Remembering a Legend, Doug Coombs (1957-2006)
“Doug was the chosen one, the point of the spear. It wasn’t a new level; it was a new world.” —Theo Meiners
A couple weeks ago, I met Brent Coombs, Doug's nephew, outside the Valdez airport. I was in Alaska to ski off Thompson Pass with Alaska Rendezvous, where Brent works each spring as a guide. The operation was started by the late Theo Meiners, who, in the '90s, was Doug Coombs' right hand man down the road at the original Tsaina Lodge.
When I walked inside the Rendezvous, one of the first things I noticed was a blown up cover of POWDER's September 2006 issue, which Ali Meiners, Theo's daughter and the current operator, had acquired at our 40th anniversary party. It was the Doug Coombs memorial issue. On the cover is a photo of Doug in a cloud of snow, making one of his well-honed steep turns, and a quote from Theo: "Doug was the chosen one. The point of the spear. It wasn't a new level; it was a new world."
When I saw the cover, I realized it had been 10 years. Doug Coombs died on April 3, 2006. The issue was the first I ever worked on at POWDER, as a 22-year-old intern. To be a part of it felt terribly bittersweet. Doug Coombs was really the only other person I truly wanted to be. That notion was reaffirmed by Tom Bie's Intro in that first issue of Volume 35, and the powerful anecdotes written by those close to him in the corresponding feature. As a way to continue celebrating Doug's life, we've made both available for you to read below.
It's the job of the interns at POWDER to transcribe the letters we receive. After that issue came out, Brent sent one in, which I transcribed, and was later published in POWDER. Brent wrote about a poster that hung in his mudroom, of Doug's famous waterfall line, with the quote, "Upon this rock I build my church." The same poster still hangs inside the office of the Alaska Rendezvous. —John Clary Davies, Executive Editor, Powder Magazine
In February 1996, POWDER sent me up to Bridger Bowl, Montana, to cover an extreme skiing comp being held on the Ridge. Doug Coombs was competing and he won by launching himself off a cliff into a stand of trees, where he was temporarily lodged in some branches before untangling himself and finishing the course.
After his run, I was standing next to him at the bottom as we watched one of the other competitors ski a moderately steep chute—exaggerating his hop turns, huffing and puffing, over-angulating like he was descending the face of the Eiger. Coombs looked up at him and said, "You're supposed to make it look hard? I thought you were supposed to make it look easy."
Because that's what Doug Coombs did. He made it look easy. He made life look easy.
Doug's influence on his clients, his friends, his family, his fellow guides in the Tetons, Alaska, and Europe, was huge. But his greatest impact may have been on every duct-taped dirtbag who ever strapped on a pair of skis in Jackson Hole in the 1990s, most of whom never even met the man. (Though plenty did, because Coombs was the kind of guy you went out of your way to meet.)
Internet research wasn't around yet when I started as the sports editor of the Jackson Hole Guide in 1994. Consequently, we were often digging through old issues of the newspaper for background on upcoming events. And Coombs' name was everywhere. Not just extreme comps, but Powder 8s and 24 Hours of Aspen and mountaineering conquests and no-name tele races.
But the good stuff wasn't in the paper. Many of Coombs' greatest accomplishments were whispered in early-morning tram lines or murmured that night at the bar. You would get off the lift and see him with one of the Zell or Hunt brothers, dipping into the trees and out of bounds, back when such things were prohibited. And that was another thing: he was always skiing with somebody. Though he'll be remembered as a great skier and guide and instructor and pioneer and motivator and swell guy, ultimately, Doug Coombs was a great partner. He wasn't a solo-in-the-wilderness, go-it-alone type. He liked to share the experience with someone. And the list of his ski partners over the years reads like a who's who of North American mountaineering: Hans Johnstone, Alex Lowe, Mark Newcomb, Andrew McClean, Ptor Spricenieks, Emily Coombs. He was a ski partner to the end.
