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Thread: NYT on Doug Coombs
05-16-2006, 10:51 PM #1
NYT on Doug Coombs
NYT has an article on Doug Coombs. The links should work (you might need to register but its in the free part of the site). In any case the text is below.
The slideshow has a picture from the last run.
The New York Times
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May 17, 2006
Skiing Beyond Safety's Edge Once Too Often
By NATHANIEL VINTON
LA GRAVE, France, May 15 — Many skiers who brave La Meije, a 13,068-foot peak that towers over this village, pack ropes and harnesses so they can lower themselves onto the steepest runs or rappel when the descent becomes treacherous. Most carry beacons that emit electromagnetic signals in case they need to be dug out after an avalanche.
No boundaries or patrols keep skiers from veering off safe routes. A long tramway simply deposits them at the top of the French Alps, leaving life-and-death decisions to the guides who accompany most of them on the way down.
This wild, unfettered setting is what drew Doug Coombs here from Wyoming. Over the past decade, he transformed himself from a famous daredevil skier to a conscientious mountain guide, making a home with his wife, Emily, and their 2-year-old son, David. They earned a living shepherding skiers around crevasses and away from slopes that creak under the snow's weight.
"La Grave goes from tranquil to frightening and mad, and it's so exhilarating to be in those moods," Mrs. Coombs said in a telephone interview last week. Her husband, she said, "never found anything more perfect."
Last month, Mr. Coombs slipped off a cliff and fell 490 feet to his death. He was 48. He was trying to rescue Chad VanderHam, his 31-year-old protégé and skiing partner from the United States. Mr. VanderHam had gone over the same cliff moments earlier. He also died.
Their accident, during a recreational outing, has focused attention on extreme skiing and on this remote destination, high in the Alps about 50 miles east of Grenoble. The incident has intensified the debate over how much responsibility individual skiers or ski-area managers should assume for skiers' safety.
The French minister of sports, Jean-François Lamour, recently said that 47 of the 53 people killed this ski season were recreational skiers and snowboarders. He described that as unacceptable.
In the United States, fear of lawsuits spurs resort operators to control the environment. Early every morning, while skiers are still in bed, patrols cordon off danger zones. At some resorts, bombs or howitzers are used to trigger avalanches so the skiers do not.
Here, however, the mountain's wildness has inspired a rigorous code of personal responsibility. At times, people oppose even the posting of signs to warn of avalanche risks or impassable routes. Guides speak of adapting the skier to the mountain, not the other way around. This uncontrolled environment is what Mr. Coombs stepped into; he had made a name for himself in ski films and extreme-skiing contests in the 1980's and early 1990's. In 1994, he married Emily Gladstone, an accomplished skier in her own right.
They ran a helicopter skiing business in Valdez, Alaska, learning about avalanches and liability. They were running steep-skiing camps at the Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming in 1997 when the ski patrol accused Mr. Coombs of crossing a boundary in the area as he searched for fresh snow on a challenging slope.
His skiing privileges were revoked. Mr. Coombs, a resort employee and local luminary, disputed the decision, arguing that years of experience had qualified him to ski the slope. The area was later opened to skiers, but by the time Mr. Coombs resolved his differences with the resort, he and his wife had moved their camps to La Grave.
Mr. Coombs was making it his life's work to introduce the Alps to expert skiers from the United States. He believed that regulation was keeping them from thinking independently, even as more of them were in search of challenge and solitude. "It was our little effort to change the world," Mrs. Coombs, 46, said. "It was a small little dent, but it was something. And it was a way to make a living."
At the time of their accident, Mr. Coombs and Mr. VanderHam were skiing a couloir, a narrow passageway that funnels snow and ice down a cliff face. Such runs are often off limits in the United States, but experts relish the soft snow that gathers on them.
"What Doug was guiding in Europe you would never be able to do over here," said Andrew McLean, a mountaineer and author from Utah. "In Europe, everything is open all the time, and it puts the responsibility on the skier."
Technically speaking, La Grave is not a ski resort. Each morning, the town's guide bureau sends certified guides to inspect the mountain. If they feel confident, they advise the mayor to open the tramway, which takes skiers up more than 10,000 feet. That is the equivalent of roughly eight Empire State Buildings.
Skiers venture off a patch of prepared snow, then descend with professional guides who are trained to recognize hidden dangers.
Mr. Coombs flourished here, using his name recognition in the United States to attract groups for his $2,500-a-week camps or for pricier private sessions. He earned certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, a group based in Switzerland that has certified 6,000 guides internationally, including 22 from the United States.
"He was an organizer and doing a great job, and I was much impressed by his way of skiing," said Pierre Risaldo, a longtime guide in La Grave. "We were just impressed with what we saw."
