April 12, 2006:
OK, the Trab Freerando 178's are "in da house" . . . courtesy of Wasatch Ski Distribution's Mark Lengel, who began importing the boutique Italian brand this year.
First impressions? Taking the skis out of the wrapper and hefting them, they have an almost palpable feeling of quality even though they are really damn light for a middish-fat board. Finish work is ultra-clean, and the topsheets have a jewel-like geometric texture reminiscent of an M.C. Escher print. Trab has an aura of exclusivity to it, as the skis are little-known outside of Europe - something on the order of a fine Lorenzini shirt or a Bimota motorcycle, they are hand made with a keen eye for detail by old world craftsmen.
With a profile of 108/78/93, the Freerando isn't really all that wide compared to "midfat" offerings by other companies, but it has other features to recommend it. It's relatively soft in the forebody, with a fair amount of upcurve at the tip (and a hole for those pesky crevasse gear removal situations) which should make for easier skinning in crusty snow and good float for its width in challenging conditions. It has a fairly large radius sidecut (25 meters) which lets you not hang from the tips and tails in narrow steep chutes. And it seems to have quite a bit of torsional stiffness for edgehold on hard stuff.
I mounted the Freerandos up with a set of Dynafit Race Ti bindings that I had modded with a normal, adjustable TLT heel baseplate (for the sake of adjustability and accuracy in setting the 4mm gap between boot and binding). Though I can't find reliable weight figures for the Freerando in a 178 (the 171 weighs 1290 grams per ski), I'm guessing they are about 300 to 310 grams lighter per ski than my R:EX's were. That's about 1.32 lbs. or more of weight savings for the pair. For what it's worth, the grey and white graphic down the center of the ski is perfectly centered, so there was no need to draw a center line to mount the bindings . . .
I took the skis up to Alpental for a test drive - conditions were hideous, with rain for the first 800 feet of vertical, then heavy snow and fog. Icy bumps at the top of the mountain, covered with about 6 inches of cut up thick potato-like fresh and avy debris all over the mountain made a comprehensive test difficult, but the relatively soft forebody and well-defined tip curvature rode up over the mank well (I'm not a fan of low-profile tips for BC use). The skis initiated fairly easily, but gripped well as you finished the turn, and had a lively and snappy feel to them relative to the Atomic and Atomic-made skis I'm used to. They felt like they wanted me to ski upright and relaxed, with feet fairly wide apart - the light weight is a little deceptive, at first I interpreted this as less stability at speed, but as I skied faster and faster on them they didn't seem any less confidence-inspiring, so it may be just a question of my getting used to them.
Could be just what I've been looking for . . . I'll post more when I've used these skis a couple of times.
April 11, 2006:
Just spoke with my friend Andy Luhn, a former US Ski Team member and K2 honcho, who knew Doug Coombs well and skied with him in Valdez for years. His brother Matt, who has been skiing La Grave since about 1980 (when it was known only as an observatory, not a ski destination) was in France last week and went back up to the Couloir Polichinelle with Skier's Lodge guide and Seattle native Miles Smart the day after the accident to try to piece together the chain of events that led to Coombs' death. Smart and other area guides were concerned about the initial reports of VanderHam and Coombs being caught in an avalanche (implying, perhaps, faulty assessment of the snowpack), even though it seems clear that Matt Farmer's account of the accident is what actually took place - Doug was in rescue mode, trying to reach Chad, when he slipped and fell. Apparently Coombs had few obvious injuries, but broke his neck in the accident.
Matt Luhn also spent time with Doug's wife Emily, who understandably was worried about her family's financial future.
"I hope I don't have to go back to being a waitress," she commented. Hopefully she and their three-year-old son David will be at least partially provided for by the fund being set up by Doug's longtime sponsors Marmot, K2, LifeLink and Jackson Hole Resort. To find out more about or donate to the memorial fund, click here: http://dougcoombsmemorialfund.com/
"It's really hard to believe," said Andy,"Doug was a cat - he was always able to get back on it after being knocked off balance - he had those long angles going for him, and it seemed like he had nine lives . . . I skied with him for five seasons in Valdez, and he always made it possible for us to ski just a little over what we thought was possible, because the VIBE when we were with Doug was just so good . . ."
This seems to be a recurring theme in the Doug Coombs legacy - taking already great skiers to places that seemed hairball even to them, and gifting them with the mental ammunition it took to make the most epic ski day of their lives possible. Priceless.
Plans call for a service in Doug's hometown of Boston, followed by a larger memorial in Jackson Hole sometime in May.