In 1996, a week or two before TGR premiered its first movie, The Continuum, at Jackson's Walk Festival Hall, I was at the home of Todd and Steve Jones, talking to Todd about their inaugural film. In the middle of the discussion, he stopped trying to describe it to me and simply said, "Check this out."
He rolled the clip and I couldn't believe what I saw: A man descending what looked like the most impossibly steep spine in the Chugach. It was the closing segment to the film, but seemed to mark the beginning of something much greater.
"Who is that?" I asked.
"It's Coombs" Todd said. "Making it look easy."
I was lucky enough to know Doug during the Bozeman "era" of the pre-parabolic "epoch." We went to school, skied, worked, hiked, biked, and camped together. Everyone wanted to do these things with Doug because he was just so downright fun to be with. Whether he was blazing trail through the bathroom window at Gallatin Gateway to sneak in and listen to Hunter S. Thompson or ducking downstairs to the cata-"coombs" for a study break, skiing the stairs at the farmhouse, or making fake name tags so we could ski free at the Bridger Bowl instructor tryouts, Doug made you feel alive and invincible, much like the fidgety child set free on the first day of summer vacation.
The first time I saw Doug ski was in October 1978, on Grasshopper Glacier near Cook City, Montana. There was a narrow, icy couloir with a seven-foot cornice at the top—it hadn't snowed in months. As several of us stood at the top and contemplated our fate, Doug stepped over the edge and etched his way some 700 feet to the rock garden below. We all watched, mouths gaping, as Doug turned boilerplate into butter on a pair of 204cm K2 710s. I don't think any of us knew exactly what to feel, but whatever it was, we knew it was special. Needless to say, the remainder of the group, fearing for our lives, took the easy way down.
Doug never followed. Not anyone. Not Scot Schmidt. Not Dominique Perret. He led; you followed and 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.
Doug had 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 also never saw him lose a chess match. 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. 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.
Skiing wise, I don't know if Doug opened new frontiers. But he skied what used to be considered extreme terrain with a grace and fluidity previously unmatched. And he did so over and over again, so that skiing that kind of terrain became far more commonplace. And 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. Groomed runs are artificial, desecrations, really, to the sport. Doug would never have said that. He didn't have to. A groomed run was the last place you would ever find him and the last place he would ever think of taking anyone skiing.
Doug and I were the same age, neighbors on Wilson Road in Bedford. Our families were close and we grew up together, Page School through Bedford High and beyond.
Doug taught me to ski on my front yard (I guess I was his first student, he being my first "guide.") We skied Littles and Nashoba Valley for practice. He wrote "K2 all over my notebooks when we were 10 years old, and he became the awesome skier that I knew way back then he would be. We walked the neighborhood while he recovered from his broken neck (from skiing) and partied together on college winter breaks.
Dark, midwinter, north-facing, La Grave. I watch as "Doog"—the name the French gave him—gets tubed in an ice passage. Besides a rappel farther down, there are only glances given at crucial intersections or points of no return and casual deviations to avoid sloughing the skier below. Otherwise, it's full speed, non-stop to the valley, even on a 20-minute walk through a boulder field at the bottom.
As neighbors, Doog and I enjoyed the vigilance of the mountain together, constantly scouring the view from Les Terrasses for possibilities. We'd communicate by radio, not by phone, to make a plan. Those moments ripping down, ones that only exist under certain conditions of familiarity with terrain and partner; we called it "skiing alone together." Only confidence in each other's "ghost" partner permitted such a partnership. Conversation only occurred at a cave getting adjusted or at the bar at the bottom. We never interfered with each other's run.
I thrived in the inconspicuousness and childish maturity of Doog's presence. I so loved to watch him turn. His expressions as a skier are indelibly etched in my mind. He was a master of turning, carving where others would be defeated into sideslipping or straightlining. Creativity in ski mountaineering was unlimited with his technical ability. Many times, a run with Doog would destroy my personal gloom. Some say he was the ultimate ski guide, but selfishly I'd say that this only interfered with him being the ultimate ski partner.
