Remembering Doug Coombs, 10 Years Later

This year marks the 10th anniversary of ski pioneer Doug Coombs’s passing, which occurred on April 3, 2006 in La Grave, France. Coombs fell to his death while trying to reach aspiring mountain guide Chad VanderHam, who’d fallen while descending the Couloir de Polichinelle, a line Coombs skied often. VanderHam also died that day.

Ten years prior, Coombs moved to La Grave with his wife, Emily, and son, David, where he and Emily guided and ran steep-skiing camps, all while accumulating notable descents throughout La Grave, Alaska and beyond.

That first year in France, Doug and Emily met photographer Colin Samuels, who shares these photos and memories from a decade spent skiing steeps together throughout La Grave.


[Photo] Colin Samuels

“This is a very exposed, no-fall-zone entrance to the Y Couloir, one of La Grave’s most challenging and dangerous lines,” says Samuels. “Classic gnarl La Grave-style on skinny skis…Doug shows his trademark probing pole plant, with his composed, long and lanky frame ready for anything the mountain is ready to serve up.”


[Photo] Colin Samuels

Doug was known for his classic pedal turn on steeps, says Samuels, and he employed a collapsing uphill pole plant. “Here we witness an equally perfect but lesser-known example of Doug’s perfect downhill pole plant with an open palm and wrist serving to open the downhill shoulder into the next turn,” Samuels adds. “Fifty degrees…very exposed.” Col de Girose South Couloir. La Grave, France.


[Photo] Colin Samuels

Doug was known for his height and strength, but Samuels says he was lanky, too. “The term ‘sinewy’ comes to mind when describing his physique,” Samuels says, “which allowed Doug to put on constant display of power, grace, speed and cat-like reflexes.”


[Photo] Colin Samuels

This shot, of Doug displaying his “Power-Bar-as-rappel-anchor trick,” was taken for a story that he and Samuels collaborated on for the French alpinism magazine Montagnes. “In skiing with Doug over the years,” Samuels says, “I had the opportunity to rap’ off many questionable-yet-reliable anchors composed of random objects that Doug grabbed from his apartment while running out the door on his way to the La Grave lift. In addition to rolled up French newspapers, food items and various pieces of wood, I vaguely remember a frozen French baguette once being put to service. Maybe I am just imagining this though….”


[Photo] Colin Samuels

Doug Coombs above the seldom-skied upper entrance of La Grave’s “Le Pan du Rideau” (The Curtain Face), a 50-degree, 1000-foot face with big exposure. “We were alone at the end of an early-May day with two feet of fresh power, lots of rock sharks, a total white-out, no tracks and Doug totally relaxed and goofing around,” says Samuels.


[Photo] Colin Samuels

Doug frequently skied with partner Sam, a Lab/Alaskan Malamute mix who belonged to Doug’s good friends Bill and Patty Audette, from Juneau, Alaska. According to Samuels, Sam was one of the best-known ski dogs around La Grave and had many first descents to his name (referred to in guidebooks as “Sam Le Chien.”) Here, the pair stand atop the Couloir de Polichinelle in 2000, a line Doug skied often and where he and Chad VanderHam would perish six years later.


[Photo] Colin Samuels

Colin Samuels captured this photo of Doug and wife Emily in 1997 when the pair first arrived in La Grave, France, along with their young son, David. “Doug and Emily shared a profound and mutual respect for each other,” Samuels says. “And to see them flow and dance down the mountain together is still an amazing sight to behold. Emily is a remarkable skier and combines her racing strength with exquisite, technical grace.”


[Photo] Colin Samuels

“Chocard bird photos are important,” Samuels says. “Doug believed the local legend that Chocard birds are the reincarnations of dead alpinists.”

Find more of photographer Colin Samuels’s work at and learn about the Doug Coombs Foundation, founded in Doug’s memory in 2012 and run by wife Emily and son David to offer outdoor adventure opportunities to low-income children in Jackson, Wyo., at

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  1. […] Remembering Doug Coombs, 10 Years Later – Backcountry Magazine – On April 3, 2006 skiing legend Doug Coombs fell while trying to save a friend in La Grave, France. […]

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