American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Doug Coombs, 1957-2006

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2007

Edited by Cameron M. Burns

Doug Coombs 1957-2006

Doug Coombs died last spring in a skiing accident in the French Alps while trying to aid a friend who had fallen over a cliff. He was 48 years old. Many writers and magazine editors will recall that Doug took skiing to a new level, pushed the boundaries of the sport, that sort of talk. Maybe. But those boundaries had previously been drawn by guys like Patrick Vallencent and Pierre Tardivel for steep, you-fall-you-die skiing; by Scott Schmidt for big air and fluidity; by Bill Briggs for technical ski mountaineering; by Hans Kammerlander and others in Himalayan ski mountaineering.

What Doug did bring to skiing in the late 1980s was a liquid-smooth, deceivingly powerful, utterly natural turn the likes of which had not been seen before. His incomprehensibly fast reaction speed and sixth sense kept him always on—but never over—the sharp edge of disaster. It was this combination of qualities that made him unique in the realm of big mountains and big faces. He was truly the king of steeps.

Cameramen loved Coombs. His speed, power, and keen sense for the perfect line made him the ideal skier to film. He could look at a slope and know immediately how water would flow down it, and he would take the same line, deftly stepping out of the way of his slough, or juicing it and simply outrunning the cascading plume.

We're talking about skiing 50-60 miles per hour in extreme terrain. For those of us who often tried following his tracks, where he was making perfect turns, we were hesitant, making twice as many turns and picking our way slowly down.

But what really set him apart was his personality. Always laughing, always enthusiastic, always upbeat and positive, he was utterly approachable whether you were a total novice or a fellow pro. He loved skiing and he loved pushing himself, but he also loved seeing others push themselves, acquire new skills, and improve. Doug had a way of communicating clear, direct, uncomplicated instructions to clients that would at once calm their fears and get them to ski terrain beyond what they thought themselves capable of. His was a joyful, romping pursuit of perfection.

He never followed. Not anyone. Not Scott Schmidt. Not Dominique Perret. He led, you followed; you 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 rehashed 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.

I met Doug as he was pushing into the realm of, shall we say, non-lift-assisted ski mountaineering. Along with being king of the steeps, he was also the king of the poach, finagling more free lift, tram, and heli rides than any ten ski bums put together. Ultimately, though, he loved the mountains and realized that many stunning lines could only be accessed the old fashioned way—by climbing or hiking.

I watched Doug’s mountain climbing skills progress from the beginner walls at the local rock climbing gym (I first taught him how to use the belay device there) to waltzing up 5.11 rock climbs and passing his AMGA rock-guide exam (with very strict requirements on rock-climbing ability). And his mountaineering skills and judgment made a similarly steep and rapid progression.

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 twenty hours straight.

And I never saw him lose a chess match. Probably not something people knew him for— he was a brilliant chess player. And he ran his field operations at Valdez Heli-Ski Guides 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. If we ever did, he was just as enthusiastic about our accomplishment as he would have been if it were he on that perfect, fluted face.

“I think I’m getting rusty,” Doug told me once during an Exum Ski Mountaineering Camp. “I haven’t skied much for a while.” It was June 10.

“Really?” I replied, wondering if the transition back from Europe, the moving, the visiting family, etc., had kept him his off his skis for a few weeks or even a month. “How long has it been?”

“Five days.” He replied with a straight face.

Then he laughed.

We all laughed.

Mark Newcomb, AAC

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