Editor’s Note, Alpinist Issue 16
Mark Newcomb threw open the door to my office. His eyes were puffy. I could tell this wasn’t going to be good.
“Doug Coombs,” he managed. “Avalanche.” And then he began to cry.
One Thanksgiving Day half a dozen years ago, I went with Doug and another friend, Bill Dyer, into the Tetons to get some early-season turns. Autumn had stretched into Indian summer; dried grasses waved against the asphalt of the parking lot, and though snow had come to the high peaks, it had yet to accumulate on the valley floor. We strapped skis to our packs and carried them up Garnet Canyon to the Platforms, jumping between roots and snow patches as we climbed. Deeper drifts greeted us in the boulder field and dusted the Meadows, but only a zealot would have seen an opportunity for a day of skiing in the terrain above.
Doug’s toothy grin interrupted his face as though a twelve-year-old were straining to exit his forty-something body. Giggling. Always giggling. “This is perfect!” he giggled when the east face of the Middle Teton came into view. No one else was in the canyon. The Tetons were ours again, wild, ageless, noble, silent except for wind and water.
We ascended the trail we knew so well from past seasons, out of the Meadows and up toward the stark, broken bands of the Moraine above. Even in early winter, the Middle Teton Glacier hordes its snow, sheltering it on shadowed, north-facing slopes. Sweat soaked my shirt as we cramponed up in zigzags, our banter absorbed by the cold beauty of exertion.
Spouses and loved ones waited below for Thanksgiving dinner, so we stopped on a shoulder on the Middle’s east ridge, stomped out platforms and carefully put on our skis. It was the first time I’d ever skied with Doug. “This is going to be great!” he said, shrugging off his pack with an energy that belied his age. The twelve-year old was winning.
Tall, lanky, with round, unfashionable glasses and a face weathered by countless mountain days, Doug was famous for pioneering steep lines from Jackson to Valdez. In recent years his enthusiasm had spilled over to climbing as well. I was both intimidated and excited to be clicking in beside him.
The Middle Teton Glacier Higher steepens as it funnels toward the summit in a couloir, but below our perch it dropped in moderate, rolling waves, thirty-five, maybe forty degrees at the steepest, crevasses and ice sheets glinting from beneath the recent snow. To the north, the Grand towered above us, enclosing the space overhead like a parent watching over a child.
Doug leaned out of his stance and into his first turn, letting gravity take him. Bill followed, gracefully, effortless, decades of turns revealing themselves with each natural swooping movement. I watched them fall away down the glacier, two tiny humans amidst a vast and silent architecture, my anticipation mixing with a sense of awe as I traced their lines with my eyes and projected my own rhythm onto their descents, the jagged moraine expanding below them as they skied, the muscle memory of past seasons stirring around my bones as I watched.
Ordinary skiing with its quick hits of speed is a pleasurable experience, a low-risk, high-reward way to spend a day; ski mountaineering takes the exhilaration and the joy, laces it with sweat and a dash of trepidation, and transforms it into an adventure. It’s also, in essence, soloing: there’s no one to catch you if you fall. When I think rationally about it, I realize I don’t like being so exposed. But Bill was accelerating, Doug was already most of the way down, and an emptiness arose in the fluid expansion between my breaths as I watched them ski. I leaned forward, slid off my perch and fell into gravity’s embrace.
Ten turns, then twenty, my muscles remembering more with each quickening turn. As extraordinary as the position of the Glacier is, though, it’s not even a thousand feet long, and all too soon the angle lessened. I opened up my arcs, pushing harder into each one until the glacier began to blur in my peripheral vision. Doug came into focus at the bottom, slowing to a halt beside Bill at the terminus. I dropped toward them, skis chattering over dusted ice, whooping in delight as adrenaline caught up with me and I came to a halt at their sides. Bill’s face was turned in at the corners, his smile radiating into a crinkle of crow’s feet. Doug was grinning his twelve-year-old grin. I’m sure I looked no different.
From the toe of the glacier, the canyon undulates down, tracing the evolution of the mountains backward toward the plains from which they rise. But although I’ve been in the canyon a hundred times, in every season, I next remember standing beside Doug, peering into a shaft that I had never seen before and have yet to find again. It necked into a slot that opened some twenty vertiginous feet lower into a powder cone.
“Well, now what?” I asked. We obviously couldn’t ski it.
“Let me just have a look,” Doug replied, but even before he was finished with the sentence he was turning, his movements tightening as the slot narrowed until he simply dropped in and straightlined it. I’ve been skiing since I was five, but I’d never seen anything like that. He seemed to be suspended between the two rock walls, motionless apart from an increasing diminishment in size. And then, poof, there was an explosion of white that momentarily absorbed him, and a burst of color as he popped back into view and came to a halt.
There was no way I could do that. No way.
“That was wild!” Doug yelled up, his voice rising two octaves on the last word. “You’re gonna love it!”
I wasn’t certain I would.
“I don’t know, Doug…,” I called down.
“Oh, yeah, you’ve totally got it! You’re gonna stick it! You’re gonna be perfect!”
He already saw me sticking it. He already saw me tightening up my turns in ever-shallower arcs until I straightened them out and soared down the slot as easily as he had. He saw me projected two minutes into the future, and I was perfect. The enthusiasm in his voice presented the scenario in such compelling detail that suddenly I, too, believed it had already happened. And because it had already happened, my doubt disappeared, and I began to ski.
I can remember what followed the way I remember all the best adventures, when hesitation and self-consciousness fall away and the only thing left is the purity of the movement itself. I dropped in, narrowing my turns as I entered the slot. The walls went racing by on either side. Doug stood at the exit, waiting for me to catch up to the reality he already understood. Giggling.
“Yeah!” he exclaimed, as I skied up beside him, breathless.
Doug was the consummate partner, able to motivate friends and clients alike to accomplish things they’d never dared expect of themselves. Even his end occurred in the assistance of another: he died not in an avalanche as Mark had first heard, but by losing an edge, as he skied up to the edge of a cliff to help a friend, Chad VanderHam, who had just skied over it. Neither lived.
I’m hardly the only one who’s remembering Doug and the adventures he inspired these days with a mix of grief and awe. Eternally stoked, incomprehensibly optimistic, exuberant, inimitable, unforgettable, Doug imbued all who went with him with a sense of irrational possibility, wherever they went. His enthusiasm was boundless, and it grew with the size of the surrounding landscape. That landscape feels a little smaller today than it did on April 2, 2006.
On behalf of all of us who never had a chance to say good-bye: thank you, Doug, for the good times. You will be missed.