Two Americans killed in La Grave Ski Accident

Extreme skier and guide Doug Coombs has been killed skiing with one of his friends at la Grave today. It appears they lost their footing as they traversed out of the couloir complex. A spokesman for the rescue services told PisteHors that the group were in the steep couloir de Polichinelle in the Fréaux sector. The accident happened at 2000 meters altitude in the afternoon. Coombs, aged 48 and his companion aged 32 were taken 200 meters over cliffs. The CRS des Alpes arrived on the scene by helicopter from Briançon with a doctor at 17h30 but the two men had already succumbed to the injuries sustained in the fall.

la grave mountains

Coombs was extremely well known at la Grave which he had made his second home. Star of numerous extreme skiing movies, twice the World Extreme Ski champion he had founded and subsequently sold Valdez Heli Ski Guides and operated Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide.  He is survived by his wife, Emily and young son David. Prophetically Doug had once said that he imagined the slopes under the majestic peak of la Meije “would last a lifetime”.

La Grave is a vast off-piste area with two main itineary routes and countless other routes. It is a worldwide mecca for off-piste skiers, in particular from Sweden and North America. Avalanche accidents and falls are relatively uncommon but have killed some well known and popular figures. In April 2003 German guide Philip Jaerschky was killed by an avalanche in the couloir de Chirouze In April 2004 Romain Berger was killed by a slide above the Trifides couloirs while praticing for the Derby de la Meije. A Spanish guide was killed by an avalanche on the nearby Tête de Sainte Marguerite on Saturday.

With much cooler temperatures the avalanche risk at the time of the accident was 2 (Moderate) on a scale of 5 and the bulletin noted the possibility of some very localized slabs in the area as well as some limited natural activity where there had not already been purges the day before. With the zero isotherm around 2200 meters after a good overnight refreeze it should have been perfect Spring skiing conditions.

Doug Coombs started skiing at three years old. After four years on Montana State University Ski Team he began heli-ski guiding in 1986. In 1991 he won the World Extreme Skiing Championships at Valdez in Alaska. The following year he returned to Valdex to pioneer some first descents in the Chugach Range. He founded Valdez Heli-Ski Guides with his wife Emily, in a few years it grew to a team of 12 guides and 3 helicopters. Today there are 5 guided operations in the area. Coombs returned to Valdez in 1992 to log another win at the Extreme Skiing World Championships.

After selling the operation Doug and Emily founded Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide in 1993 in Jackson. The operation went international at la Grave and Verbier in 1997 and the European Alps became the Coombs family’s second home.

Two of Doug’s heros were Frenchmen and logically skiers. Patrick Vallençant of the beaknik generation who in his signature lumberjack shirts pioneered much of the extreme skiing in the Alps and Pierre Tardivel, the quiet man of the Savoie who Coombs admired for his subtle skiing and because “he is still alive.”

An internationally certified UIAGM guide, people spoke fondly of Doug today remembering that he always had time to talk especially about the mountains and routes that he loved. They also commented on his sense of fun. He once said that “if skiing didn’t have avalanches, it’d be the greatest sport in the world but then it wouldn’t be what it is.”

A member of the TGR Research Forum (see link below) gave us this description of the couloir complex:

It is a series of three steep couloirs. The two first are angled at about 50 degrees and both end in cliffs. So to ski this run you have to exit the first couloir to your left then enter the second couloir. The first is hairy and extremely narrow so only one can ski it at a time and at the end you have ice building and some times hanging over the rock wall that is some 200 meters. The exit has to be done in time so that you are above the ice that builds under the snow. The second one is more or less exposed and a bit wider but still if you fall you will most likely die. And then finally you get to the exit couloir that is nice and opens up to some open slopes with moderate angels.’’

Doug Coombs Memorial Fund

This fund has been established to assist Doug’s wife Emily and son David Douglas.
Doug Coombs Memorial Fund

There are a couple of links to videos of DC from this site.

Please note that have no connection with the Doug Coombs Fund.


AMGA Member Accident Report

La Grave, France 16:45 April 3, 2006

Christina Blomquist, Doug Coombs, Chad Vanderham, and I (Matt Farmer), descended from the top of the Telepherique de la Meije to ski the “Le Polichinelle” Couloir.

This route maintains an average steepness of 40-45 degrees through a series of three successive couloirs linked by leftward traverses at the base of each chute. The couloirs get progressively longer, from approximately 40 to 100 meters, before a final leftward traverse leads to mellower lower angled gullies which feed back into the apron below the couloir. The base of the third chute is approximately 3-4 meters wide and exposed to the top of the final cliff which is about 50 meters high. Below this cliff is a small couloir to the right and a 15-20 meter cliff to the left which both end up at the top of the snow apron below the main couloir system. 30-40 cm of untracked light snow was well bonded to a base of firm neve. General stability of the snow pack was good and the hazard rating for the day was a 2 on the French scale. Weather conditions were beautiful, the sky clear and blue without clouds or wind.

Chad descended the first couloir and waited to the left of the base as Doug skied, followed by me and then Christina one at a time. Doug traversed left and skied the second chute followed by Chad, then myself and Christina. Chad led the third couloir which curves right out of view of the starting point. Doug skied next and was subsequently followed by Christina.

