DOUG COOMBS HAS BEEN synonymous with steep skiing for nearly 20 years. It was his passion, his profession, and, ultimately, the pursuit that would claim his life.
On April 3, Coombs, 48, took a fatal fall near La Grave, France, while backcountry-skiing with three friends: Chad VanderHam, 31, a ski guide from Keystone, Colorado; Matt Farmer, 30, from Silverton, Colorado; and Swedish extreme skier Christina Blomquist. It was near 4 p.m. when the four approached the bottom of a run called the Couloir de Polichinelle. The exit required a dicey traverse above a 600-foot-high rock band. VanderHam went first, dipping around a bend and out of sight of the others. When Coombs, skiing second, reached the traverse, VanderHam was gone. Realizing that he must have fallen, Coombs called up for a rope. Farmer descended just in time to see Coombs, who had apparently slipped, tumbling over the cliff. When a rescue helicopter arrived 30 minutes later, Coombs was already dead. VanderHam died a few hours later at a hospital in Briançon.
A Boston native who first learned to ski at Massachusetts's Nashoba Valley Ski Area (vertical drop: 272 feet), Coombs sharpened his skills in Vermont and New Hampshire before migrating west to attend Montana State University, where he raced on the ski team. He moved to Jackson, Wyoming, in 1986, and in 1991 won the first World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska. It was there that he discovered his true calling: the steep, powdery lines in Alaska's Chugach Mountains. Three years later, he and his wife, Emily, founded Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, thus launching commercial Alaskan heli-skiing.
"Nobody was doing anything like this at the time," says Scott Raynor, a longtime friend and Alaska guide who bought VHSG from Coombs in 2000. "You could pay someone for a heli-lift to a peak, but then you just kind of winged it. Doug had his own chopper, brought in guides, and emphasized education and teamwork."
Coombs also helped create new equipment and practices that opened up thrillingly treacherous terrain to not just a corps of pros but to any recreational athlete serious enough to give it a try. He pushed for the production of wider skis, employed rope skills to safely access more vertical lines, and refined and taught a technique that became the norm for handling precipitous slopes: the collapsing downhill pole plant—a catlike hop-turn, shoulders square to the fall line, legs in sharp counter-rotation.
Beyond his status as a leading backcountry innovator, Coombs distinguished himself as one of the strongest big-mountain skiers in the world, pioneering more than 300 first descents in Alaska, Europe, and elsewhere and appearing in dozens of ski films, including Teton Gravity Research's debut production, The Continuum. More than anything, perhaps, Coombs loved to ski with friends and clients, sharing his enthusiasm, knowledge, and experience while opening up new worlds of snowy possibility. "He had this uncanny ability to communicate with people and empower them and walk them through some really gnarly terrain," says Mark Newcomb, who had been working with Coombs at Jackson-based Exum Mountain Guides since 2001.
During the last years of his life, Coombs, with Emily and their son, David, now three, split his time between Jackson, where he helped run steep-skiing camps for Exum, and the Alps, where he guided privately and ran his own camps at La Grave and in Verbier, Switzerland. From the beginning, he skied and guided with an untarnished safety record, pushing limits but never pushing too far. In the end, Coombs died as he lived: trying to help someone else in the mountains that he called home.