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Industry mourns the death of Doug Coombs, a humble legend; VanderHam also dies

The American flag was at half-mast Tuesday in front of K2 world headquarters on Vashon Island, Wash. Just two days after the news of Doug Coombs' fatal accident, the ski world is left reeling. The impact of the loss is as profound as when the climbing world lost Alex Lowe in 1999 and the snowboard world lost Craig Kelly in 2003 -- all three legends at the hands of the snow gods.

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The American flag was at half-mast Tuesday in front of K2 world headquarters on Vashon Island, Wash. Just two days after the news of Doug Coombs’ fatal accident, the ski world is left reeling. The impact of the loss is as profound as when the climbing world lost Alex Lowe in 1999 and the snowboard world lost Craig Kelly in 2003 — all three legends at the hands of the snow gods.

Easily one of the best extreme skiers in the world, Coombs, 48, touched countless lives. A professional UIAGM guide (the highest certification available), he was skiing in La Grave, France, with fellow guide Chad VanderHam, 32, from Silverthorne, Colo., and two other friends.

According to the most recent reports, VanderHam was the first to drop into the steep Couloir de Polichinelle (Polychannel) in the Fréaux sector. It is a complex run with a series of three couloirs linked by traverses over no-fall zones. VanderHam was negotiating the last traverse when he hit a patch of ice and disappeared. Coombs went to investigate, shouting up to the other two skiers (Matt Farmer and Christina Bloomquist) to bring a rope down. As Coombs went to help his friend, his skis slipped on a snow-covered rock slab. Both skiers fell approximately 1,500 feet and died at the scene. It was the day after the final closing of the Tram at Jackson Hole.

Behind the Legend
Coombs was born in Boston and started skiing in New England at 3 years old. In high school, he was on the ski team and he honed his skills at Mad River Glen in Vermont. His passion took him to Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., where he also raced and explored the local mountains; graduating with a degree in geology on the six-year-plan. It was at Bridger Bowl and Big Sky that he began to apply race techniques to steep chutes.

In 1986, Coombs moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he soon began working as a guide for High Mountain Heli-Skiing and Exum. He made such a name for himself that, in 1991, Life-Link sponsored his trip to the first World Extreme Ski Championship in Valdez, Alaska. Not only did Coombs win the title, but he came back in 1993 and successfully defended it. Emily Gladstone won the Women’s Extreme Championship in 1992.

In 1993, he and his soon-to-be wife Emily founded Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, the first professional service of its kind. There are now five heli-ski companies operating in the region and Valdez owes much of its tourist economy to Emily and Doug Coombs. That same year, the duo also founded Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide, which they based from their home in Jackson.

Coombs was a ski ambassador for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort until 1997 when he had a famous falling out with the ski patrol that led to his banishment. This resulted in moving the Steep Camps to La Grave and Verbier in France where they have been very popular. Eventually, JHMR realized its mistake and allowed him to guide at the resort again.

The Coombs duo operated Valdez Heli-Ski Guides until 2001, when they sold the operation to Scott Raynor. Doug continued to guide there and tallied over 300 first descents in the Chugach Range.

In his professional career, he guided approximately 1,500 ski days all over the world. He made first descents in the Tien Shan Range of Kyrgyzstan, skied Mount Vinson and Mount Shinn in Antarctica, skied the Grand Teton nine times (including a first descent of the Otter Body Route ( click here to watch video ) and the first guided ski descent), skied the CMC Route on Mount Moran (with three other Exum guides; a 7-pitch 5.4 rock climb in the summer), took second place in the 24 Hours of Aspen race (tallying 184,000 feet of descent), won the national Powder-8’s competition three times (came in second twice, and third once), received the AMGA Presidents Award in 2004, and on and on.

His appearances in ski films have dazzled audiences for two decades. Coombs and Scott Schmidt did most of the skiing stunts in the 1993 Hollywood movie “Aspen Extreme.” He has been featured in numerous movies by seemingly everyone with a movie camera. The first TGR film, “The Continuum” (1996), owes much of its success to scenes of Doug Coombs demonstrating his amazing talent in Valdez. More recently, he appeared in Warren Miller’s “Journey” (2003) along with wife Emily, Mike Hattrup, and Tim Petrick.

According to Mike Hattrup, head of K2 Telemark and a renowned skier and AMGA ski guide himself, “Doug was hands down the best steep skier I’ve ever seen, and he was such a solid ski mountaineer that you got the sense that he’d be skiing steep, technical lines until he was an old man. The news of his death, especially with a 3-year-old son, is absolutely crushing.”

While his accomplishments were impressive, like Alex Lowe, it was Coombs’ humble nature, gentle humor, and humanity that made the biggest impression upon all who met him. He wasn’t just another hotshot on an ego trip.

