Out There: Uncharted territory
Aspen, CO Colorado Aspen’s Elizabeth Oakes often stares back uphill after her skis come to rest. She expects to see her close friend and mentor flashing his unforgettable smile, following in her tracks. But Doug Coombs, legendary mountaineer and eternal ski bum, is no longer close behind. Oakes’ momentary lapses give way to grim reality.”I know he’ll never ski with me again,” said Oakes, a budding mountain guide. “Sometimes skiing is sad.”It’s been eight months since Coombs and fellow guide Chad VanderHam of Keystone died in falls on the precipitous slopes of La Grave in the French Alps, sending shockwaves throughout the ski community. On April 3, Coombs, in his haste to rescue VanderHam – who had slipped and fallen over a cliff at the bottom of a steep couloir – lost his footing. Memories of that day and of Coombs’ compelling personality are as vivid now as ever, Oakes said recently at Generationz, a gathering of local mountain athletes at Aspen’s Sky Hotel
Oakes, 25, and fellow guide Miles Smart, 26, who run independent Smart Mountain Guides and worked alongside Coombs in La Grave and Jackson, Wyo., have been entrusted with the difficult task of furthering Coombs’ legacy. Coombs’ widow, Emily, recently announced both Oakes and Smart will head the Doug Coombs’ Steep Skiing Camps for the foreseeable future. “Of course, I was incredibly honored,” Smart said. “This is a big responsibility. I want to keep Doug and Emily’s vision alive. He really pushed ski guiding forward in so many ways.”Oakes still remembers the first time she met Coombs, nearly four and a half years ago. She had recently signed on to work with Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson when Coombs, a man whose reputation preceded him, strolled up to her.”He was one of the first guides to come up and talk to me,” Oakes said. “I had heard about him and seen him in movies, and I didn’t expect him to be as friendly as he was.”He wasn’t intimidating. If you were willing to go with him, he’d make sure you’d always have a good time.”Oakes, a 2000 Aspen High graduate and current student at CU Boulder, spent the past three winters tailguiding for Coombs in France. Smart, the 2004 American Mountain Guide Association’s (AMGA) Guide of the Year, also worked with Coombs in Jackson. He was working in Chamonix five years ago when Coombs invited Smart to La Grave for a few days of skiing. Smart signed on to guide for Coombs one year later, a post he’s held for the past four winters.Both agree Coombs left an instant, but lasting, impression.”If he was in the room right now, you’d notice him right away, but he’d be one of the most approachable people,” said Smart, who, along with Oakes, will leave for La Grave in January. The steep camp runs March 17-23. “He had no ego,” Oakes added. “He was more empowering a guide than I’ve ever been around. He had the ability to see the good in people. He didn’t point out flaws. He took people’s skiing to levels they never thought they could get to.” Oakes, studying to become the youngest of only four women to be certified by the prestigious AMGA – the U.S. branch of the International Federation of Mountain Guides – was living a dream. It was a dream she conjured during her formative years on the Roaring Fork Valley’s ski slopes and during her time learning from guide Dick Jackson in high school. She guided extensively in the Colorado Rockies, in Chamonix, France, and Alaska’s Chugach Range. She participated in ski and climbing expeditions in Tibet, Nepal and India. Oakes was drawn to La Grave because of her relationship with Coombs and because of the mountain’s allure – more than 7,000 vertical feet of hanging glaciers and hidden chutes in the shadows of rugged peaks that loom over a quiet farming village. She was well on her way to forging a career, following in many of the same tracks as Coombs. One phone call changed everything.”Miles and I had just finished a run, and I got a call as we were getting out of a taxi,” Oakes said. “It was Matt Farmer. He said Doug and Chad had fallen. “I knew the run. I knew what that meant.”VanderHam was the first of a group of four Americans, including fellow guides Coombs, Farmer and friend Christina Bloomquist, to descend the steep Couloir de Polichinelle – so narrow that only one skier could drop in at a time. VanderHam approached the bottom of the couloir, which ends abruptly with a 200-foot cliff, and apparently slid on a patch of ice, Smart said. He disappeared over the edge.Coombs, who was next on the scene, sidestepped close to the cliff to look for VanderHam. He lost an edge and fell nearly 1,500 feet.”It truly was an accident,” Smart said. “It doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done everything right.”
The cable car – La Grave’s lone lift – had closed for the day. Oakes and Smart were reduced to driving down a nearby road that afforded them a vantage point of the slope. Oakes managed to track down Emily. They watched helplessly as things unfolded thousands of feet above. Hours passed with little word. A rescue helicopter was on the scene in 30 minutes. Townspeople lined the roadside, their eyes fixed towards the sky.”Everybody in La Grave loved Doug. He was such a nice guy and was extremely respected,” Smart said. “I only knew him for five years, but I was fortunate to spend so much time with him.”Nearly two and a half hours after the ordeal began, the group received word one person had died. Two hours later, the grim news everyone dreaded was made public. La Grave, whose name (which translates to serious or dangerous in English) evokes images as sharp as its imposing peaks, had claimed VanderHam and the legendary Doug Coombs. That evening, the town’s spotlights, used to illuminate 13,064-foot La Meije a few times each year, brightened the night sky. It was a poignant tribute to the two Americans, Oakes remembers. Coombs and VanderHam were two guides who have become two of La Grave’s very own.Smart and a group of other guides inspected the couloir the following day, “to see the tracks and put the pieces of the puzzle together,” he said. It was a compelling experience, Smart said.”I was standing at the top of the run thinking to myself ‘This is the run where Doug Coombs died. What the hell happened here?'” Smart remembered. “It was a run we skied a lot. It was just another run for someone like Doug.”He had the fastest feet on the mountain. He could twist his way through some of the nastiest cruxes and make it look like a blue cruiser.”
Coombs’ infectious personality was the prime reason many outdoors enthusiasts flocked to La Grave each year, Smart said. He was down to earth. His calm demeanor put others at ease. He was a free spirit, a ski bum and family man living the dream. That he was among the best in the world was of little consequence.”We would be skiing, and he would tell me to stop. He would say ‘Let’s ski nonstop to the bottom on [slopes of] 50 degrees. Follow me.’ He showed a lot of confidence in me,” Oakes said. “He helped me become a better guide. He taught me a lot about how to react to clients.”Coombs may be gone, but his guidance continues to influence Oakes with every turn, she said. Taking the steep skiing camp reins remains a daunting proposition.”I’m a little nervous about trying to make this work,” she said. “We lost a huge part of the program. We’ll try and keep things as much the same as it can be. It’ll be tough running the camp without all of Doug’s energy.”Oakes skied just three days the rest of the season after the accident, she said. The Couloir de Polichinelle was the first run she ever skied with Coombs in La Grave.That first run down the couloir this winter will undoubtedly summon a wave of emotions, she said. She feels no residual trepidation, but Coombs’ absence is and will remain unmistakable. The experience has yielded a renewed sense of purpose, Oakes said.”I have more passion for skiing now,” she insisted. “It was Doug’s life. He was having fun and figured out how to make a living doing what he loved. “I only hope I get to that point.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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