Doug Coombs was one of the most celebrated steep and deep skiers of the ‘80s, 90s, and 00s. Many of you will remember his film exploits and his steep skiing camps at Jackson Hole and in Tinges and elsewhere in Europe. He died in La Grave France in 2006, when he slipped off a cliff on skis trying to find and help a fellow skier. 

I found “Tracking the Wild Coomba” in a used bookstore on Cape Cod. Authored by Robert Cocuzzo, it was published in 2016. Handwritten on the title page is this note from the author: Sebastian, The inspiration to write this book came when I first read The Perfect Storm. Your words drove me to become a writer. Thank you.”  An unexpected find.

Coombs grew up in a skiing family in Bedford, Masachusetts. From the beginning he was a risk-taker, performing crazy stunts and showing off for friends. When he was 17 at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, he crash-landed. Dazed, he went to the clinic at the base of the hill. No one was there. He went back up the hill and continued to ski. When he got home, his mother took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with several broken neck vertebrae. His muscular neck had saved his life. He was wheelchair-confined for months, with a stabilization device screwed into his head. Doctors informed him that he would die if he fell again.

Over the ensuing years Coombs established himself as one of the world’s preeminent steep skiers. In telling his story, the author also tells us about the evolution of steep skiing and introduces us to many of the sport’s more prominent personalities. He takes us to numerous places where Doug hung out. These include Valdez, Alaska, where he and his wife, Emily, lived in a trailer, purchased cheap helicopter rides, and specialized in skiing first descents of previously unnamed steeps in the Chugach Range. Before long he was attracting a robust clientele to his heli-ski guide service. 

We learn how he and Emily started the Steep Skiing Camps at Jackson Hole and how he became the area’s public face. But trouble was brewing. As a key member of the underground Jackson Hole Air Force – a cadre of highly skilled, hard core rope-duckers – he is pursued by the Jackson Ski Patrol. It is Les Miserables on skis. He’s caught and banned from Jackson. Soon after, he and his wife set up shop in the French Alps.

Once there, he integrates well with top-ranked skier/climber/guides, eventually earning their respect and becoming a fully credentialed guide. 

Throughout the book, the author paints Coombs as a remarkably caring and congenial person, always there to help others.

Doug Coombs

On April 6, 2006 in La Graves, he was skiing with three friends, including Chad VanderHam, a young American who had attended multiple Steep Skiing Camps and worked with Coombs in France. The last run was through some couloirs they had skied before. VanderHam skied down and went out of sight. Coombs skied to the edge of a cliff and called down to him. The other two heard Coombs call for a rope. One skied part way down  but before reaching him, Coombs, on skis, had slipped off the cliff. 

Chad VanderHam was declared dead by the time his copter reached the hospital. Doug Coombs, warned at 17 that his next fall would be his last, died from a broken neck. He was 48.

The book weaves Coombs’ story with Cocuzzo’s travels to document it. He follows Coombs’ path, interviewing and skiing with the people who knew him.

The author finds his stride not too far into the book. It becomes an absorbing read.

Tracking The Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs. Copyright 2016 by Robert Cocuzzo. Mountaineer’s Books. Available online from $3.44.

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