Mr. Risaldo recalled being amused when Mr. Coombs showed up at the local guides bureau with a lengthy liability disclaimer that he required his clients to sign. It was a fairly foreign concept in France.
But the community embraced the Coombs family. Here is a rare ski town where an après-ski party might consist of a potluck dinner and an early bedtime after passing binoculars around to examine the tracks made on the mountain that day.
It Began as a Beautiful Day
Such was the blissful life that Doug and Emily Coombs had until April 3, a beautiful day here. They spent the morning with their son, then went skiing with a group from the United States. It was not a commercial arrangement. This was an outing among friends, for pleasure.
They rode the tramway up several times, then Mr. Coombs proposed skiing the Polichinelle couloir. The Polichinelle, an exposed and hidden slot on the mountain's lower half, had been discovered 10 years earlier by an Italian mountaineer who had floated over it in the summer while parapenting, an activity similar to hang-gliding.
Polichinelle invokes a French term meaning "open secret." It also refers to the couloir's shape: a notch that zigzags down a cliff, forming three segments.
Three of the experienced skiers in the group — Mr. VanderHam, Matt Farmer and Christina Blomquist — jumped at the opportunity. Mrs. Coombs decided not to descend the perilous chute.
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05-16-2006, 10:52 PM #2
article text continued
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"I dreaded this day all my life," she said. "I didn't want to do that, because I'm a mother now. I went to the bottom, saw the helicopter come in and thought, oh no."
Mr. Farmer carried a digital camera that afternoon, and the photographs he took show the group members looking thrilled as they descended. Elsewhere on the mountain, sunlight had converted soft snow to ice, but this shady notch still had untracked powder.
A former ski racer from Minnesota, Mr. VanderHam had been skiing with Mr. Coombs since visiting La Grave years earlier as a client in one of the steep-skiing camps. He showed an enthusiasm and ability that led Mr. Coombs to take him under his wing.
"Chad really admired Doug," Mrs. Coombs said. "By the time they skied that last run together, they were more equals."
The events of April 3 were described in a report filed with the American Mountain Guides Association and in interviews with friends of the men and guides who were familiar with the Polichinelle.
Toward the bottom of the couloir, Mr. VanderHam led the way. He entered the final portion, disappearing around a rocky bend. Mr. Coombs went next; Ms. Blomquist had begun to follow when Mr. Farmer heard a voice from below.
"Chad fell," Mr. Coombs yelled. "Come down with a rope."
Mr. Farmer moved into the final segment and joined Ms. Blomquist. They looked down and encountered a scene that Mr. Farmer later described in the report.
"I could see down to Doug, who was sidestepping down a rock rib below and right of the constriction at the base of the couloir," Mr. Farmer wrote, describing the precipice. "Christina and I saw Doug yelling Chad's name while sidestepping down and attempting to see over the cliff to his right. We saw his skis slip on the rock and he fell out of view over the rib."
It was an uncharacteristic mistake for a man who had made a name descending steep Alaskan peaks at high speeds. Mrs. Coombs offered a possible explanation.
"He just slipped looking for Chad, and he didn't have all his senses because it was a friend," she said in the telephone interview. "A little adrenaline probably made him react a little more quickly than he would have."
Remembering Free Spirits
Mr. Farmer called a rescue helicopter and guides at a lodge whom Mr. Coombs worked with closely. A small group soon gathered on a roadside about a mile west of the village, where it had been possible to see Ms. Blomquist and Mr. Farmer at a great distance as they attempted to revive Mr. Coombs and Mr. VanderHam.
Mr. Coombs's eyes were open, and his pupils were fixed and dilated. He had no pulse and did not respond to Mr. Farmer's first-aid attempts.
Mr. VanderHam had a pulse and was breathing, but he had blood in his nose and did not respond to shouting or show that he felt pain.
A helicopter arrived within 20 minutes, lowering rescuers and a doctor. They treated Mr. VanderHam and took him to a hospital, where he later died. The doctor declared Mr. Coombs dead on the mountain, but Ms. Blomquist and Mr. Farmer continued trying to resuscitate him for another 20 or 30 minutes.
The next morning, the town rang the church bells for them.
Mrs. Coombs stayed here for two weeks. Her husband's death had sent shockwaves through the skiing world. Testimonials sprouted on the Internet, praising Mr. Coombs's influence on the sport. People also started memorial funds for his family and raised money in Mr. VanderHam's honor.
Mr. VanderHam's father, Gilbert, who lives in Minnesota, said he was touched by the support. He said his son had left home for Colorado State University and the bigger mountains there. "He never came back," he said. "He loved the mountains so much."
