In a new book, writer Robert Cocuzzo follows the trail of the world’s greatest skier.
The supernatural: Skier Doug Coombs’s talent was such that it was as if he had “developed a symbiotic relationship with the mountains,” says biographer Robert Cocuzzo, “that he was working in partnership with them.” A childhood friend remembers Coombs as seeming “like a natural mountain creature, like a bull elk, born to roam the mountain edges.”
Of all the praise lavished on late adventure-skier Doug Coombs in Robert Cocuzzo’s new book, one quote, from Jackson Hole ski authority Howie Henderson, stands out: “The fluidity, the grace, the style, the effortless route-finding, the incredible angles, the easy athleticism... Doug Coombs is simply so damn good that seeing him ski changes your whole life.” It’s an impression whose tone—of admiration, of awe, of privilege to have known the man and watched him ski—echoes in increasing pitch throughout Tracking the Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs (Mountaineers Books), a biography-cum-adventure tale-cum-ode published earlier this year to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Coombs’s death, at the age of 48.
Cocuzzo on the trail; proceeds from the book’s sales will benefit the Doug Coombs Foundation, a nonprofit run by Emily that helps immigrant children in Jackson Hole learn to ski.
As Cocuzzo, himself an avid skier, describes speaking to Coombs’s friends, family members, and acquaintances, the book unfolds as both a chronicle of Coombs’s on-mountain pursuits and an attempt to understand what drove the life of the globetrotting, slope-conquering man often called the greatest skier of all time. Cocuzzo, the 30-year-old editor of Nantucket’s Nmagazine (and a contributing writer to Boston Common), first came to Coombs in the ski movies he would watch with his friends in his parents’ basement growing up. Amazed at Coombs’s ability and ease on treacherous terrain—often, terrain that had never been skied before—Cocuzzo says he was also impressed with Coombs’s unassuming nature in interviews and videos.
“I was drawn to the fact that he was a humble hero,” he says, that a man of such astronomical talent carried not a hint of ego. To find out what he did carry, the writer decided he needed to step into Coombs’s boots. The book recounts Cocuzzo’s journey to ski where Coombs had skied—Jackson Hole, Alaska’s backcountry, the French Alps—to the slopes, ridges, and gullies where Coombs claimed his first descents and made his name. At first, what he found were similarities to his own path: Cocuzzo grew up in Arlington, less than 10 miles from Coombs’s native Bedford; both learned to ski at Nashoba Valley, a 240-foot hill in Westford; both moved to, and ultimately away from, Jackson Hole.
Coombs (left) skis with his wife, Emily, and friend Mike Hattrup in Alaska.
From there, says Cocuzzo, “His life became this roadmap for me to follow.” He followed Coombs’s trail all the way to its end, in La Grave, France, where, after more than three decades of frontier skiing, Coombs succumbed to the mountains in the shadow of La Meije, a peak 13,000 feet taller than Nashoba Valley. Following the path of the world’s finest skier, says Cocuzzo, taught him more than routes and angles. From Coombs, he says, “I learned about the power of the human spirit.” Cocuzzo speaks about Tracking the Wild Coomba at TEDxBeaconStreet on November 20 and the Harvard COOP on November 30.