Alpinist Rob Cocuzzo spent years following in the fresh tracks of the late legend Doug Coombs...skiing where he skied, living where he lived, and interviewing his friends and family to create his book, Tracking the Wild Coomba. Here's an excerpt from the book about Coombs' legacy, and how his wife Emily has kept it alive for the children of Jackson Hole.
The study in Emily Coombs’s home no longer felt so much like a shrine to her late husband. The skis and boots that once protruded from the closet were gone. Many of the ski passes that had been propped up on the bureaus were now stowed in drawers. Coombs’s backpack still hung on a hook in the room, but it no longer held all the contents from that fateful day—just a pair of his gloves, a hat, and the rope. Photos of him were still scattered throughout the room, but now they were accompanied by portraits of young children. The first things I noticed about these new photos were the smiles; they filled the frames with joy. The children in the photos were Hispanic, their hair olive black and their eyes wide and angelic. “I’m coming up,” Emily called from the stairway.
She entered the room cradling two binders of 35-mm slides. “Going through these photos is a huge, huge job,” she said, placing them next to me at a table by the window. She opened the first binder and began studying the old images of her and Coombs. “Oh, here are some classics from the Bozeman days,” she said, eyeing a slide through the light from the windows. “Look at us … how young we were.” Emily handed me the slide. “You know, there was a time when I could never look at these photos.”
Now, nearly ten years since the accident that claimed her husband’s life, Emily had come a long way. Her relationship with Coombs had defined most of her life, and his sudden death had left her completely devastated. “It was like I had to become a different person just to deal with it,” she said. “But now I’m back to how I used to be.” She handed me an old photo of herself skiing through deep powder, her long red ponytail flying behind her. “Especially with what I’m doing now.”
Around the time I first met Emily three years ago, she was in the process of launching a foundation in memory of her husband that would be dedicated to enabling children from low-income families to ski. Emily explained that 30 percent of the town’s population was Hispanic, and almost none of them had ever stepped foot on the ski slopes that were right out their back doors. Parents of these families worked multiple jobs, which forced many of them to leave their children at home after school to watch television or play video games. Even if they did have the time to take them to the slopes, the majority of these families couldn’t afford the exorbitant costs associated with skiing. Enter the Doug Coombs Foundation. “You should see what skiing does for these kids,” Emily said, her voice brimming with unmistakable passion. “It just changes them. All of a sudden they have this incredible confidence. And they’re just so happy to be out there.”
The Doug Coombs Foundation now had well over a hundred children participating in the program, which provided them with skis, boots, gear, lift tickets, instructions, and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to access the mountains that were previously so close and yet so far away. Much like she had done as a young girl mentoring kids in the inner city of Boston, Emily was now exposing these children to a whole new world. “Some people have asked me why we’re teaching these Latino kids to ski when they won’t be able to afford to do it as adults,” Emily said. “But they’re completely missing the point. We’re trying to raise these children out of poverty. Skiing is just the tool that we’re using to do it.”
Emily believes that the confidence these children develop through skiing combined with the good school system in town propels them into a more promising future. She wants to change the paradigm so that it isn’t a matter of if these children will go to college, but when. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting tribute to her husband, who in his life instilled confidence in his clients and peers, enabling them to achieve feats that they previously thought were impossible. Now Emily was doing the same for these children, and it was changing their lives dramatically. “Wait till you meet Jordan,” she said. “You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
Ten-year-old Jordan Vargas had become one of the brightest stars of the Doug Coombs Foundation. Vargas was the son of two loving, hardworking parents. His father worked two jobs, seven days a week, while his mother worked full-time at the local hospital’s employee and patient housing complex. Despite their tireless commitment to their family, the Vargases didn’t earn enough money to support their son’s budding interest in ski racing. That was when Emily swooped in. Now, through the Doug Coombs Foundation, Jordan and his younger sister Michelle were able to ski. I’d just traveled across the country to see Jordan in action.