Mrs. Coombs has since returned to Jackson, Wyo., where people will always remind her son, she said, "that his daddy was a great man." She added, "How many people get to say that when they die that the whole world takes a moment for you?"
She says David, her son, is young enough that he will not be scarred by his father's death but old enough to remember that his father taught him to ski.
France, meanwhile, may be moving toward more control over skiing, something that several of La Grave's guides said they believed could, in fact, generate more reckless skiing.
Mrs. Coombs says that she sees a greater need for the steep-skiing camps, and that she hopes to continue the business that she and her husband started. Their business employs some of the 30 or so guides living in La Grave. The draw, she admitted, was her charismatic husband.
She speaks forcefully on behalf of the free environment in which her husband found his purpose and his demise.
"You know, the mountains are full of dangers, and they swallow you up," she said. "But mostly, they give."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
05-16-2006, 11:28 PM #3
Thanks for posting this."In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair." -Emerson
05-16-2006, 11:31 PM #4Hand built by robots
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05-17-2006, 06:37 AM #5Originally Posted by Cometjo
I enjoyed reading that article. Thanks for posting. I really respect and admire the way Coombs chose to live and I'm grateful for him paving the way in the kind of skiing that I like best. I'm sure young David will see his father as a hero and he'll probably become a very great skier in his own right.
I do wish they wore helmets. Is it a French thing? Or a 1990s extreme skiing thing not to wear one?
05-17-2006, 06:58 AM #6Originally Posted by SheRa
05-17-2006, 07:00 AM #7Originally Posted by SheRa
Anyway, back to the topic - a nice article. Not sure if anyone has posted this before but here's the (London) Times's obituary which appeared a few weeks back. Again, quite a well researched piece, I thought:
The Times May 01, 2006
September 24, 1957 to April 3, 2006
Graceful and fearless pioneer of the sport of extreme skiing
DOUG COOMBS was a skier, mountaineer and guide who redefined the possibilities of skiing. He completed more than 250 first descents in Alaska, Greenland, France, Kyrgyzstan, Argentina and the Himalayas, and safely guided several thousand clients down vertiginous mountain slopes.
Coombs was one of a group of skiers who achieved prominence in the late 1980s and launched modern-day extreme skiing, or freeskiing as it soon became known. He had been inspired by the French skier Pierre Tardivel for his understated style and because, he joked, “he is still alive.”
Thanks to a combination of grace and athleticism, Coombs featured in a vast range of ski films and photographs. His freeflowing turns introduced a new way of thinking how mountains could be skied: “Let the mountain suggest your style rather than forcing your style on it,” he said. One writer on skiing, the author Peter Stark, compared Coombs’s fluid style of skiing to “a droplet of water trickling down a rough plaster wall”.
Born in 1958 near Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglas Coombs first skied at the age of 3 at Nashoba Valley, a 60m hill near his home. As a teenager who worked as a ski-tuner to pay for his lift tickets, Coombs showed prodigious talent on the icy slopes in Vermont and New Hampshire. He then raced for the skiing team at Montana State University in Bozeman, and honed his extreme-skiing skills at the steep, powdery range of Bridger Bowl, Montana.
During the winter of 1984 the photographer Paul Dix visited Bridger and shot Coombs, and other skiers, including Emily Gladstone, whom Coombs would marry a decade later. Dix’s images, which were published in a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone, thrusted the sport of extreme skiing into the popular imagination.
After six years of “study”, Coombs graduated with a BSc in geology, and moved south to the extreme-ski mecca of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he took prime place among a group of daredevil skiers known as the Jackson Hole Air Force.
Despite his high status in the often macho world of extreme skiing, Coombs maintained a subversively unassuming demeanor, to the point that friends described him as nerdy. Large and ungainly on solid ground, he was, however, graceful and feline on snow.
In 1986 he became one of the first helicopter skiing guides in North America. After five years’ guiding he persuaded a Jackson Hole-based manufacturer of avalanche rescue equipment, Life Link, to pay for his ticket to the first World Extreme Ski Championship in Valdez, Alaska, in 1991.
Coombs negotiated his way down a never-skied 50-degree slope to win the championship; Gladstone won the women’s extreme competition in 1992; Coombs won again in 1993.
Inspired by the vast mountains, 55-degree slopes and uniquely soft, powdery but stable snow of Alaska, Coombs and Gladstone spent the winters of the early 1990s flying hundreds of miles across the unskied Chugach range. Coombs would help to define the “big mountain” style that was unique to Alaskan skiing. This would involve him having to outrun — at speeds of more than 60mph — the wall of snow that follows skiers down the Alaskan faces.
