Photo via Doug Coombs Foundation
Excerpted from Tracking the Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs by Robert Cocuzzo. Mountaineers Books, 2016.
FIRST TRACKS (Bedford, Massachusetts, 1970s)
Carved into the east face of Mount Washington, Tuckerman Ravine was as close to the Alps as a kid from Bedford could get on a tank of gas. Many ski historians point to Tuckerman as the birthplace of extreme skiing in the United States. While the steep glacial cirque saw its first ski track in 1913, it wasn’t until the 1920s and ’30s that Tuckerman Ravine became a wild proving ground for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of skiers during the spring season. Collegiate slalom races, Olympic tryouts, and grueling endurance races known as the American Inferno were held in the ravine’s natural amphitheater. In April of 1939, Austrian-born skier Toni Matt dusted the American Inferno’s eight-mile course in six minutes and twenty-nine seconds, hitting speeds of up to eighty-five miles per hour. Matt’s straight-line descent became the stuff of legend, and Tuckerman emerged as the earliest theater for extreme skiing in North America.
After 2.4 miles of switchbacks, the trail from Pinkham Notch gave way to the sight of a magnificent bowl, so steep and snow filled that it looked designed for no other purpose than skiing. Due to Mount Washington’s violent winter weather, most skiers waited for the spring to hike up to test themselves on Tuckerman’s steeps. When the sky was clear and the sun was out, hundreds of people sprawled out on the Lunch Rocks at the bottom, sunbathing, drinking, and watching the skiers above.
This lightheartedness vanished once a skier reached the top of the ravine and looked down its headwall. Spectacular falls were common. Botch one turn, and gravity took care of the rest. Then there was the avalanche risk. Pitched at upwards of sixty degrees in some spots, the slope could have a winter’s worth of snow precariously clinging to it, like dynamite just waiting for a trigger. Massive slides carried skiers eight hundred feet to the bottom. Of course, this element of danger was part of the appeal, and not surprisingly, Coombs took to the ravine instantly.
“There’s nobody out there with signs. There’s no ropes. There’s no patrolmen. There’s nobody taking care of you on the slopes like all the ski areas,” Coombs said of Tuckerman Ravine years later. “You’re on your own. You have to make decisions on your own. And when you’re sixteen years old, you make a lot of bad ones.”
Photo of Tuckerman Ravine by Robert Cocuzzo
One of those bad decisions came when he and his buddy Frank Silva decided to ski Tuckerman one February. Although people do ski the ravine in the winter, it’s attempted only in ideal weather conditions. Mount Washington is one of the deadliest mountains in the world due in large part to its ferocious, unpredictable weather. Winds can gust over two hundred miles per hour, while the temperature can drop to thirty below. As far as Tuckerman itself is concerned, avalanches are an especially violent killer
“We were clueless on avalanches, we didn’t know anything about the stuff,” said Silva decades later. “We knew there were such things as avalanches, but we were never worried about it at all.” It was snowing heavily as the two boys set out hiking up the ravine. When they were halfway up, Coombs and Silva dug a hole in the face and climbed inside to eat lunch. As they chewed on their sandwiches, snow began cascading over the opening of their snow cave, lightly at first, and then harder and harder. The two boys shot each other a look. Suddenly a massive avalanche ripped by the opening of their hole like a freight train.
When the snow settled, Coombs and Silva popped their heads out of the hole. Blocks of snow and debris were strewn all over the slope. Down at the base, people were frantically searching for them. They thought the two boys had been buried. “We pop out of this little hole and start hiking again,” remembered Coombs, “and all of a sudden they start screaming at us, ‘Get off the mountain! Get off the mountain!’”
Tuckerman Ravine became the backdrop for the inspired skiing of Coombs’s adolescence. The chutes and steeps honed all his abilities as a racer, while his imagination allowed him to pioneer new routes that no one had ever considered. He and his buddies camped at the base of the ravine for days on end, spending hours hiking up and skiing down. One sunny afternoon in 1973, Coombs set off up the ravine by himself. “We’re down at the Lunch Rocks having a snack, and we heard this ripple go through the crowd,” said one of his buddies, Bill Stepchew. “People were yelling, ‘Look! Look!’” Every set of eyes shot to the cliff band at the summit to find a lone silhouette perched over a steep and narrow chute that cracked down the center of the rocks like a lightning bolt. “Oh my God . . . it’s Coombs!” Stepchew yelled out.
Silence passed over the crowd of hundreds. Coombs plunged into the chute. The snow came up to his neck and immediately avalanched. From below, the crowd could make out only his arms punching out from the rushing river of white, his head bobbing side to side like a prizefighter’s. He executed a number of precise turns in the chute before bombing out the bottom in an explosion of sluff. The crowd erupted. Their cheers reverberated off the snow walls and filled the ravine with an electric buzz that gave his buddies goose bumps. Pride burst through their chests. “Everybody is looking over at us and clapping,” remembered Stepchew. “We couldn’t have been more proud of him and ourselves for just being with him.”
Entering the spring of his junior year of high school, Coombs was poised for a promising skiing career. His prowess on the racecourse would likely earn him the attention of college scouts, and then perhaps he’d point his skis on the professional race circuit. Coombs’s future looked bright and boundless, but then the unthinkable happened.