn that Doug Coombs’s background was nearly identical to my own. Like me, he grew up in a suburb outside of Boston. Not only that, but he also learned to ski on the same 240-foot hill as I did. The year I was born, he rolled into Jackson Hole after finishing college, just as I did twenty-five years later. The parallels of our lives compelled me to want to learn more about the man behind the legend. How had Doug Coombs gone from skiing a molehill in Massachusetts to conquering the most extreme mountains in the world? Was he fundamentally different from me? Did he possess a unique mental capacity to manage fear and weigh risk? Or was he just an adrenaline junkie killed doing what he loved?

So began my four-year quest tracking the life of Doug Coombs around the world, meeting his family and friends, skiing some of the runs he skied, and living in the mountain towns where he lived. Along the way, nearly everyone I spoke to said the same thing: “He changed my life.” The reality was that after hundreds of hours of interviews, thousands of dollars spent on travel, and countless nights lying awake pondering his life, I would never be able to know Doug Coombs like they did. I began to fear that Coombs would forever remain a story told to me, an article clipping, a scene I watched on a scratchy videotape. Then one day, as I boarded a flight to the remote French village of La Grave, where he spent the last days of his life, I realized that through some cosmic energy, Doug Coombs had taken me on the greatest adventure of my life.

Excerpted from the book TRACKING THE WILD COOMBA: THE LIFE OF LEGENDARY SKIER DOUG COOMBS by Rob Cocuzzo. Copyright © 2016 by Rob Cocuzzo. Reprinted with permission of Rob Cocuzzo.


This segment aired on May 23, 2016.


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