According to Tim Petrick, vice president of global sales at K2, former PSIA Demo Team member and a longtime friend, “Doug Coombs was sponsored by K2 for nearly 20 years. During that time, he was one of the athletes we could always count on to show up on time, with a smile on his face and ready to make every person at an event feel special. That was easy for Coombs. He was one of the good guys. His humility and passion for life made him easy to be around.”

Ever the jokester, Coombs is locally famous for making his appearance at the most recent Barry Corbet Film Festival by rappelling down from the rafters wearing all his ski gear. A devoted father, Coombs celebrated New Year’s Day by taking his son to the top of Snow King resort and skiing down together (a 1,570-foot black diamond descent).

When asked recently by Skiing Magazine if he is religious, Coombs replied, “The mountains are my religion.”

The Industry Rallies
It took less than 24 hours following the news for over 270 posts to appear on the forums expressing shock and dismay. Word quickly spread through the ski industry and efforts to financially support Emily and David began.

Family friend David Gonzales has established a website to collect donations from the public:

According to John Cooley, Marmot’s PR spokesperson, “K2 Sport, Marmot, Life-Link, Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort each have committed to contribute substantially to the Memorial Fund. Others in the industry are likely to join.”

Cooley, who worked and skied with Coombs for 15 years, noted, “Doug was the Snow Dancer — a spirit that taught us to laugh and play. Whether on the Grand, in Valdez or La Grave, his full-face grin and quick wit always reminded me why we were there: to have fun. The world has lost a special playmate. We are all better for having known him.”

Coombs designed a signature series ski pack for Marmot called La Miege, named after the spectacular peak that overlooks La Grave. Tom Fritz, vice president of marketing, told SNEWS® that the company is currently working out details on a “tasteful way to turn all profits from the pack over to Emily and David.”

Todd Jones, one of the founders of Teton Gravity Research, had this to say on the company’s very popular skier forum, “As I sit here and ask myself what the fuck I am doing and if any of this is worth it, I can only think of how my life would be different if I had never met Coombs. How many people have had the best day of their life skiing with him? How many people did he touch? He was the best and now I am scared, because if he can get taken, who are we? How good can we be? This much I do know: I met a great man and he affected me in ways I can never explain. He is everything that TGR was, is and will always be.”

Jones said the company is planning to include a compilation of footage of Coombs skiing in the company’s next film with some commentary. The premiere of the film, held in Jackson Hole next fall, will also be a fund-raiser for Coombs’ family.

Other fund-raising efforts will likely include the reprint of one of the most popular ski posters ever produced. Known as the “Church poster,” it was a K2 promotional piece showing Coombs in the middle of an ice climb, on skis.

The story behind the mind-blowing image is typical Coombs. Petrick recounted, “I was there at Mike Wiegele Heli Ski the day that photo was shot. We had been shooting a promotional film called Controlled Chaos, with Doug, Emily, Scott Schmidt, Kim Reichhelm, and Tiger Shaw. Anyway, we were coming out through a steep gully and Coombs — who was naturally out in the lead — told us to stop. ‘Hey Larry, this might be a cool shot,’ said Coombs. The rest of us looked up at this snow-covered ice waterfall and were like, where?

“Coombs proceeded to describe how he would hike back up and traverse across this little billy goat line and jump off in front of the waterfall. I still remember the quizzical look on Scott Schmidt’s face and him saying, ‘I’ll watch you and see how it goes.’

“Coombs nailed the jump on his first try and Larry got the picture. The caption, ‘Upon This Rock I build my church,’ was proposed by Wong Doody, our advertising agency at the time. I remember agonizing over whether we should run with that caption. Glad that Doug suggested the shot and happy that we went with the caption. It is definitely one of the best posters in K2’s history.”

For a limited time only, K2 will re-release the prolific poster “Upon this Rock I Build My Church” of Doug Coombs. The cost of the poster will be $20 and all proceeds will be donated to to help support Emily Coombs and their young son David. Send an email with “Upon this Rock Poster” in the subject line to with your name, email address and mailing address and K2 will contact you directly when the poster becomes available.

In all likelihood, there will be additional fund-raising events and promotions to honor Coombs and support his family. It’s all but certain that the next SIA trade show will host some sort of benefit.

Tragedy Compounded
Much of the outpouring of grief has been for Coombs. Yet the loss of Chad VanderHam is also tragic. On March 11, only three weeks earlier, he earned his AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide Certification and was given Aspirant Guide status.

VanderHam grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., and started ski racing early on. In 1993, he moved to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University, and, of course, ski and climb. Though he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, the outdoors had become his life’s calling.

In 2000, VanderHam made his first extended stay in La Grave and soon was taken under wing by Coombs. The two became close friends and often skied together throughout the area. By all accounts, VanderHam was yet another super nice guy who was humble and helpful with a tremendous potential.