The classroom was typical for Coombs. He and his students—Steve Gabbert, Eric Balog, and I, participants in an Exum Guides Ski Mountaineering Camp—were standing near the edge of a football field-sized funnel of snow plastered to the south side of the Grand Teton. Twenty yards below us, the funnel narrowed and ended at a 1,000-foot cliff. We were just about to move off the intimidating slope, over a col to the Teepe Glacier, when Doug stopped us for an impromptu lesson.
Skiing the CMC Route on Mount Moran a week before with Hans Johnstone, Kent McBride, and Bill Dyer, he'd noticed that Johnstone leaned on his axe as he planted it, pushing on it even as he walked past it, gaining a small measure of energy efficiency. This sort of thing delighted Doug. After the CMC, Doug removed the leash from his ice axe because that's how "the big boys"—seasoned alpinists like Johnstone—used theirs.
Showing us how to self-belay with the axe while sidestepping, Doug suddenly released his edges. His skis washed out, his hip thudded against the snow, his body slid down-slope. A moment later he was lying on his side, his arm outstretched and his fist around the lower shaft of his axe, stuck in the ice where he'd just jabbed it. Steve, Eric, and I froze, spellbound by the spectacle of our guide and mentor self-arresting on dicey terrain right in front of us.
"Works great," Doug calmly continued, still supine, clearly enjoying the looks on our faces. "Don't forget to plant your axe right next to your uphill ski." Slim chance of that, Doug. You sure had a way of making lessons stick.
Doug had a way of sweeping people up in his enthusiasm. A few years after meeting him, Mark Holbrook and I made a road trip from Salt Lake City up to Jackson Hole during a big storm cycle. As we waited in line for first tram, Doug walked by below and we called out to him. With no other greeting, he looked up and said, "Follow me. Hurry."
Abandoning our place in line, we caught up with Coombs just as he was ducking into a locals-only door that led directly to the tram dock and straight onto a tram full of Jackson Hole Air Force brethren. When the doors shut, we asked him what was going on.
"It's Coffee with Coombs," he said with a big smile. The theory behind the program: Paying clients could catch an early tram, then drink coffee with Coombs at the top while waiting to snag first turns with him as soon as the rope dropped. In reality, it was more like Doug's Dirty Dozen. There may have been paying clients, but if there were, no one waited for them.
As the sad reality of Doug's passing sinks in, one memory keeps playing back in my head. Looking back, it was a preview of things to come. It was early spring in 1974 or '75, junior year in high school, a bunch of us headed up to Mount Washington to ski Tuckerman Ravine. We hiked up in the morning, and after a couple of runs from the bottom of the headwall, we were resting on the lunch rocks.
Doug had disappeared on the last run, with his bright orange Lange Banshees on and his K2s slung over his shoulder, climbing up a route too steep and dangerous-looking for any of us to follow. Suddenly, a ripple went through the crowd. "Oh my God, there's someone on the headwall!" Every eye turned up, several people pointed. The lone skier, tiny in the distance, was poised at the top of a chute in the middle of the cliff—so narrow and steep there was no way he could get through it.
Without hesitation the figure launched into the slot. He began a series of back and forth hops, each one utterly breathtaking. At some point, someone said, "Oh my God, it's Coombs!" Every hop broke loose a few cubic yards of slushy snow, creating a mini avalanche, until he looked more like a surfer riding a wave than a skier. His body was submerged nearly to his armpits, yet he continued to rhythmically bob back and forth—another Coombs trademark he later called "controlled chaos."
When he popped out of the chute onto the relatively flat (45+ degrees) bottom section of the ravine, he escaped the avalanche with yet another Coombs specialty, head straight down and simply outrun the slide. A huge cheer exploded from the crowd. When he skied up to our group, popped out of his skis—he never used to unlatch his bindings, he would just twist his boots right out of them—and high-fived each of us, I thought I might burst with admiration and pride. So proud of him and proud of myself, just for being his friend.
