FEATURE: Last Descent

By on April 19, 2016

Ski legend’s wife says book is the first to get Doug Coombs story right.

(Photo: Ace Kvale)

(Photo: Ace Kvale)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – At first all he could see was a dot on the mountain. Then the camera zoomed in on the bright clothing.

Robert Cocuzzo sat in his parent’s basement in Massachusetts as a child and watched Doug Coombs ski. In the Warren Miller films, Coombs would tear down terrain so steep it seemed his shoulders were brushing the mountainside. It was almost as if he was in a crashing wave. Cocuzzo was mesmerized.

“He made the impossible seem possible,” Cocuzzo said.

The images are some of the Cocuzzo’s earliest memories. They set him on a path that would take him to live in Jackson Hole, and eventually write the legendary Coombs biography.

This month marks the 10th anniversary since the storied skier died in an accident in the French Alps, and this year Cocuzzo releases his book “Tracking the Wild Coomba.” The book, which is part Coombs biography and part personal account of Cocuzzo’s journey in reporting the story, comes out in August. According to Coombs’ wife Emily, it provides one of the truest representations of her late husband.

Rebel under the ropes

Coombs grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts, the youngest of three kids. He learned to ski in his backyard until he graduated to a hill near his house.

He was, by all accounts, a boy with boundless energy and natural athletic ability. He quickly excelled at skiing, and skied with his family at Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire as a kid.

“That became the theater for his early backcountry skiing,” Cocuzzo said. But Coombs was primarily a ski racer back then.

At 16, he broke his neck showing off on a jump for a camera. Doctors said it was a miracle he could walk. They also said there was a high chance he’d reinjure himself if he continued to ski. Coombs chose to take the risk and follow his passion. It’s the type of anecdote that drew Cocuzzo to Coombs’ story.

“Every one of us has to make that type of decision at some point in our life,” Cocuzzo said.

Emily Coombs was stunned how well author Cocuzzo captured her late husband despite never meeting him. (Photo: Photo by Larry Prosor)

Emily Coombs was stunned how well author Cocuzzo captured her late husband despite never meeting him. (Photo: Photo by Larry Prosor)

Coombs raced on the ski team at Montana State University in Bozeman, but spent his free time skiing in the backcountry near Bridger Bowl. Eventually, he left the ski team to focus on backcountry skiing. He credited his impeccable technique to his race training.

After college he headed to Jackson, worked at Teton Village Sports and skied as much as possible.

“That’s where he blossomed into his talent,” Cocuzzo said.

Coombs split his time between Jackson and Alaska after handily winning the World Extreme Ski Championships in Valdez in 1991. He kept returning to the area to catalogue first descents.

“That whole scene was a first descent,” Cocuzzo said. “Imagine how rowdy it was at that time. No laws, tons of daylight and a group of bold skiers and a limitless playground.”

In 1994, he opened Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, one of the first companies to take clients to ski pristine powder in mountains accessible only by flight.

Back in Jackson, Coombs became notorious for ducking the ropes and skiing out-of-bounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. After ski patrol caught Coombs skiing in a closed area following multiple reprimands for skiing out-of-bounds, the resort banned him in 1997.

“To have him banned was a travesty,” Cocuzzo said. “He was the guy. He was the poster boy.”

While it’s impossible to find a direct link, many people credit Coombs’ year-and-a-half ban for inspiring resorts (including JHMR) to open up backcountry access.

Coombs’ life was so rich, Cocuzzo knew it was a story that begged to be told.

Pole to paper

Currently, Cocuzzo is the editor of N magazine, a lifestyle publication documenting culture in Nantucket, Massachusetts. He grew up in Arlington, Mass., and started skiing at the age of three. He honed his skills at Nashoba Valley Ski Area, a small hill near Boston.

He moved to Jackson in 2010 to pursue his childhood dream of living in a Western ski town like the ones from his favorite ski movies. He found work at the Cadillac Grille, 43 North and Buffalo Meat Co., and he often heard people talk about Coombs in lift lines, bars and at restaurants.  One night he overheard Coombs was from a town near where he grew up.

