Photo of Cocuzzo by Joshua Simpson
On the 10th anniversary of the death of iconic Mass skier Doug Coombs, a Q&A with his biographer
Any extreme skier will tell you their season never ends. The men and women of New England’s mountains relish longer Vermont and New Hampshire winters, and certainly don’t mind April snow showers like most of us, but when you are addicted to the airlessness and liberation that is found at several thousand feet in the clouds, you’re always jonesing for your next brush with gravity.
You can count Massachusetts native and Nantucket Magazine Editor Robert Cocuzzo among such enthusiasts. In fact he spent the last several years chronicling the life of his skiing idol, Doug Coombs, who was killed in the French Alps a decade ago this month. Cocuzzo’s upcoming account of Coombs’ international pursuits, Tracking the Wild Coomba, is a book for all seasons, an impassioned tale that spans from Boston’s suburbs out to Jackson Hole and eventually to France. We asked the author all about his own adventures studying one of the Commonwealth’s most celebrated modern athletes.
You had a similar background to Coombs, both in where you’re from and where you grew up skiing. What were some of the stories you had heard about him?
Growing up in Bedford, Mass, Coombs was a wild child. He’d skip school and hitchhike up to the White Mountains to run amok with his buddies, sometimes streaking down the trails barefoot and naked under the moonlight. He had boundless energy, and his infectious charisma drew a devoted tribe of friends with him wherever he went. Most of all, Coombs loved to ski. He made his first turns down the pebbled pavement of his driveway before eventually graduating to Nashoba Valley—where I learned to ski. The fact that Coombs went from that tiny molehill in Western Mass to charting descents down the biggest, steepest, most terrifying mountains in the world was what ultimately set me on my quest.
What’s the most ridiculous or scary thing you’ve ever done in chasing ski dreams?
Living and skiing in La Grave, the tiny French Village where Coombs was killed in 2006, was without question the scariest period of my life. I’m talking raw-cold-sweat-kind-of-fear. La Grave has no ski patrol, no avalanche control, no signs marking runs, no ropes marking cliffs. The mountain is strewn with glaciers, crevasses, and gargantuan icefall that can rip away at any second and destroy everything and anyone in its path. It’s basically a lift to the most extreme skiing in the world. And in true French fashion, it’s entirely up to you to get down alive.
What are the dreams and aspirations of your average extreme skier?
I don’t think there is such a thing as an average extreme skier. Anyone pushing themselves into these wild, remote mountains belongs to an elite class of athletes, each of whom has his or her own deeply personal reasons for being out there and taking those risks. These skiers find themselves in extreme terrain because their progression in the sport led them there. They didn’t just wake up one day and decide to ski runs where if they fall they die. These athletes have a burning desire to explore and chart first descents, skiing slopes that have never seen a track before. Coombs amassed hundreds around the world.
Some of the detail in here is remarkable—including what places and patterns people had on certain runs 20 years ago. How did you piece a lot of that together?
I spent three solid years doing research before I ever set pen to paper. I interviewed Coombs’ friends, family, fellow guides, and former clients—a network that went on and on and on. I read everything I could get my hands on about Coombs and the world in which he existed. But ultimately, it was in going to these places myself, skiing some of the runs he skied and living in the mountain towns that he made his home, that I began to really appreciate and understand the tracks Coombs left behind. My job then was to recreate those tracks for the reader.
The whole story of the beef between the ski patrol at Jackson Hole and the Air Force in the area is crazy. Did you have any whiff of that beforehand? What was that story like to dig up?
A fantastic documentary by [Teton Gravity Research] came out while I was living in Jackson Hole called Swift. Silent. Deep., which tells that story supremely well. After watching that, I would see these guys from the Jackson Hole Air Force in the lift line and just quiver with intimidation. They were Hells Angels with goggle tans—absolute badasses. It took some time infiltrating their ranks, but once I did their stories of evading the ski patrol, outrunning avalanches, and exploring the dark and forbidden corners of the Jackson Hole backcountry had me entirely gripped.
Besides you, who could play Coombs in a movie about his life?
Ha! Well I could never fill Coombs’s boots to play him on the big screen. So I’d have to say Daniel Day Lewis just because the actor would have to entirely transform himself to accurately portray Coombs. He’d have to go full-on-Abe-Lincoln method. Coombs was such a unique personality—fun, gregarious, and insatiably adventurous. He was truly a once in a generation kind of guy.
After experiencing everything you went through in France in writing this book, but being able to come back to earth here in Greater Boston, what do you suppose separates someone like Coombs from you or even just your average insane extreme skier?
Beyond his incredible athleticism and utter aplomb in the face of peril, Coombs possessed unwavering optimism. He just didn’t allow negativity to enter his mind, and with that came the confidence to ski impossible slopes. You can be the most physically gifted skier in the world, but if you don’t have the brain capacity to manage fear and weigh risk, it’s all for naught in the mountains.
At this time of year, when the sun comes out in Boston, where can an extreme skiing junkie fly for the quickest fix?
They don’t even need to fly! A three-hour drive up to New Hampshire (followed by a two-hour hike) will deliver them to some of the rowdiest skiing on the planet. Tuckerman Ravine is arguably the birthplace of extreme skiing in the U.S., and it’s right in our backyard. Just beware: a fall in Tucks can be gruesome and potentially deadly.