I remember exactly where I was when I got the call, when I heard that the best skier in the world had fallen. I remember also, so clearly, when I first met Doug in the Place Centrale in Verbier. Emily had been living there that winter, just doing her own thing, quietly ripping it up. Doug came over in the spring, off-season, nothing going on.
It was the early '90s. Doug had won his first extreme championship, but in the Alps we didn't pay much attention to such things. Here was this guy asking where to skin, what to do, shit-eating grin on his face, totally unassuming. Next time I saw him and Emily they were skinning up in T-shirts, looking for spring snow, hanging out, enjoying the quiet time, coming by for beers and beta. Doug was so psyched to be in the Alps he started splitting my wood just for fun. He broke my axe handle! I think he owed me a six-pack for that but after we went to ski in the Chugach, that debt was more than erased.
Doug put Alaska on the map. How many people had the best skiing of their lives with him in Alaska? If not with him then with his guides, his set-up. It was unbelievable. It was scary, it was exhilarating, it was pure Doug.
I [had] just reconnected with Doug at Christmas. Doug was a very special kid, and I was so pleased to see him after almost 30 years. We spent time talking about his life, his wife, of whom he was so proud and crazy about, and of course his young son, David.
Doug came out for soccer his junior year, played outside midfield and really was a horse, always running, and mostly through people, going for the ball. He broke his neck skiing on Easter Sunday that spring and had to wear a halo locking his head, neck, and chest together so the bone graft on his neck would fuse correctly. The doctor let him practice his senior season but wouldn't let him play in any games. He never missed a practice.
There were no average days if you were hanging with Doug. I think it was the same for me as his friend, sponsor, and sometimes freeloading client, as it was for everyone else lucky enough to have been a part of Doug's world.
I remember staying in a hotel in Chamonix in 2003, having breakfast one morning during the Warren Miller shoot. Doug, Emily, Mike Hattrup, David Gonzales, Tom Day, and I had gotten our fill of food and were comparing notes about the day ahead. Doug was fully engaged in the conversation, discussing details of the rappel off the spire at the top of the Aiguille du Midi.
Suddenly he went completely glassy-eyed as he spotted World Cup race legend Ingemar Stenmark walking out of the restaurant. It was like he had seen the Resurrection. Doug recapped Stenmark's career victories in rapid-fire speech, along with Stenny's influence on his skiing when he was growing up. "We need to find out his room number," said Doug. "I need to get his autograph."
Somehow none of us thought this was a good idea, but Doug was committed. He quickly left the restaurant and the rest of us were left at the table just shaking our heads and laughing about him being completely star-struck. We finished our coffee and walked out of the restaurant maybe 10 minutes later to find Stenmark with Coombs in the lobby of the hotel autographing a pair of Doug's white-topped K2 test skis. Doug just turned to us and grinned.
I could go on and on about how Doug inspired me: his spirit, his style, his unending positive energy for skiing and every other outdoor sport he mastered, but I'd rather try to convey his temperament to the people that may not have known him very well so that they may begin to understand what made him so special.
Doug's glass was always half full, if not boiling over and spilling all over everything and everyone who was nearby. I know he had bad days just like everyone else but rarely did they ever come to the surface. His outlook on life was fueled with passion. He shaped his life so that he could enjoy as much of every day as possible in this hectic world we live in, especially here and now. Doug was always going in 10 directions at once, but always toward a common goal. That goal was to live life to its fullest.
If I could pull something out of Doug's life and pass it around it would be his passion for life. Enjoy life like Doug did. It doesn't matter what you do, it's how you do it. Don't look down on Doug as a risk-taker who left a family behind, look at what he has given us as a shining example of how to make every second count.
I believe his son, David, will grow up here in Jackson with 100 fathers. I also believe and hope that he inherited that same passion that his dad had. It won't matter if he becomes a gardener or a skier or an excavator. David and Emily will survive. Doug's passion will survive.
Doug didn't die because he was pushing the envelope for some sort of recognition; he died doing what he had to do to stay alive.
To donate to the Doug Coombs Foundation, which provides outdoor recreation opportunities for children of low income families, go here.