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Remembering a life lived on the edge

Nate Peterson
Extreme skier Doug Coombs launches off a cornice in Blue River British Columbia in 1992 while working as a stunt skier for the feature film "Aspen Extreme." Coombs died April 3 in the French Alps. (Courtesy Scott Nichols)
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That smile. Who could forget that smile? Aspen local Scott Nichols has albums of photos detailing his adventures with legendary extreme skier Doug Coombs. In January and February 1992, Nichols spent 30 days with Coombs in Blue River, British Columbia, working as stunt skiers for the feature film “Aspen Extreme.” That November, Coombs and Nichols teamed up to finish second in the fourth annual 24 Hours of Aspen. There’s also images of offseason skiing trips to Chile, where Nichols spent time with Coombs and his wife, Emily. But those images don’t compare to the ones locked safely in his head, Nichols said.And the one that stands out more than any other is of that smile -those rows of straight white teeth pitted against the tan, wind-worn face of arguably the world’s greatest skier.Coombs’ steady grin is one that needed no explanation, Nichols said.”Dougie was always the first to smile and the first to laugh,” Nichols said Tuesday at his Aspen home. “He was a very outgoing person, very gregarious. He loved sharing his experience and wisdom with anyone, old or young.”It’s the smile that Nichols will miss most, now that Coombs is gone. On April 3, while skiing a treacherous chute in the French Alps, accessible from the single chairlift at La Grave ski area, Coombs fell to his death after slipping off a cliff.

Coombs, who split time between his home in Jackson, Wyo., and La Grave, where he and Emily both guided backcountry trips, was 48. He is survived by Emily and his 3-year-old son David Douglas.According to multiple reports, Coombs’ friend and protégé, 31-year-old Chad VanderHam of Keystone, fell first from the same precipice. Coombs skied down to the edge of the cliff to see where his friend had fallen before losing an edge and slipping off. VanderHam was still breathing when the other two skiers in the group – aspiring guide Matt Farmer and VanderHam’s Swedish friend Christina Blomquist – reached the pair after exiting the chute. Coombs was not breathing, and Farmer couldn’t find a pulse. VanderHam was squeezing Farmer’s hand when rescue workers arrived on the scene, but like Coombs, he would not survive the fall.When he heard the news, Nichols said he was in shock. Coombs’ reputation as the best freeskier in the world came about because he was a master of dropping no-fall lines – harrowing routes where one mistake would mean death.

But while he knew the danger, Coombs was never an unnecessary risk-taker, Nichols said. He had guided more backcountry trips than any other skier in the world, and his safety record was spotless.Coombs’ degree from Montana State University was in geology, and Nichols said his friend was one of the world’s foremost experts in snow science. He also had better balance than any other skier in the world, Nichols said. “He analyzed the terrain that he skied with all his clients better than anyone I’ve ever met,” Nichols said. “Doug had this innate ability to see the whole picture. When we were in Blue River, he’d need only one pass in the helicopter to figure out entire runs. He’d just have to see it once, then he would know it like the back of his hand. He could figure out the curves and the approach different than anyone I’ve ever seen. It was quite amazing.”Local freeskiing star Chris Davenport, 35, who grew up admiring Coombs and became a friend, concurred with Nichols’ analysis. This winter, Davenport and Coombs were in Bella Coola, British Columbia, filming for a new Hollywood film on the history of big-mountain skiing, tentatively titled “The Edge of Never.”

Davenport, who is attempting to climb and ski all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks this year, could not be reached for this story, but wrote about Coombs on his website – http://www.skithe14ers.com – last week.”Doug was a real inspiration to me, and one of the most passionate people I have ever met,” Davenport wrote. “Doug was careful, calculated, smart, and confident in the mountains, and I enjoyed every moment I ever got to spend with him.”Davenport then added, “The thoughts and wishes of my family go out to Emily and their young son, David. I have a family as well, and losing a friend like Doug really puts what I’m doing out here on the Colorado 14ers in perspective. While the mountains are almost always fun, they can be dangerous and deadly. My goal with this project is to ski these peaks safely, and I’ll now do so carrying Doug’s memory with me.”Dick Jackson, who has led guided backcountry tours in Aspen since the early 70s, never skied with Coombs, but he knew him personally and always admired him.”I don’t know how you could not be inspired by that guy,” Jackson said last week. “He was an inspiration to anyone who has ever had a passion for backcountry skiing. He was the best in the world. I was shocked when I heard about it.”Nichols first heard of Coombs when he was living in Jackson from 1976 through 1981. Coombs had first arrived in Jackson from Montana after college in an old Volkswagen van, and had become one of the best-known locals.

His reputation as a skier preceded him, Nichols said, but there was more to it than that. Coombs’ enthusiasm for the mountains was infectious, Nichols said. In the wake of his death, Nichols said most of the friends he has spoken with all said the best skiing days of their lives came with Coombs.”His nickname was ‘The Fun Captain,'” Nichols said. “It’s the nickname people gave him because he was always having too much fun.”It’s a nickname that will forever ring true, Nichols said.”I think when people think of his legacy, they’re going to think of Doug as a person who lived his life in the moment every single day,” Nichols said. “He really was the best in the world, but I’m not going to miss the skiing as much as I’m going to miss just being around him. Those 30 days in Blue River, that was, and still is, the most exhilarating time in my life.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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