Interview by Tracy Ross | Photographs by Wade McKoy
Before she met Doug Coombs, Emily Coombs was etching righteous lines down The Ridge at Bridger Bowl, Montana. Then, one day in 1980, Doug skied off a cliff and landed at her feet. The pair went on to ski the steepest lines in Montana, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Valdez, Alaska. In 1993, they started Valdez Heli Ski Guides, the first guided Alaskan heli ski service, and later moved to La Grave, France to run their Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide. Their son David was born in 2003. Two years later, Doug fell to his death in La Grave’s 3,000-foot Polichinelle Couloir. Today, Emily and David live in Jackson, where Emily serves as executive director of the Doug Coombs Foundation and teaches Teton County children from low-income families to ski.
The first thing I thought when I met Doug? “What a kook.” He had this big head of hair and this big beard. Gross. But then we started skiing together, and a year later we kissed. People say their lives changed the moment they met Doug. I can attest to it.
We’d hike Big Sky in the middle of the night. Me, Doug, Jim Conway, Emil Tanner, and Tom Jungst. We’d all go at our own pace, sleep up there, and then wake up and ski home. We did that while everyone else was partying. We were connected by this desire to do things others didn’t.
We separated for six years. But in 1992, he came to St. Anton, Austria on a film job. I was living in Verbier, Switzerland, and I’d sworn off men. Then Doug called. I said, “Okay, I’ll be right there.”
I never felt I was in Doug’s shadow. He couldn’t manage money or record info. He was the artist, the absent-minded professor. I went around seeing his gaps and filling them to make our life work.
We didn’t get married until 1994, and I got pregnant with David in 2003. By then I was 43. I think Doug was worried, kind of “What about me?” But I said, “Sorry, dude. You’re on the back shelf now.” Of course, Doug fell madly in love with his little boy.
It took a long time for me to want to ski anything big after David was born. The first time I did, it was with Doug the day he died in the Polichinelle. He wanted me to ski the Fréaux Couloir and meet him at the bottom of the Polichinelle. It’s an example of where he had a plan for me, but I had my own. I didn’t want to go that big. I wanted a fun, easy run home. If I hadn’t trusted my inner voice, I would have seen Doug’s body.
I remember walking around La Grave thinking, this is how the story ended.
People never know what to do when someone dies. But in Jackson, I had the greatest sense of community. One girl ran a fruit stand and gave me a case of peaches. You can’t do much, but do that. Give peaches.
We sold Valdez Heli Ski Guides before Doug died. The week he died, I pretty much gave Steep Skiing Camps to Liz and Miles Smart. Miles lives in Verbier, but he says he still can’t go to La Grave.
Yes, your husband died. But eventually you need a job. While K2 supported me, I bought time. I had this weird skill set, but I wanted to do something tied to Doug. I was going to David’s school and seeing the population—half Latino. They come to Jackson from Mexico to do the work no one else will. They work around the clock, and they have children, but the children don’t ski. It took five years to create the Doug Coombs Foundation. But last year, we had 75 kids on skis.
They’re following in a tradition Doug left behind. A belief that anything is possible.
The foundation is good for David, too. Doug Coombs isn’t just his father, but this worthy cause with its own meaning.
David is built like Doug. Different hands and head, but the same body and navigational ability. I took him to the place Doug jumped off the cliff and landed at my feet. The next day we went south of Bozeman to Mount Blackmore. There’s a ribbon of rock that holds snow even in the summer. I told him how we used to ski that all the time, just for fun. No media, no one watching, no hype. Just fun.
In Jackson, there’s a lingering energy. Maybe it’s not Doug, but an energy he left behind. Maybe the more you give when you’re here on earth, the more your energy lingers.