For a recent video demonstration of Doug's Quick and Painless Ski Tune by the man himself, click here
April 6, 2006:
Here's an account of Doug Coombs' accident by Jim Stanford in the Jackson Hole News & Guide:
Coombs dies in fall over Cliff
Skier slipped on rocks while trying to help friend who fell down gully in France.
In the end, the man regarded by many as the greatest skier in the world simply lost an edge.
Doug Coombs, the Jackson Hole mountaineer and guide who took the sports of skiing and climbing to new heights, died Monday in the French Alps after slipping and falling over a cliff while trying to aid a friend who had plunged over the same precipice. He was 48 years old.
Chad VanderHam, 31, of Colorado later died of his injuries in the incident, which occurred near the resort of La Grave, about 50 miles east of Grenoble in southeast France. Coombs guided skiers at La Grave and also operated steep skiing camps there with his wife, Emily. He was skiing with friends at the time of the accident.
French authorities confirmed the deaths Tuesday and gave a basic account of the incident. Miles Smart, a friend of Coombs’ and colleague at Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, provided further details in a telephone interview Tuesday from La Grave, where he had been guiding with Coombs this winter and had spoken with a member of the ski party.
Coombs was one of four skiers, all Americans, descending the Couloir de Polichinelle, a steep chute that winds through cliffs and ends in a 200-foot drop, Smart said. To avoid the last cliff, skiers must traverse to the left at the bottom and exit via another chute, said Smart, who skied the Couloir de Polichinelle on Tuesday and inspected the scene of the accident.
VanderHam went first and disappeared from sight. Coombs skied next, saw that VanderHam had fallen over the cliff and yelled to the other two skiers above – Matt Farmer and Christina Bloomquist – to bring a rope.
"Doug skied down to the edge of the cliff and was sidestepping down on some rocks, to try to get a view of Chad, and Matt Farmer saw him slip a little bit," Smart said.
"He was down on rock slab and wasn’t able to reset an edge because it was all rock slab below him," Smart said.
Some snow covered the rock where Coombs likely slipped. "He lost his edge when he was peering over the lip, trying to get a view of Chad," Smart said.
In all, the two skiers fell about 1,500 feet over rocks and steep slopes. Coombs was not breathing and had no pulse when rescuers arrived, Smart said. VanderHam, who likely had lost control when he hit a patch of ice near the bottom of the couloir, was unconscious and breathing but could not be revived, Smart said.
VanderHam and Farmer were aspiring mountain guides, while Bloomquist is an old friend who has been skiing at La Grave for years, Smart said.
Memorial fund set up
Emily Coombs was at the couple’s home in La Grave on Tuesday with their 3-year-old son, David, and was “doing alright” under the circumstances, Smart said. An account has been set up for the family at Jackson State Bank and Trust and the Web site www.dougcoombsmemo rialfund.com.
News of Coombs’ death sent waves of shock and grief through Jackson Hole and the ski world, where Coombs was revered as a hero. His death came a day after the final public run of the aerial tram in winter, and skiers lamented the loss of two icons of Jackson Hole nearly at once.
"A Legend Falls," read the Web site of Powder magazine, where stories and photos of Coombs often graced the pages.
Mark Newcomb, a senior Exum guide, summed up the sentiment of the community: "It’s going to take a long time to finally sink in," he said.
Newcomb and Coombs were friends who climbed and skied together in the Tetons. "We shared that passion of being in the mountains and challenging ourselves, certainly," Newcomb said. "But I don’t think anyone can match Doug’s passion. He was out there so often and always having so much fun and sharing that with everybody."
"That kind of enthusiasm and passion is probably something we will see only very rarely, if we ever see it again, in a person," Newcomb said.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort owner Connie Kemmerer released a statement praising Coombs for inspiring guests and staff with his teachings and adventures.
"For me, Doug was Jackson Hole,” Kemmerer said. "... He will be missed every day.”
Porter Fox, a Powder editor and former sports editor of the Jackson Hole News, recalled writing his first ski stories about Coombs in the mid-1990s. "He was nothing but gracious and inspiring, always," Fox said.
Fox said Coombs had a purity of spirit, form and vision. "There was not one part of him that wasn’t completely devoted to skiing, and you felt it and were inspired from it when you were around him," Fox said. "He was truly the best skier ever."
Coombs was born in Boston and grew up skiing in Vermont and New Hampshire. He later moved to Bozeman, Mont., to ski at the Big Sky and Bridger Bowl resorts and attend college at Montana State University, where he was a ski racer. After earning a degree in geology, he moved to Jackson Hole in 1986 and began guiding for High Mountain Heli-Skiing.
