Robert Cocuzzo, a writer, editor and self-proclaimed amateur skier, details what he considers the greatest adventure of his life in “Tracking the Wild Coomba,” a 254-page book available at the Yale Bookstore. Before reading this book, I would have guessed that the “NBA effect” that Cocuzzo mentions has something to do with the sport of basketball. Wrong. Far from the flat, hardwood surface of a basketball court, the “NBA effect” is actually an endearing term that extreme skiers use for slopes that are “so steep that it is like looking down at a basketball and trying to see the bottom of it.” For most people, merely reading about people skiing down these exceedingly steep and untamed mountains is enough to unsettle the stomach. For Doug Coombs, however, the slopes were the site of his favorite activity in the world. Cocuzzo, who grew up watching videos of Coombs dropping out of helicopters onto jagged Alaskan peaks in the basement of his parents’ house, writes a fascinating piece following the wild life of the famous extreme skier and guide Coombs.
Cocuzzo brings the audience into Coombs’s world by retracing the famous skier’s steps in chronological order, which entails travelling to several different countries and some of the most foreboding mountains in the world. The journey starts in Bedford, Massachusetts, a sleepy suburb of Boston where Coombs grew up and learned to ski. Even on the Northeast’s smaller hills, Coombs quickly set himself apart as an excellent skier, winning competitions and growing to love the sport. Coombs’s early endeavors brought him to Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was here that he received his first taste of downhill skiing as he would come to know it: steep slopes, high risk and deep powder. At the age of 16, however, Coombs shattered three disks in his cervical spine and was nearly paralyzed. Following a spinal fusion operation, he was told that he should never ski again. Of course, Coombs could not be kept off of the mountain, and after recovering, he strapped his ski boots on again and hopped back onto the lifts.
Cocuzzo recounts his own visit to the ravine on his quest to learn about Coombs. The nearly 2,000-foot face required a difficult ascent using proper mountaineering gear, but that was only half the battle. Upon reaching the top, a nauseating view of the steep and unforgiving path down revealed the precise and confident skiing required to navigate it. Cocuzzo skied down, looked back up at the menacing ravine and hiked back down to his car. He was rattled, and he spills that out onto the page. From his candid account of his experience at Tuckerman Ravine, it became obvious that Cocuzzo needed to drastically improve his skiing ability if he wanted a fighting chance of following Coombs’s track to the monstrous mountains of Alaska and France. Throughout the book, it is interesting to watch Cocuzzo grow as a skier during his pursuit of the story.
Doug Coombs learned of Valdez, Alaska in the early ’90s, and he found his own version of paradise in the Chugach Mountains. Cocuzzo shares a humorous remark that Coombs made in an interview about his experience as the first ever person to ski some of these mountains: “I got so burnt out from naming them. I’d just walk into the bar and say, ‘Alright, you guys name it because I can’t come up with anything.’” All said, Coombs made hundreds of first descents in those mountains, which would eventually put him in the position to start one of the first guided heli-skiing services. This, however, did not happen until after Coombs married Emily Gladstone, who turned out be instrumental in Cocuzzo’s project.
In 1993, Coombs and Gladstone started Valdez Heli-Ski Guides. This gave Coombs the opportunity to guide skiers down runs they could have never imagined possible. Many clients said that Coombs gave them “the best day of their lives.” In his own visit to the Chugach around 20 years later, Cocuzzo brings the mountains alive in his account of heli-skiing the mountains that Coombs guided. He writes, “Alaska was utterly empowering … the combination of fear and adrenaline had turned my concentration into a superpower.”
Several years passed, and the couple moved to La Grave, France, where they explored a mountain known as La Meije. Here, Cocuzzo explores themes of mortality as La Meije holds claim to many skiers’ lives. Between France and the United States, Coombs endured several years of training to earn his international guiding certification, had a son, David, and began to guide on La Meije. It was on La Meije, however, on a beautiful day in 2006, that disaster struck. Coombs, who had just waved goodbye to his wife at the top of the mountain, edged closer to a cliff to obtain a visual on Chad VanderHam, a young skier that had trained under Coombs and had just fallen off of a cliff while skiing. Coombs, craning his neck over the hundreds of feet down into the valley, suddenly slipped and fell to his death below.
His passing shattered the world of extreme skiing: it would never be the same without Doug Coombs. Cocuzzo does a great job of telling Coombs’s story, bringing it to a wider audience outside of the skiing community. If you are an avid skier or have never seen the snow, Cocuzzo’s book will let you tag along as he traces Coombs’s legacy.