Extreme skier. Backcountry pioneer. Legend.
These are some of the words that people use when describing the late Doug Coombs.
But when Rob Cocuzzo set out to tell Coombs’ story several years ago, he wanted to show the other sides.
The husband. The rebel. And the dreamer who didn’t seem to understand the word “impossible.”
Last week Cocuzzo released the book “Tracking the Wild Coomba.” The book is part biography, tracking Coombs’ life from his childhood in Massachusetts, where he learned to ski, to Montana State University in Bozeman where he met his wife Emily. It covers their life in Jackson and his death on April 3, 2006 in La Grave, France where Coombs fell while trying to help a skier who slipped off a cliff.
“It is an adventure story about a skier, but for me it’s a story about a human being that made a real impact on hundreds of people,” Cocuzzo said.
It also is the story of the author’s journey as he tracked his skiing hero from their shared home state, where they both first skied on the same hills, to Alaska where Coombs pioneered guided heli-skiing, to Jackson. That’s where Cocuzzo also lived and decided to write the book.
Coombs grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts and learned to ski in his backyard. He showed immediate talent and harnessed it into ski racing, Cocuzzo said. At 16 Coombs broke his neck on a ski jump. Doctors said he was lucky to walk and the likelihood of reinjury was high if he continued to ski. Coombs continued to ski.
Coombs came West to ski for Montana State University, eventually quitting racing to spend more time in the backcountry. Coombs moved to Jackson after college and became notorious for ducking the boundary ropes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, an act that eventually got him banned in 1997 for more than a year.
He also spent time in Alaska, opening Valdez Heli-Ski Guides in 1994 and notching hundreds of first descents in the area, Cocuzzo said.
Cocuzzo first learned about Coombs as a kid growing up watching ski movies in his parents’ basement. He couldn’t believe the type of skiing he saw on the screen. He watched Coombs scream down impossibly steep mountain faces with grace.
But it wasn’t until Cocuzzo moved to Jackson in 2010 that he started to understand Coombs was more than just an amazing skier on the screen. Cocuzzo overheard stories about Coombs in bars and restaurants.
“What I learned from tracking the life of Doug Coombs is lessons in the power of the human spirit,” he said. “This legacy continues to reverberate off all the people he touched in his life. For me, that made it a story worth telling.”
The project started as a basic biography, but as Cocuzzo — who never met Coombs — retraced his life and even some of the lines he skied, he realized his view put Coombs’ feats in perspective for the average person.
“He was such a force in the sport,” Cocuzzo said. “No matter if you know it or not, if you ski you are enjoying part of the impact he had.”
His influence can be seen in ski movies with scenes in Alaska. He opened up those extreme areas to heli-skiing. Coombs brought attention to the backcountry before it was popular. While his influence on ski technology wasn’t as large as some skiers, he did encouraged companies to develop better backcountry equipment and Alaska became the theater where that gear was tested, Cocuzzo said.
Coombs was the first to guide a skier down the Grand Teton at a time when just skiing the mountain was considered crazy.
But beyond the impressive feats, it was also important for Cocuzzo to explore Coombs as a person. He was a good husband and friend, although he wasn’t a great businessman.
“But that’s why he had Emily,” Cocuzzo said. “She’s the unsung hero. The real story was his partnership with Emily.”
Cocuzzo, now the editor of N magazine, a lifestyle publication in Nantucket, Massachusetts, spent five years on the book. He started by skiing with Coombs’ sister in Vermont and ended in La Grave, where Coombs took his final run.
Coombs’ son David was 2 at the time his father died.
Cocuzzo dedicated the book to David. He hopes it paints a full picture of Coombs and one day can be a resource for David to know his father.
Cocuzzo is celebrating the release of the book in Jackson on Sept. 24, Coombs’ birthday, at the Center for the Arts. He’ll speak, show slides and sign book. All proceeds will benefit the Doug Coombs Foundation.