MSU grad Doug Coombs' penchant for radical terrain made him a pioneer in the sport of extreme skiing. Coombs died last year attempting to save the life of another, but his legend knows no boundaries.
Doug Coombs died as he lived: on the edge.
The celebrated extreme skier and Montana State University alpine ski team graduate perished while skiing the 13,000-foot mountain, La Meije, near La Grave, France, on April 3, 2006.
His was a life of hovering helicopters, photographers' motor drives and perilously pioneered plunges into inconceivably steep snow-covered terrain. Coombs became one of the world's most famous skiers by turning his passion for skiing into a career that few had dared to carve out before him.
When Coombs enrolled at the Bozeman campus in 1977, he packed a rare combination of athletic aptitude and verve -- minus, by all accounts, the ego that sometimes accompanies great athletes. In fact, say friends and clients of his steep-ski guiding, Coombs was very open, unlike the dicey sliver of a couloir where he met his death: a narrow and steep chute called Le Polichinelle, French for a "false secret," or one that everyone knew.
The Boston native honed his edges on slopes of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. By the time he graced the cover of Outside magazine a decade ago as the world's greatest skier, his resume included several North American first descents. He was the first to etch tracks down some 250 slopes in the rarified air of Antarctica, Chile, France, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland and, most notably, Alaska's Chugach Range. Such firsts, on slopes greater than 45 degrees, earned Coombs worldwide attention -- and the 1991 and '93 title of World Extreme Ski Champion. With that momentum, Coombs and his wife, Emily Gladstone Coombs, also a World Extreme Champ (in 1992), started a business of leading steep-skiing trips, Valdez Heli-Ski Guides.
"I first met Doug in the late 1970s, as part of a circle of friends," recounted Doug Wales, marketing director for Bridger Bowl Ski Area near Bozeman. "Early on, people recognized Coombs as the one who popularized skiing on the Ridge, the hike-to terrain above Bridger Bowl."
While a couple of skiers a week might shoulder their skis to boot pack the few hundred steps to the Bridger Mountain Range's crest in the early 1980s, it was Coombs and friends who were up there nearly every day and "skied anything conceivable," added Wales. "Then it was truly radical. They were up there on 215 centimeter skis." Today's skiers generally use skis considerably shorter.
As a geology student, Coombs studied his craggy surroundings. As a skier, he became adept at snow dynamics -- avoiding avalanches and teaching others how to stay safe in the backcountry. He described the French Alps on his Web site: "When I first arrived at La Grave and stared at the majestic glaciated peak of La Meije (13,065 feet), I imagined endless ski runs that would last a lifetime."
While Coombs' death was mourned among the mountain athletes of the world, the impact of his life reached beyond couloirs and granite. The New York Times noted that "what separated Doug from other extreme skiers was the single-minded discipline he applied to most every slope he conquered," and described Coombs as "a muscle-bound gyroscope who made every impossible turn of the skis look as if he were carving a knife through a tub of soft butter."
The London Times recognized Coombs as the "graceful and fearless pioneer of the sport of extreme skiing." Over the past two decades, Coombs charismatic smile and fluid yet nonchalant ski style has been featured in Rolling Stone magazine (in 1985), in several ski films and nearly every ski publication on the planet.
Yet, fame is not what he sought, according to Lonnie Ball, owner of Montana Powder Guides. Instead, Coombs sought new friends and was eager to share his passion for the super steeps. "His trademark was his smile," Ball said. "I first met Doug in the early 1990s when I was guiding him and his friends on a heli-ski trip. Even though I was the guide, it was me who went along with my mouth wide open in awe the whole time."
While skiing the peaks near La Grave, the French Alps on that April day, Coombs and friends roamed the off-piste terrain, the non-controlled mountain slopes. Coombs' friend, Chad VanderHam, a 31-year-old protege from Minnesota, fell in La Polichinelle. Coombs shouted to others in the party that VanderHam had slid off a cliff, and to bring a rope. As Coombs maneuvered down to assist VanderHam, Coombs too slid on rock and off a cliff, plunging 490 feet to his death. He was 48 years old.
His wife and 3-year-old son, David, returned to Jackson, Wyo., where a memorial fund has been set up in VanderHam's and Coombs' memories (www.dougcoombsmemorialfund.com or Jackson State Bank and Trust at (307) 733-3737).
"We all lost a good friend," added Ball, who lives north of Bozeman in Bridger Canyon. "That became evident at Doug's memorial in Jackson Hole. He made each person feel as if he were Doug's best friend. Even though he was one of the world's best skiers, Doug treated us all as his equals."