Coombs was a two-time winner of the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Alaska and served as ski ambassador for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the early 1990s. He and his wife founded a heli-skiing business in Valdez, Alaska, where they would go each spring and pioneered hundreds of ski routes.
His feats in the Tetons included the first ski descent of the Otter Body Snowfield on the Grand Teton with Newcomb in June 1996; the first ski descent of the CMC Route on Mount Moran with Hans Johnstone in 2002; and taking clients on the first guided ski descent of the Grand Teton in 2004.
In his 1994 book Driving to Greenland, a collection of winter adventures, author Peter Stark called Coombs "The Dean of Flow." He marveled at Coombs casually slipping between obstacles.
"To see him ski is to see fluidity, as if he were a droplet of water trickling down a rough plaster wall," Stark wrote.
La Grave, the tiny French village with a no-frills ski area, had become a second home to the Coombs family over the last 10 years. The Alpine resort, home of the La Meije massif, boasts 7,000-vertical-foot runs and unlimited off-piste terrain that captivated Coombs’ imagination. The resort has only one lift, a two-tiered gondola called le telepherique, and has no grooming, no boundaries, no trail maps or ski patrol.
Endless ski runs
"When I first arrived at La Grave and stared at the majestic glaciated peak of La Meije (13,065 feet), I imagined endless ski runs that would last a lifetime,” Coombs stated on his Web site.
After a fallout with the Jackson Hole resort in 1997, Doug and Emily Coombs brought their steep skiing camps to La Grave and Verbier, Switzerland. The couple retained a home in Jackson Hole and spent a good portion of the summer, fall and early winter here.
Doug Coombs often spoke at ski-related events and shared slide shows of his adventures. He was a regular presenter at Skinny Skis’ annual Avalanche Awareness Night, which promotes backcountry safety. On New Year’s Day this year, he brought his toddler son to Snow King to ski from the top of the Summit Chairlift.
Exum’s Newcomb said while it’s natural for people to conclude that death is an inevitable fate for someone who plays in extreme terrain, in this case special circumstances were at work that may have affected Coombs’ instincts.
Newcomb compared Coombs’ climbing and skiing of hair-raising couloirs to a city person savvy about walking the streets, knowing which neighborhoods to avoid and how to behave so as not to draw attention.
Coombs always was conscious of the consequences of a fall in such terrain, and that mind-set "forces a precision and a control," Newcomb said.
"In this situation, I have to think that the added level of adrenaline in watching his friend go down and wanting to do something ... might have made that sixth sense slightly off-kilter," Newcomb said.
"I’m absolutely sure that if his friend had not fallen, he would have skied right past that ice, and it would have been just another run on a great day."
Another report here from snewsnet.com . . .
And this on Chad VanderHam from his hometown newspaper . . .
April 4, 2006:
Steep-skiing and guiding pioneer Doug Coombs died yesterday in an accident which also claimed the life of friend Chad VanderHam near La Grave, France. According to preliminary reports on http://www.pistehors.com, the two either slipped or were hit from behind by a slide, and fell over some 200 meters of cliffs while skiing the Couloir de Polichinelle. The most recent information reported http://www.telemarktips.com suggests that VanderHam may have fallen first, with Coombs slipping and falling while assessing the situation and possibly trying to reach his friend by rappelling down the face.
Probably no American has fired the imagination of our generation of backcountry and freeride skiers in the manner of Doug Coombs - while I never had the privilege of skiing with him, Doug's legacy proliferated even before the accident.
Our ski group at Crystal Mountain last Saturday, which contained several K2 sponsored athletes and employees who knew Coombs well, underscored his influence - on several occasions, as we pulled up to survey a steepish chute, we would be treated to Coombs anecdotes . . .
" . . . the first time I went to Alaska, and stood at the top of ------, Coombs turns to me and says . . . "
Ironically, Tim P. mentioned an empty spot on his Valdez Heli Ski trip next week, where Doug continued to guide even though he and his wife had sold the business - but I was about $3,700 short on funds. It might have been the chance of a lifetime to ski with the legend, but now, sadly, it'll never happen.
"Incoming" covers developments that have personal interest to me (ie. gear I covet, or events I feel may impact the sport of skiing) - it is by no means meant to be a comprehensive enumeration of gear or events in the ski world at large. Feel free to contact me via the randosaigai.com link below with news or images that may be of interest . . .
© 2006 Gregory C. Louie