Out of the Void
Coombs vs. the Avalanche
In June 1992, Colby Coombs was a 25-year-old National Outdoor Leadership School instructor on vacation in the Alaska Range with his friends Ritt Kellogg and Tom Walter. The trio headed off for 17,400-foot Mount Foraker and over three days attempted to put up a new direct finish on its Pink Panther route. But as they neared their goal, a storm moved in, and the mountain let loose.
The avalanche knocked Coombs and his companions 800 feet down the side of the face. When Coombs awoke six hours later, he was dangling from his rope, suffering from two fractured vertebrae in his neck, a broken shoulder blade, and a fractured ankle. He swung over to Walter, who was hanging on a rope nearby, but his friend's face was fully masked in ice, and he was dead. A day later, Coombs found his old college roommate, Kellogg, who had also been killed.
Over the next four days, Coombs shut out all thoughts of his dead friends and laboriously picked his way down the mountain. "I just had to keep my eyes open and ignore the pain," remembers Coombs, who now runs the Alaska Mountaineering School in his hometown of Talkeetna. After reaching base camp, he still had to complete a dangerous five-mile crossing of Kahiltna Glacier, with no way to rescue himself if he fell into a crevasse. Against all odds, he made it. Today, the 37-year-old Coombs constantly emphasizes safety in his AMS courses. "I don't tell my story much, only when it comes up during teachable moments," he says. "But if you do get in trouble, anything that gets in the way of success has to be eliminated—emotion, fear, pain. It's the mental things that will impede your survival."