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FRom JH NewsCoombs dies in fall over cliffSkier slipped on rocks while trying to help friend who fell down gully inFrance.
By Jim Stanford
In the end, the man regarded by many as the greatest skier in the world simply lost an edge.
Doug Coombs, the Jackson Hole mountaineer and guide who took the sports of skiing and climbing to new heights, died Monday in the French Alps after slipping and falling over a cliff while trying to aid a friend who had plunged over the same precipice. He was 48 years old.
Chad VanderHam, 31, of Colorado later died of his injuries in the incident, which occurred near the resort of La Grave, about 50 miles east of Grenoble in southeast France. Coombs guided skiers at La Grave and also operated steep skiing camps there with his wife, Emily. He was skiing with friends at the time of the accident.
French authorities confirmed the deaths Tuesday and gave a basic account of the incident. Miles Smart, a friend of Coombs’ and colleague at Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, provided further details in a telephone interview Tuesday from La Grave, where he had been guiding with Coombs this winter and had spoken with a member of the ski party.
Coombs was one of four skiers, all Americans, descending the Couloir de Polichinelle, a steep chute that winds through cliffs and ends in a 200-foot drop, Smart said. To avoid the last cliff, skiers must traverse to the left at the bottom and exit via another chute, said Smart, who skied the Couloir de Polichinelle on Tuesday and inspected the scene of the accident. VanderHam went first and disappeared from sight. Coombs skied next, saw that VanderHam had fallen over the cliff and yelled to the other two skiers above – Matt Farmer and Christina Bloomquist – to bring a rope.
“Doug skied down to the edge of the cliff and was sidestepping down on some rocks, to try to get a view of Chad, and Matt Farmer saw him slip a little bit,” Smart said. “He was down on rock slab and wasn’t able to reset an edge because it was all rock slab below him,” Smart said.
Some snow covered the rock where Coombs likely slipped. “He lost his edge when he was peering over the lip, trying to get a view of Chad,” Smart said.
In all, the two skiers fell about 1,500 feet over rocks and steep slopes. Coombs was not breathing and had no pulse when rescuers arrived, Smart said. VanderHam, who likely had lost control when he hit a patch of ice near the bottom of the couloir, was unconscious and breathing but could not be revived, Smart said.
VanderHam and Farmer were aspiring mountain guides, while Bloomquist is an old friend who has been skiing at La Grave for years, Smart said.Memorial fund set up
Emily Coombs was at the couple’s home in La Grave on Tuesday with their 3-year-old son, David, and was “doing alright” under the circumstances, Smart said. An account has been set up for the family at Jackson State Bank and Trust and the Web site www.dougcoombsmemo
News of Coombs’ death sent waves of shock and grief through Jackson Hole and the ski world, where Coombs was revered as a hero. His death came a day after the final public run of the aerial tram in winter, and skiers lamented the loss of two icons of Jackson Hole nearly at once. “A Legend Falls,” read the Web site of Powder magazine, where stories and photos of Coombs often graced the pages.
Mark Newcomb, a senior Exum guide, summed up the sentiment of the community: “It’s going to take a long time to finally sink in,” he said.
Newcomb and Coombs were friends who climbed and skied together in the Tetons. “We shared that passion of being in the mountains and challenging ourselves, certainly,” Newcomb said. “But I don’t think anyone can match Doug’s passion. He was out there so often and always having so much fun and sharing that with everybody. “That kind of enthusiasm and passion is probably something we will see only very rarely, if we ever see it again, in a person,” Newcomb said.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort owner Connie Kemmerer released a statement praising Coombs for inspiring guests and staff with his teachings and adventures. “For me, Doug was Jackson Hole,” Kemmerer said. “... He will be missed every day.”Gracious, inspiring
Porter Fox, a Powder editor and former sports editor of the Jackson Hole News, recalled writing his first ski stories about Coombs in the mid-1990s. “He was nothing but gracious and inspiring, always,” Fox said.
Fox said Coombs had a purity of spirit, form and vision. “There was not one part of him that wasn’t completely devoted to skiing, and you felt it and were inspired from it when you were around him,” Fox said. “He was truly the best skier ever.”
Coombs was born in Boston and grew up skiing in Vermont and New Hampshire. He later moved to Bozeman, Mont., to ski at the Big Sky and Bridger Bowl resorts and attend college at Montana State University, where he was a ski racer. After earning a degree in geology, he moved to Jackson Hole in 1986 and began guiding for High Mountain Heli-Skiing.
Coombs was a two-time winner of the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Alaska and served as ski ambassador for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the early 1990s. He and his wife founded a heli-skiing business in Valdez, Alaska, where they would go each spring and pioneered hundreds of ski routes.
His feats in the Tetons included the first ski descent of the Otter Body Snowfield on the Grand Teton with Newcomb in June 1996; the first ski descent of the CMC Route on Mount Moran with Hans Johnstone in 2002; and taking clients on the first guided ski descent of the Grand Teton in 2004.
In his 1994 book Driving to Greenland, a collection of winter adventures, author Peter Stark called Coombs “The Dean of Flow.” He marveled at Coombs casually slipping between obstacles. “To see him ski is to see fluidity, as if he were a droplet of water trickling down a rough plaster wall,” Stark wrote.
La Grave, the tiny French village with a no-frills ski area, had become a second home to the Coombs family over the last 10 years. The Alpine resort, home of the La Meije massif, boasts 7,000-vertical-foot runs and unlimited off-piste terrain that captivated Coombs’ imagination. The resort has only one lift, a two-tiered gondola called le telepherique, and has no grooming, no boundaries, no trail maps or ski patrol.Endless ski runs
“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,” Coombs stated on his Web site.
After a fallout with the Jackson Hole resort in 1997, Doug and Emily Coombs brought their steep skiing camps to La Grave and Verbier, Switzerland. The couple retained a home in Jackson Hole and spent a good portion of the summer, fall and early winter here.
Doug Coombs often spoke at ski-related events and shared slide shows of his adventures. He was a regular presenter at Skinny Skis’ annual Avalanche Awareness Night, which promotes backcountry safety. On New Year’s Day this year, he brought his toddler son to Snow King to ski from the top of the Summit Chairlift.
Exum’s Newcomb said while it’s natural for people to conclude that death is an inevitable fate for someone who plays in extreme terrain, in this case
special circumstances were at work that may have affected Coombs’ instincts. Newcomb compared Coombs’ climbing and skiing of hair-raising couloirs to a city person savvy about walking the streets, knowing which neighborhoods to avoid and how to behave so as not to draw attention. Coombs always was conscious of the consequences of a fall in such terrain, and that mind-set “forces a precision and a control,” Newcomb said.
“In this situation, I have to think that the added level of adrenaline in watching his friend go down and wanting to do something ... might have made that sixth sense slightly off-kilter,” Newcomb said. “I’m absolutely sure that if his friend had not fallen, he would have skied right past that ice, and it would have been just another run on a great day.”http://tinyurl.com/rhaly