Tracking the Wild Coomba

New book chronicles the amazing life, and untimely death, of Doug Coombs

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There are many things readers will carry with them after finishing “Tracking the Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs,” by Robert Cocuzzo. Whether it’s Coombs’ early years as a budding fearless skier who broke his neck going way too big off a jump at Waterville Valley, his rebellious days with the Jackson Hole Air Force, his unique and casual approach to guiding clients down the gnarliest terrain of their lives, to being a husband and father, and finally, to his fateful accident in La Grave, France, on April 3, 2006, that took his life—there is much to consider in this exhaustively reported biography. But if there is one chapter in Coombs’ extraordinary life that sticks out, at least for readers like me, it was Alaska in the early 1990s.

After winning the inaugural World Extreme Championships in Valdez at the age of 33, in 1991, Coombs returned a year later and started paying $35 for heli bumps into the vast, unexplored Chugach Mountains. A few years later, he and his wife, Emily, would launch Valdez Heli Ski Guides and help spawn an entire industry of heli skiing in Alaska.

“No one could tell me where I could ski, when I could ski, when I could ski,” Coombs said, one of dozens of quotes Cocuzzo pulled from earlier archived interviews. “Any of those rules were thrown out the window. I could do whatever I wanted at any moment, at any time.”

Cocuzzo writes that Coombs estimated he would eventually get more than 500 first descents during his tenure in Alaska. “I got so burnt out from naming them,” Coombs said. “I’d just walk into the bar and say, ‘Alright, you guys name it because I can’t come up with anything.’”

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The passage speaks to one of the greatest periods in skiing history, a pivotal time that has touched nearly every aspect of skiing as we know it today, from the equipment we use, to the trips we aspire to take, to the media we devour. Coombs’ skiing in Alaska is also a direct rebuke to the popular–and erroneous–notion that skiing in the 90’s was somehow boring. For Coombs and his cohorts in Alaska, it was like skiing down a skyscraper with their hair on fire, and then, once they reached the bottom, headed back up with more matches and kerosene.

The book’s path follows Coombs life from beginning, growing up in Bedford, Massachusetts, to tragic end in La Grave, and everywhere in between. Cocuzzo, who never met Coombs and, as he says, grew up as a fan, inserts himself into the story, mixing first person experiences with historical narrative. He says that only by visiting and talking to those who knew the man would he ultimately be able to tell the Coombs story. Aside from adequately telling the incredible adventure that is Coombs’ life, perhaps the writer’s greatest achievement is introducing his readers to the many gifted characters who walked and skied in the Coombs inner circle.

Coombs’ skiing in Alaska is a direct rebuke to the popular–and erroneous–notion that skiing in the 90’s was somehow boring. For Coombs and his cohorts in Alaska, it was like skiing down a skyscraper with their hair on fire, and then, once they reached the bottom, headed back up with more matches and kerosene.

Cocuzzo goes to great lengths to get words, wisdom, and memories from Coombs’ ski partners, many of whom aren’t known for their willingness to cozy up to media. Skiers like Rick and Jon Hunt, Dave Miller, and Jeff Zell, who Cocuzzo skis with in Alaska, are all well known inside Jackson and Valdez but due to their subdued nature have preferred to keep low-key profiles. Bruce Tremper, the widely respected former director of the Utah Avalanche Center, shares how he saw Coombs “find religion” as a young skier cutting his teeth on the steeps at Bridger Bowl, while attending Montana State in the late 1970s. Cocuzzo goes to Chamonix to ski with Miles and Elizabeth Smart, who took over Coombs’ Steep Skiing camps after his death. In La Grave, he skis with guide Joe Vallone, who was best friends with Chad VanderHam, Coombs’ protégé and ski partner who perished in the same accident.

It’s because of these efforts that we get a very intimate and up-close look at some of the most legendary and influential skiers of our day. They may not be household names in a traditional sense, but they, like Coombs, occupy the heart of big mountain skiing.

Throughout it all is Emily Coombs, who was certainly the writer’s biggest resource. Nobody spent more time with Doug than she did, and the book likely wouldn’t have been possible without her participation. Throughout, Cocozzo treats his subjects with deep respect, and affords Coombs superstar status. He is often and refreshingly self-deprecating, relaying accounts of himself flailing in the Jackson Hole backcountry and of the “unremitting fear” he has of skiing in La Grave.

Which is where the story comes to its close. We all know what’s coming, and it can be a difficult place to go. But Cocuzzo forges ahead and treats the accident with a journalistic eye for facts while approaching the aftermath of those involved with a tender touch. In all, it’s a worthy tribute to the man that brought so much joy to so many people, and a worthy addition to the bookshelves of any skier.