Just as Christina entered the middle of the top of the third couloir Doug yelled up that “Chad fell, come down with a rope.”

I traversed into the middle of the couloir to the point at which I could see down to Doug who was side stepping down a rock rib below and right of the constriction at the base of the couloir. Christina and I saw Doug yelling Chad’s name while side stepping down and attempting to see over the cliff to his right. We saw his skis slip on the rock and he fell out of view over the rib.

I skied down to the constriction and carefully continued down softer snow left of the rock rib that Doug had been standing on. I continued along side the rock rib, sidestepping down and right on snow to within 2 meters of where Chad’s ski was sticking vertically in the snow at the top of the cliff. From this vantage point I could see Chad’s body approximately 150 meters below on the apron of snow below the cliff at the base of the couloir. Doug’s body was also visible, motionless, but sliding slowly down the apron coming to rest about 30 meters beside Chad.

At this point, 17:29, I called the Haute Alps rescue services for a helicopter and then (17:33) called a local guide friend to confirm the helicopter dispatch and set other resources in motion. I directed Christina down, through the crux constriction, and left towards the exit into the mellower gullies that feed back into the apron below the central cliff at the base of the third couloir. I side stepped and boot packed 15 meters back up to the left exit and proceeded down.

I arrived at Doug first, at about 17:40, as he was slightly higher on the slope than Chad. I repositioned Doug, who was lying on his right side, bent at the waist and facing up hill with his skis off. There were no immediately obvious major injuries or deformities. He was pulse less, with out respirations. His eyes were open, pupils fixed and dilated. His lips were yellowish gray and his right ear purple. I preformed rescue breaths and CPR for approximately two minutes by which time Christina had arrived at Chad and declared that he was breathing. I left Doug, who had no indications of response and moved downhill 20 meters to Chad.

Chad was lying face down in the snow with his feet facing up hill. We carefully reoriented him and opened his airway. His breaths were regular and deep, his pulse strong and about 90 bpm. He had much coagulated blood in his nose, his eyes and lips were slightly swollen and discolored. Chad’s pupils were equal and responsive to light but he was unresponsive to shouting or pain. Christina returned to Doug while I maintained Chad’s airway, giving occasional rescue breaths, until the helicopter arrived at 18:03. Three members of the PGHM were lowered to the scene with their equipment and began administering an IV to Chad. We installed an oral airway in Chad’s mouth and placed him in a rescue sled. By this time Chad’s facial edema was pronounced but his breathing and pulse were still strong and he had begun to move his arm and squeeze my hand in response to my own squeezes.

As the doctor began administering medicine to Chad, I returned to Doug to resume CPR. The helicopter returned in 10 or 15 minutes to transport Chad to a hospital in Briancon, 30 kilometers east. At this time one of the two remaining PGHM informed us that the doctor had already declared Doug dead. We replied that we knew and continued CPR for another 20 or 30 minutes. The helicopter returned and transported Christina and me back to La Grave. We were met by Jean Charles of La Meije and brought to where many of our friends had gathered. While debriefing the current situation with them the local police arrived to take a statement and during this process we were informed that Chad was dead as well. 

Posted by on Monday, 03 April, 2006 at 09:35 PM

I was fortunate to have met DC 5 yrs ago in La Grave.  He held his steep camp thru Skiers Lodge, aka La Chaumine and also used the lodge to tune his skis and hang out with his buddy local ski guide and lodge proprietor Pelle Lang. I took advantage of a lull in the late evening bar action to pick his brain and prod him to divulge his routes, favorite lines, ski lengths etc.  He joked about getting paid 25k for the single run down a frozen waterfall as a stunt double in “Aspen Extreme” He also lead me into the dining room where there was an aerial photo of LG and showed me some routes circumnavigating La Meije and a real sick line left of Freaux called Orsiere he’d skied that day.

Two weeks ago I had an epiphany on my first 50 degree “no fall” zone run of the season after having recently become a father.  For the first time it had occurred to me that putting my own safety at extraordinary risk is extremely selfish - even stupid. If I were to fall my twins are without a father.

Fast forward two weeks later - DC is dead, Emily is a widow and that beautiful young child will never know his father - and that is the real tragedy.

Posted by  on  Friday, 07 April, 2006  at 07:46 AM

As Doug Coombs had mentioned Pierre Tardivel as one of his heros I thought I would post a link over to a new route he has realised in the Aravis mountains

Face Nord du Paré de Joux

This is rated 5.6 with maximum “you fall, you die” exposure. that is the same as the Autrichiens couloiron the Courtes or the North-East face of the Eiger. In short a climbing route on skis.

As Chad and Doug’s accident has shown the risk is extremely high in these kinds of routes and zg’s thoughts are worth reflecting on.

Posted by davidof on  Monday, 10 April, 2006  at 10:08 AM

Article from the New York Times looking back at the accident

Skiing Beyond Safety’s Edge Once Too Often

Posted by davidof on  Wednesday, 17 May, 2006  at 08:41 PM

I did a steep ski camp with Doug & Emily at Jackson Hole some years ago. Very nice people.

Posted by  on  Monday, 28 August, 2006  at 07:24 PM
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