Cocuzzo, a fledgling writer, knew one day someone would write a book about Coombs, but he didn’t expect he would be the one to do it. The switch flipped when Cocuzzo discovered Coombs had learned to ski at Nashoba Valley, that same small hill where Cocuzzo had learned. He was amazed that someone like Coombs could learn on such tame terrain and progress to mastering steep mountainsides. Cocuzzo felt he had to the write the story.

Originally, Cocuzzo planned a straight biography to capture Coombs’ life. But reporting the project took him on a grander adventure. Cocuzzo had never met Coombs. But to truly understand the legend, he traveled to the places Coombs lived, met his mother, skied with his sister and even retraced some of Coombs’ tracks.

“When I talk about the lines he skied, it’s hard to say what that was like for Doug Coombs,” Cocuzzo said. “But I can say what it was like for me. I am not Doug Coombs. I am not a professional skier. I am a good skier, but I am not anywhere near that caliber. I hoped I could lend the average man’s perspective to what his feats were.”

Cucozzo went on to go heli-skiing in Alaska and tasted the slopes in Chamonix. Eventually, he made his way to La Grave, France, the village where Coombs died.

“I realized my own journey was an effective way to bring people into Coombs’ world,” Cocuzzo said.

(Photo: Joshua Simpson)

(Photo: Joshua Simpson)

That was especially true in La Grave, a second home for Coombs and where he lived while exiled from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

La Grave is famous for its natural terrain unencumbered by ski patrol, avalanche mitigation, or signs warning of cliffs and obstacles.

“It is a wild place where if you don’t know what you are doing, you can end up in a helicopter,” Cocuzzo said.

Cocuzzo met a bartender who offered to take him out on the mountain.  He didn’t know where they were going until they arrived at Trifides Couloir, famous for the fact 30 people have died skiing it.

For a moment Cocuzzo regretted following his guide, regretted coming to La Grave, and even regretted starting the book.

“This was scary for me,” Cocuzzo said. “It wouldn’t be scary for Doug Coombs. It’s almost embarrassing to admit the level of terror I experienced. But when you ski something of high consequence, you have to summon a really potent sense of confidence. It was an important experience for me. There were two dueling emotions after: euphoria of being alive and overcoming it, and then a sense of guilt for doing something so dangerous you don’t really need to.”

Over the five years Cocuzzo spent writing the book, he dedicated a few months to living in La Grave. He interviewed those who knew Coombs, and skied where Coombs had skied. Cocuzzo’s experiences on runs like Trifides offer readers a firsthand look at some of Coombs’ personal triumphs.

While Coombs’ skiing resume is important, they are also the pieces of his life most people already know. Cocuzzo, much like Coombs, wanted to go beyond those ropes.

“I think you can point to his hundreds of first ascents and you can point to the ski technology, and the boundaries at Jackson Hole, and the heli-skiing, but his greatest legacy is found within the people he impacted in his life,” Cocuzzo said.

Powder partners

“Oh, here we go,” Emily Coombs thought the day she met Cocuzzo at the Village Cafe. She dreaded yet another interview with someone who would get the story all wrong. Too often, the media put him on a pedestal—throughout Doug’s life, and especially after his death.

“I wasn’t really ready for it,” Emily said.

But she always knew someone would write a book about Doug. There was something about Cocuzzo that she trusted, so she stayed open-minded. Over time, she felt telling her husband’s story was Cocuzzo’s calling.

Emily met Doug at Montana State. She too, grew up on the East Coast and was an accomplished skier.

One winter, when she was a child, her father bought her skis for Christmas and took her out on a hill.

“I thought, ‘This is it. I’m never sledding again,’” Emily said. “And I just hiked that hill over and over.”

She was skiing at Bridger Bowl with a friend who knew Doug when he came flying off a little cliff and landed in front of them.

Emily thought Doug was a goofball, a “kook,” but he soon became her platonic ski partner. He took her down runs she’d never seen. He pushed her beyond what she thought was possible.

“I think I just loved the challenge,” Emily said. “I wanted to take whatever sport I was doing and ride the wildest horse, or ski the steepest lines, and he took me there.”

