The news of Doug Coombs’ death hit the ski world hard this past few days — as it should. Doug wasn’t known for taking unnecessary risks, indeed, it sounds like he was in guide mode and being careful when tragedy struck (though he did make a habit of skiing “no fall” terrain where the smallest mistake kills). Considering that, as well as knowing the guy was simply one of the best skiers out there — as well as a competent mountaineer — makes his death a true gut-punch for anyone involved in ski alpinism. From what I’ve heard, the same could be said of Doug’s companion Chad VanderHam, who died in the same accident.
I didn’t know Doug Coombs personally, but of course knew of him as one of the world’s greatest promoters of skiing natural snow in the “new” skiing style we’ve seen develop over the last 15 years or so. More, his exaltation by the media paved the way for scores of professional freeskiers who came after. All of us who enjoy modern skiing owe much to Doug. He was equally influential in gear, technique, and even location (he put Valdez on the map for big mountain skiing) — but most of all Doug epitomized the “happy face” of skiing. He was an amazing ambassador for the positive aspects of the sport.
As it was for many folks, I became aware of Doug when he won the first World Extreme Skiing Championships in 1991, then won again in 1992. At the time he appeared to be the most ski mountaineering oriented of the championship contenders, and I have to admit to being happy that someone like him won (by demonstrating a variety of skills), instead of simply the guy who could huck the biggest cliff.
As if the death of Doug and Chad wasn’t enough, today I learned that three ski patrollers died in a freak accident at Mammoth in California. They were fencing off a dangerous volcanic vent full of poisonous carbon monoxide, and fell in.
More, check web forums and it seems like all too many skiers are sharing about deaths and life changing struggles. A competitor in a Crested Butte extreme skiing event lost a leg, and numerous reports on web forums speak to the the trials of head injuries, paraplegia and more.
All this too soon after Carl Skoog’s death this past October, and the death of Friend’s Hut founder Jim Gebhart just before that of Carl. Indeed, this winter is beginning to feel like a disaster. Or is it?
As I write this, thousands of skiers are smiling their way down the slopes, my teenage son just walked in the office and asked me if he could use a plastic picnic spoon to save weight for a winter overnight (no), and my wife just ducked through the door intact after her commute down from Aspen. I’m sure many of you blog readers, while perhaps grieving for a lost friend or helping someone through a tough time, are also doing okay. Being touched by this winter’s tragedy is rough, but such makes us thankful for the small slice of life we do get to enjoy. I’m sure that’s how the departed would want us to see it. Doug and Chad want us to rip a line, Carl wants us to explore a remote part of the world, Jim is hoping we’ve got a raft trip planned…
Still we wonder: Is backcountry skiing worth the risks? The grieving?
Ski touring is a reflection of life. Some say it IS life. The pleasure of life can be intense — but so is the pain. Yet life is worth living — and mountains are worth being climbed and skied. Some of us will stick around for a while — others leave too soon. In honor of those gone I vow to live my life to the fullest; to yodel through the mountains with a smile on my face, do the best job I can as husband and father — and always remember those who came before — or left early.
Rest in peace Doug, Chad, Carl, Jim and all the others who’s lives tragically ended during this tough winter of tragedy.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.