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Remembering Doug Coombs: Mountain maverick

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Robert Cocuzzo’s “Tracking the Wild Coomba” is an engrossing biography of legendary skier Doug Coombs. The author travels to the mountains where Coombs honed his craft—Tuckerman Ravine, Bridger Bowl, Jackson Hole, endless descents in Alaska’s Chugach Range, and finally to the last untrammeled frontiers in the Alps—and illuminates just how Coombs became so revered and admired by the mountaineering community.

Coombs was one of the first extreme skiing champions, but he didn’t consider himself an “extreme skier.” He was a man who saw snow-covered peaks, spines, and couloirs as white canvasses that he could paint with a little gravity, a lot of athleticism, and the tracks he left behind. After nearly paralyzing himself at the age of 16, shattering most of the vertebrae near his spinal cord, he could have hung up his ski boots for good. He decided not to fall.

The anecdotes from those who knew and skied with Coombs in this biography reveal the man behind the myth. Sure, he was a local hero in Jackson Hole’s good ol’ days, a pioneer of heli-skiing in Alaska, a consummate ski guide and a star in Warren Miller films. But this biography probes deeper into the allure that drew Coombs to skiing steep terrain in the first place and why his passion for the mountains inspired others wherever he went.

Coombs’s epic meeting with his childhood hero Patrick Vallençant, his rise to become the face of the Jackson Hole Air Force, his controversial banishment from Jackson Hole, the avalanches he survived, his ability to guide to so many amateurs on “the best day of their lives”—as well as his action-packed love affair with his wife, Emily, and the birth of his son, David—all come together to create a portrait of a man who should be remembered for more than his virtuosity on the slopes.

At times, the biography reads more like investigative journalism. The author recounts his own journey attempting to ski some of the same lines Coombs did, but Cocuzzo’s personal monologues don’t detract from the book. In fact, the perspective of literally following in Coombs’s tracks offers anyone who’s ever clicked into skis a glimpse into the psychology of elite freeskiers and the difficulty of, and inherent risk in, their chosen form of recreation.

How did a kid from Bedford, Massachusetts, do so much to evolve the sport of big mountain skiing? What character traits allow one to face high-risk situations with such grace, fluidity, and precision? Why did Doug Coombs seemingly have a positive impact on everyone he came in contact with?

By the end, Cocuzzo’s extensive reporting from the people and places where Coombs’s legacy lives on answers these questions, even if he prefers to circle over them like a blackbird playing in wind currents.

Doug Coombs eventually lost his life in La Grave, France, in a rescue attempt after his protégé Chad VanderHam fell off a cliff. Tragically, it seems almost fitting that a man so selfless, passionate, and humble died trying to save a friend while doing what he loved.

Coombs’ life was cut short, but it was a life fully lived. Somehow, “Tracking the Wild Coomba” blends adventure with love story, betrayal and heartbreak with tragedy into an uplifting tale that leaves the reader to ponder the importance of sacrifice and redemption. Here is a book that will remind you of the precariousness of our existence, the preciousness of our time here, and why we should live life on our own terms. 

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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