Plus, he had a car. Emily didn’t.

It took about a year, but one day while standing in the lift line she looked up and saw the sun on his face. He looked handsome.

“And I never saw him the same way again,” she said.

The couple dated through college, but went their separate ways afterwards, staying in touch as friends. In 1990, they got back together as a couple. Emily moved to Jackson and they married in 1994.

“We were doomed for each other,” she said.

Doug started garnering national media attention in the early 90s, including receiving the title “Best Skier in the World,” bestowed by Outside Magazine.

Doug was embarrassed, but also understood the attention allowed him to keep fueling his passion. Emily rolls her eyes when people talk about what a hard worker Doug was.

“Oh please,” she said. “All he wanted to do was ski. It wasn’t about making money. It was about making enough to go skiing.”

Emily constantly worried about Doug when he was out skiing without her, but both Coombses were risk takers. It was normal for them. They just had different mentalities when it came to acknowledging risk.

(Photo: Ace Kvale)

(Photo: Ace Kvale)

She once said she didn’t want to ski things where if she fell she was dead. He told her to not think about falling, and instead focus on where she was going.

“I acknowledge the ‘what if?’” she said. “On the conscious level, he didn’t. He admitted, ‘Yeah, if I acknowledge that, I’m dead.’”

She always knew there was a chance of injury or death in the mountains, but Emily feared she would be the one to lose her life.

Emily stopped taking major risks in the mountains when their son David was in born in 2004.

“It was like my brain changed,” she said.

Emily knew every time Doug went out there was a chance he’d get hurt or die.

“I was almost ready for it, or as ready as someone can be,” she said.

Final run

The family was in La Grave. It was a beautiful, sunny day with perfect powder. Doug begged Emily to ski with him, saying they never got to go together anymore. Emily agreed, and their son David was put in the care of a babysitter. Doug and their friends wanted to ski Couloir de Polichinelle for the last run of the day. Emily said no. She went to ski something safer, and said she’d see him at the bar afterwards. She knew it disappointed him, but she thought of her two-year-old son.

Emily reached the bottom of the mountain and saw the helicopters. A pit formed in her stomach. She dialed Doug’s cell phone. No one answer.

The phone rang. Emily answered her friend’s call.

“I’m down here watching an accident,” she said.

“It’s Doug,” the voice on the other end replied.

It would take hours to find out what had happened. Eventually, she learned one of the skiers in the party of four slipped off a cliff. In trying to help him, Doug fell to his death.

After that, Emily didn’t want to leave La Grave. It felt like she was leaving Doug. Weeks would pass before she would return to Jackson. They’d just purchased a new house but had yet to even move in.

Nightmares of cliffs and avalanches haunted her. She almost gave up skiing entirely, but once again thought of her son. She wanted to share the sport with him.

Coombs killing it in Alaska, 1994. “He made the impossible seem possible,” Cocuzzo says. (Photo: Ace Kvale)

Coombs killing it in Alaska, 1994. “He made the impossible seem possible,” Cocuzzo says. (Photo: Ace Kvale)

The legend lives on

Doug showed people how to not just push, but move boundaries. He made the impossible a reality. But to Emily he was just Doug: a goofball who happened to be a good skier.  He was a big kid who never grew up. He wasn’t a superhero.

With that in mind, Emily was stunned when she read Robert Cocuzzo’s book. She couldn’t believe it was written by someone who had never met her husband.

“Rob humanized him,” Emily said. “You get to know him as a person.”

David was two when his dad died, too young to have concrete memories. He’s a happy kid, who loves his mom, house, animals and skiing. He’s learning to race with the Jackson Hole Ski Club, but he doesn’t take it too seriously.

And now he has a way to get to know his father, beyond the accolades and media attention.

“When he’s ready to really know who is father is, he’s got this book,” Emily said. “Now he has this treasure that tells the real story.” PJH

Cocuzzo’s book, “Tracking the Wild Coomba,” releases Aug. 1. Cocuzzo will donate 20 percent of presales to the Doug Coombs Foundation. Visit trackingthewildcoomba.com to order a copy.

