On April 3, 2006, legendary skier Doug Coombs died at the age of 48. While skiing with several friends down a demanding couloir in La Grave, France, Coombs’ friend Chad VanderHam slipped and fell off a 490 foot cliff. While attempting to look over the cliff to help VanderHam, Coombs also slipped, and consequently fell to his death. This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Coombs’ passing, commemorating the loss of one of skiing’s greatest pioneers.
Much has been written about the life of Coombs and his renowned skiing escapades. A New Englander who grew up skiing the East, Coombs eventually moved west in the 70s. The rest is history. In 1991 he was crowned champion of the World Extreme Skiing Championships on Thompson Pass, just outside the town of Valdez, Alaska. He reclaimed his championship in 1993, the same year Outside Magazine labeled him the world’s best skier. A year after winning his second WESC championship, Coombs founded Valdez Heli Ski Guides, opening Alaska’s Chugach Range to skiers and popularizing heli-skiing in the state. Today, more than a dozen heli-ski operations are scattered across Alaska. When Coombs wasn’t hard charging first descents in Alaska’s Chugach Range, he could be found skiing in Jackson, Wyoming. There too, his impact was far reaching.
Coombs’ run-ins with the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol during the 1990’s were legendary. Coombs, along with a renegade group of skiers dubbed “The Jackson Hole Air Force,” spent his time ducking the resort’s boundary to ski untracked lines in the Jackson Hole backcountry. The group’s actions infuriated the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol. These were the days when the ski area boundary might as well have been a foreign border; leaving the resort boundary was considered a severe infraction and perpetrators were often pursued by patrollers. Tensions came to a head in 1997, when Coombs’ skiing privileges at the resort were revoked for ducking ropes and boundary lines.
Coombs’ eviction from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort led to a far reaching discussion about the merits of the closed boundary system. Supporters of the ski area boundary worried about the inherent risks that came with backcountry skiing, while those opposed questioned why skiers should be blocked from accessing public land. Two years after the incident, the opponents of the boundary system ultimately won out. That winter, Jackson Hole opened its boundaries to those wishing to ski the resort backcountry, ushering in a new paradigm in ski resort management. Eventually, virtually every other ski resort in America followed suit, and today it seems silly to think that there was once a time when one had to sneak into the sidecountry.
However, before Coombs was pioneering first descents in the Chugach, or reshaping the way skiers accessed the backcountry, he was a student at Montana State University. And, like most MSU students, Coombs spent his free time at Bridger Bowl. Not many people made use of Bridger Bowl’s hike-to terrain, the infamous ridge, back in the 80s. Coombs is recognized as one of the first skiers to truly utilize the terrain, popularizing it in the process. Coombs and company could be found there nearly every day, skiing every line possible in the process. So, as we mark the ten year anniversary of Coombs’ passing, it is important to take a moment and reflect on the great contributions Doug Coombs contributed to the sport of skiing. Chances are, we here in Bozeman might not be skiing sidecountry laps on Saddle Peak, or laps on the ridge at all for that matter, if it weren’t for Coombs.