The two then founded Valdez Heli-Ski Guides in Alaska in 1994, the first professional heli-guiding service in Alaska, and they were instrumental in developing the Chugach Range for heli-skiing.
Coombs would joke about his moment of widest fame when participating as a stuntman in the Hollywood ski movie Aspen Extreme (1993). Coombs, along with Scott Schmidt, another extreme skier, skied a frozen waterfall, with apparently effortless grace.
Coombs would later joke that he was paid $25,000 for the run: “We would be hanging out over a cornice haggling (with the film crew) over a couple hundred bucks. It made it hard to concentrate but it was fun knowing every turn was worth something.”
The filmed attempt was in fact done by rappelling down the waterfall and piecing together the sequence in the edit room. But Coombs skied ultimately for the joy of the sport: just a couple of months after shooting the sequence, Coombs and Schmidt returned and skied the waterfall unroped, barely touching the snow as they hurled themselves over the ice.
In 1993 Coombs founded the first steep skiing camp in Jackson Hole. But he was become increasingly frustrated with the restrictions that were being placed on his skiing, and he was often accused — unfairly, according to some — of illegally skiing outside the resort’s boundaries. In 1997 the resort banned him for allegedly cutting a rope and skiing outside its boundaries.
Coombs was vindicated some years later, when the resort followed its European counterparts and removed such restrictions. But the snub from his adopted hometown had impelled Coombs to base himself in the Alps — although he did continue to spend summers in Wyoming. His winter base was at La Grave, a small village in the French Alps known for its extreme, uncontrolled skiing.
“I love this kind of terrain. I feel most comfortable here because it is always new and different,” he said. “I cannot just ski the same line over and over. I just get really bored. That’s what keeps skiing alive for me — skiing things that are new.”
Doug Coombs died of injuries from a fall while skiing in the Alps. He is survived by his wife, Emily, and their son.
Doug Coombs, extreme skier, was born on September 24, 1957. He died on April 3, 2006, aged 48.fur bearing, drunk, prancing eurosnob
05-17-2006, 07:09 AM #8Squatch Guest
Again, thanks for posting. It seemed like quite a respectful and well-written article.
05-17-2006, 07:14 AM #9Originally Posted by jackstraw
Thanks Arno, for the article. I love that segment in Aspen Extreme, but now I have to imagine it as it was skied two months later.
05-17-2006, 10:36 AM #10
everyone make sure and check it out from the nytimes' perspective cause it shows a great skier's eye view of Doug and Chad slaying it moments before the accident.
HERE HERE TO THE FALLEN HOMIES!!!
05-17-2006, 11:33 AM #11
I saw that today when reading the paper. I was impressed they put it on the front page. RIP Doug
05-17-2006, 06:45 PM #12
Its a good question to ask as we might learn something if it could have made a difference. Dont suppose anyone knows whether the cause of death was head trauma or other massive trauma.???
Originally Posted by jackstraw
05-17-2006, 11:32 PM #13"You know, the mountains are full of dangers, and they swallow you up," she said. "But mostly, they give."
05-17-2006, 11:51 PM #14happy
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Very touching article. I am saddened by Doug's death. I wish the best for his family.
05-18-2006, 01:08 AM #15?
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Nice Tribute from the mainstream press
I enjoyed reading both of those articles. Thank you for posting them.
I think I will plug in the Aspen Extreme CD and enjoy the film with a new appreciation for Mr. Coombs.
PS: who does the 360 Back scratcher in the bump field? I have never had the balls to try that one.
05-18-2006, 07:36 AM #16Originally Posted by MTT
05-18-2006, 10:15 AM #17
rip & strength to his wife/family
05-18-2006, 10:54 AM #18features a sintered base
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Dexter threw the 360, duh. Don't know how you keep a guy off ski school after something like that, in jeans with gaiters, no less.[quote][//quote]
05-18-2006, 11:02 AM #19Registered User
Originally Posted by SheRa
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thanks for posting that article btw.
05-18-2006, 11:12 AM #20Registered Lurker
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man, what a spooky picture. the caption reads:
"Combs, left, and VanderHam on April 3, during their final, fatal run in the French Alps."
RIP to a hero of mine and two people who clearly loved the mountains.
05-18-2006, 12:49 PM #21
In full color on the front page of the New York Times. It just goes to show what an influential man he was, my dad who has no idea why I do what I do and knew Doug was one of my heros called me at 8:00am to tell me he made the front page. I was glad Dad wasn't calling with bad news, he never calls that early.
RIP Doug and Chad
05-19-2006, 01:01 PM #22
Finally had a chance to read this - great article. It certainly sucks that David lost his father, but comforting to know he'll be raised with the community that Doug helped to create.