The following day, I showed up at the base of Snow King Mountain in downtown Jackson around 2:45 p.m. to watch Jordan and the rest of the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club practice. Emily had arranged for me to ride the chairlift with Jordan as he skied laps with the rest of his team. Ambling around the parking lot, I watched as moms pulled up in Porsches and Land Rovers, and then unloaded their kids with their ski gear. A bus arrived, and another horde of young children poured onto the parking lot and then entered the locker room. Jackson Hole had become an enclave for the ultra wealthy, and the growing economic divide was evident just in this parking lot.
I snapped the buckles on my boots and made my way to the base of the lift to wait for Jordan. With all the kids dressed in identical jackets and helmets, I thought it was going to be impossible to pick him out from the crowd, but he made it easy. The ten-year-old skied right up to me and waved me along. “Come on,” he said excitedly. “Follow me.”
We slid up to the lift attendant and then waited for the chair to swoop around. “Do you want me to lower the safety bar?” I asked Jordan after we sat down. “No, it’s okay,” he said. “So what do you want to know?” Jordan sat poised, waiting with quiet confidence. He couldn’t have been more than four feet tall, and yet he possessed that same heightened presence I’d witnessed in many of the guides I’d skied with over the last three years. He was like a taut spring loaded with energy.
“I heard you’re quite the skier,” I said. “You’re skiing with the U-12 kids now, right?”
“Yeah, and I’m only ten.”
“What’s that like?” I asked.
“I like it,” Jordan said quietly. “It’s like … like I have a voice now. People listen to me.”
“They didn’t listen to you before?” “No, kids used to pick on me because I was short. But now those kids are my friends. Like him, right there”—he pointed to a boy below us—“he used to make fun of me, but now he’s my friend.” Jordan’s self-assuredness suddenly made me feel like a sideline reporter.
“So … where would you like to go with your skiing?” I asked.
“Alaska,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
“Wow, really? Alaska, huh?”
“Yeah, I’d love to ski there,” he said. “The mountains are so big, I heard, and there’s also a husky dog race I want to see. I’m definitely going to go.” Jordan stared up at me with big, optimistic eyes. He was absolutely sure of himself.
“Yes, you will,” I agreed.
“So are you going to watch me ski?” Jordan asked as the chair reached the top and we prepared to unload.
“Yeah, I’ll be watching from the side,” I said, “but pretend I’m not here.”
We slid off the chairlift, and Jordan rejoined his team while I continued along the cat track to the top of the run. The town of Jackson sprawled out below Snow King Mountain, which boasted the steepest north-facing racecourse in the contiguous United States. I skied down halfway to a grove of trees to watch. The little racers peeled past me. All of them could have beaten me to the bottom, probably with seconds to spare. Then I spotted Jordan about to drop in. He adjusted his goggles and pulled a balaclava up over his chin and then took off, lowering himself into a squat over his skis. He ripped each of his turns—BAM BAM BAM—and then scorched by me like a jet fighter. I watched him cruise all the way down until I lost him amid the other skiers collecting at the base.
Jordan was a damn good skier, that was for certain, but he didn’t look all that different than many of the other kids on the hill. And that was exactly the point. Jordan’s parents didn’t drive a Porsche. He wasn’t raised in ski boots. But with the opportunity given to him by the Doug Coombs Foundation, Jordan had become an equal. On this steep racecourse, it didn’t matter what his parents did for work, or where he lived, or what color his skin was; the playing field was level. I could only guess where skiing would take Jordan in the years to come —like it had for Coombs. Like it had for me.
I turned my attention back to the top of the run. There was another skier I’d come to watch today. Twelve-year-old David Coombs pulled up the top of the slope. I recognized him by his height and his huge smile. He stood there laughing with his buddies, waiting for his turn to ski. When David shoved off down the slope, he looked loose and comfortable on his skis. He had a fluidity and style to his form. But what struck me most was David’s smile—it never left his face. Watching him reminded me of something his father had said years ago when an interviewer asked him what he thought about being called the best skier in the world. “That’s stupid,” Coombs responded. “There is no best skier in the world.” When the interviewer pressed him on it, Coombs said, “The best skier in the world is the one having the most fun.” By that measure, David Coombs looked to be the king of Snow King.