Doug Coombs Foundation

By Kelsey Dayton

People were skeptical when Emily Coombs said she wanted to start a foundation to teach kids to ski in honor of her husband Doug Coombs. Doug died 10 years ago in a skiing accident in the French Alps. He was known for pushing boundaries and skiing the seemingly impossible. He wasn’t about children, Emily was told.

Emily knew it was true. But she also knew how valuable skiing had been in her life. And she knew something else.

160420CoverFeat-4_orig“Children grow up,” she said. “You have to start them young to create the next generation. A legacy is long lasting. It isn’t that first five-year period. It’s people. It’s life.”

The Doug Coombs Foundation is still in its first five-year period, but already it’s having a bigger impact than Emily ever imagined.

“These kids aren’t just skiing and happy, but they are thriving,” Emily said.

Emily started the foundation, which serves low-income families, in 2013. She noticed Latino kids weren’t on the ski hills. She took it for granted that if you lived in a place like Jackson Hole you skied, but realized many of the kids were from families that didn’t pass down the sport, or even grow up around snow.

Everyone knows the health benefits of exercise. But skiing offers something extra. It’s about stepping up to challenges, conquering fear, falling down and getting back up. Plus, in Jackson, how well you ski or what sports you play matters to kids.

“I thought about using sports to equal the playing field socially,” Emily said.

The Doug Coombs Foundation, which at the time was just Emily, bought the equipment and lessons for the eight kids that came out that first weekend. By the end of the winter she had 28 kids, more than she could afford, but she couldn’t turn anyone away.

The next winter, numbers climbed to 65, but the foundation received funding help from Old Bills Fun Run and other sponsors. With growing community involvement, the Doug Coombs Foundation served 180 kids with a $200,000 budget this year. It’s open to kids four years old up into middle school when they can enter the apprentice program at Snow King, and help teach kids to ski while training to be instructors.

That first group of kids are still in the program.

Karoline Montes, 9, was one of the first kids involved in the program. She’d never skied before. It was scary at first, especially the chairlift. But now she likes making turns and going fast.

Eleven of her cousins joined her, as well as her younger sister Natalie Montes and eventually her father Edgar Montes, who is getting better, Karoline said.

Karoline’s mom, Alejandra Chavez, never imagined her family skiing when she moved to Jackson about 11 years ago from Arizona. The Doug Coombs Foundation not only opened doors for her daughters, but also offered opportunities for the parents.

“It’s such an expensive sport to do, and I don’t think we could have been able to afford it,” she said.

Without any snow sports to occupy their time, she and her family were bored during the cold weather. The Doug Coombs Foundation changed that.

“Winters are totally different to us now,” she said.

Chavez hasn’t quite mastered skiing. She tried it once and fell enough to make her nervous, but she’s promised her family that next winter she’s going to learn. “Now it’s a family thing,” she said.

The foundation has expanded beyond skiing. It offers financial help for kids wanting to play soccer and lacrosse. Exum offers kids involved in the foundation two free days of climbing instruction in the summer. Emily also takes the kids hiking in Grand Teton National Park in the summer.

The foundation met a need in the community, but also gave Emily a purpose and meaningful job. And it created a legacy for husband.

“He is that example of breaking barriers and doing the things that people perceive that are not possible,” Emily said.

Emily isn’t naïve. She knows if Doug were alive he wouldn’t be interested in skiing with little kids as beginners. As the kids grow into great skiers, though, Emily imagines Doug skiing with them in the backcountry or leading them down Corbet’s Couloir.

“He would have a blast skiing with these kids about now,” Emily said.

She also realizes she’s introducing the kids to a sport that killed her husband.

“I don’t want to lead them to a destiny of dying,” Emily said. “But I also know how powerful it is, how great skiing is.”

She’s made it part of her mission to teach the kids about decision making and respecting the mountains.

Most of the kids didn’t know who Doug was when they started skiing with the foundation. But they’ve learned his history, without any prompting from Emily, and they find him inspiring. And they are proud to wear his name on their bright-colored coats.

He embodies a spirit of adventure, Emily said. “And that’s a piece of him that is now inside these children.”

About Kelsey Dayton

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