An Extreme Skiier Mourned

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Commentator Alex Markels remembers extreme skier Doug Coombs, who died last month at the age of 48. The two-time extreme skiing champion was killed in a skiing accident.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Many skiers around the world are mourning the loss of Doug Coombs. The two-time extreme skiing champion died in a skiing accident last month. He was 48-years-old.

NPR's Alex Markels covered Coombs's rise as an adventure athlete and he followed in Coombs's tracks down slopes from Wyoming to Alaska. He has this remembrance.

ALEX MARKELS reporting:

There's probably no obituary more admiring of a man than to say that he died doing what he loved. But somehow, when I learned that Doug Coombs recently fell off a cliff while trying to rescue a ski buddy in the French Alps, I couldn't help but wish that it hadn't happen that way.

Doug was the best skier I've ever seen, a muscle-bound gyroscope who made every impossible turn of the skis look as if he were carving a knife through a tub of soft butter. I first met him during the early days of what's now called the extreme skiing movement. I was working in Colorado as a ski magazine editor and I got the chance, sweaty palms and all, to follow him down some of the steepest slopes in the world.

One of those was Corbitz Kuwar(ph), an infamous ledge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that drops 30 feet into a skyscraper steep abyss. But Doug not only danced down it, like Baryshnikov leaping through the Nutcracker Suite, he conveyed the confidence and the perfect line in the snow for the rest of us to follow behind.

But what separated Doug from other extreme skiers was the single-minded discipline he applied to most every slope he conquered. Being the first to descend a never before skied slope is the sport's holy grail and by the time of his death, Doug had literally logged hundreds of first descents, probably more than anyone on the planet.

Yet he lived to the ripe old age of 48 - elder statesman status by extreme skiing standards - only by being exceedingly careful on every one of them. Before exploring new terrain, Doug checked out the mountain from all angles.

When I skied with him on Alaska's Chugach Mountain six years ago, I watched him pour over piles of topographical maps, snow pack reports and weather forecasts. And before we made a single turn, he stopped and dug a snow pit using his skills in snow hydrology to scrutinize the layers he dug up for hoary snow crystals, the telltale signs of an avalanche.

That's not to say that Doug played it safe. He pushed the boundaries of fear like almost no skier before him, a fact he never tried to minimize or brush off. The danger is very real, he once told me as we stood atop a dizzying 4,000-foot high ridge above Alaska's Thompson Pass. You've just got to face it and overcome it and when you do it's not like anything else you've ever felt.

Over the years I've seen the call of the wild kill some of the smartest most skillful skiers in the world. People like Robbie Huntoon and Alex Lowe, perhaps the greatest ski mountaineer who ever lived. It's especially stomach churning, even angering though, when they leave behind little ones who won't get the chance to experience the joy of skiing with their dads. Doug had already begun teaching his two-year-old son David to ski. But he'll have to learn his dad's signature ski technique from someone else.

And though it won't be any consolation to hear that his dad died doing what he loved, he can at least be proud to know that Doug Coombs was the best at what he did.

BLOCK: Alex Markels works on NPR's National Desk.

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