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Skimag.com Exclusive: DOUG COOMBS Interview

Skimag.com Exclusive: DOUG COOMBS Interview

Features
By Kendall Hamilton
posted: 11/13/2001

Coombs Interview

SKI Magazine editor-in-chief Andy Bigford sat down with Doug Coombs on May 1, 2001, in the Pipeline Club in Valdez, Alaska. Coombs, a two-time winner of the Valdez Extreme Skiing Championships, started Valdez Heli-Skiing Guides in 1994. He and his wife Emily recently sold the company to Scott Raynor, but the Coombs continue to guide with the operation. In this interview, Coombs talks about how he got started on the steeps in Valdez, about Valdez protocol, about his roots in the sport, about his Steep Camps, and about the state of skiing in general.

SKIING THE VALDEZ STEEPS
AB: Let's start out with restating the philosophy that you started Valdez Heli-Ski Guides on and some of the things you've talked about, from fat skis to being in an area like this with the steeps that you can actually ski that blows peoples mind. Give me that basic philosophy of how you put it all together, safety, skis that stuff.

DC: I think ski guiding here and ski guiding here is an educational process. Ski guiding here is teaching people here how to move safely through the mountains and while enjoying the atmosphere of skiing steep terrain and having great powder. Because that's what it's all about¿skiing great powder. 90-percent of our runs are powder skiing and we want to keep it that way. We could avoid those powder runs, but the best skiing is on that steep terrain and that's where the best powder is. So we have to educate people how to do that. It's not the follow me type guiding that you get a lot in other places. It's "follow me" guiding through your first day, but generally we try to make it into a team effort there's only four people skiing with one guide and if you're all working together you can move down the mountain real efficiently and safely and have a good time and the camaraderie that it brings about is real exciting because suddenly people are cheering each other on and their helping each other and they're watching each other and at the same time they're asking a lot of questions to the guide about "how do you do this," and the guide is seeing things as they need to express to make everything flow and the energy is...it's great when you're with someone for one or two or three days and they don't know much about...they're very good skiers here. And that's what we're attracting right now, is skiers that are very good and very athletic, they ski 30 to 90 days a year and this is their ultimate trip and they have really good technique but they don't have a whole lot of big mountain savvy so we have to bring that big mountain savvy into their curriculum.

THE FIRST TIME IN VALDEZ
AB: Let's back up 11 years to the first time you came to Valdez. You obviously had skied a lot of first descents. You've been on a lot of hairball stuff. But back up 11 years and tell me about the first time you came here...and I think you skied with Jim Conway.

DC: Yeah, there was a group of us from Jackson Hole and Salt Lake City and a few friends from Alaska, Juneau. We all met here: it was the world extreme skiing contest going on. The contest was minor to what we were actually doing here. It was what brought us all here, to do the contest, but we skied before, during and after, all these outrageous peaks- all these first ascents with helicopters and skiplanes and every one was a real exciting experience. When we first went to Python Peak and did Cherry Couloir, we were just so excited about it...it was the ultimate. And now we guide that all the time. It's just getting more comfortable and familiar. Back in the old days, we had a lot of skis, and not so much technology was helping us. Now the technology and instruction and technique has come so far that we're skiing 50- degrees with 50 year olds and they're loving it. That's where it's going and that's were it's still going to go. I don't see it going away.

A TYPICAL VALDEZ CLIENT
AB Tell me about one or two or three people who represent a spectrum of your clients up here. Give our readers an idea of who can make it. Start on the bottom end. Give me an example of someone who didn't have a lot of experience and came up here and made a breakthrough.

DC: We see major breakthroughs with everybody. With the person only skiing let's say Colorado, Winter Park type skier maybe Vail, that kind of skier, who skies a lot of low angle powder and now they want to jump to something like this and that' s a big jump. They either don't like it or they love it and I would say 90-percent love it. And the 10-percent that don't realize they have to go home and work on their technique a little bit more before they come back. The low end skier here has miles and miles of untracked in 60 mile ski area with over 425 ski runs to choose from and they're not all steep I would say 50-percent are 20-35 degrees and the other 50-percent are 35-55 degrees. You've got huge choices. They come out with a group of friends and they have a ball. It's all about terrain progression. You just get a little more steeper each day and stay within the comfort range and have a ball.

AB: Tell me about the woman that you just talked to. She came out here from...and she was an advanced skier...

DC: I'd say she was an advanced intermediate, low expert. She had gone to one other heli-ski operation in Canada and her friends convinced her to come up and try this because it was something...she had the spunk or desire to do something a little different, a little more. This is frontier-frontier town and frontier type skiing and she was very nervous her first day, she wanted to know how dangerous it was and I said there are avalanches, crevasses, cliffs, exposure, all the things that nature and mountains have out there everyday. By the end of the first day she came up with a huge smile on her face and said that it was the most amazing experience of her life and all those things I told her in the moring, she didn't even notice those. I think I put a little fear in her and then when she came back she realized that with good guiding and the excellent conditions we're having, that she didin't notice any of those. It's there, and I want everyone to know it's there but I don't want to scare people away either.

VALDEZ SAFETY & PROCEDURES
AB: Doug, can you walk us through some of the things you talked about on Saturday when you took us through the avalanche procedures, through our search practice and going through the checklist. And can you compare that to what some other places do, and give me a philosophy of what you try to do to tell people and to encourage people to speak up if they feel uncomfortable, to ask questions and to always be aware.

DC: I think our philosophy is that we like to ski terrain that most companies won't ski unless the conditions are absolutely hard snow. We don't like hard snow, we like to ski powder snow. I think that's a big difference. So we try to make everyone really aware of all the dangers and we want everyone to be open and honest about their feelings and how they feel that day with their mental and physical energy and how everything is working for them and are they tired from the day before. And also maybe they're just feeling so good that they want to push themselves into more challenging terrain. But you only can ski the terrain to the least ability skier. So you have to work with that person to join up to the other group and the whole group has to realize that that's what's going to happen. We try to have everyone go through a small terrain progression program: we ski short, steep terrain, we ski a lot of long, rolly polly runs with a little challenging aspects to it and that's what people are coming her for. They're coming here for that challenge. I don't see people coming here just to cruise low angle powder runs. Everyone likes to do it: we like to start the day with cruiser runs and end the day with cruiser runs and peak in the middle of the day on some exciting adventure runs. Wouldn't call them all extreme skiing, I'd call them more adventure skiing. And adventure skiing is just travelling down through glaciers and areas like that and real long, 2-3 mile runs.

AB: How much instruction do you incorporate into what you're teaching? Is it sort of what people ask for? When people think of instruction they think of technique but yours goes beyond that. How much do you work on people's technique? How much do you help them?

DC: I like to see people ski relaxed and comfortable. If they're pole plants are off or if their turns, they're not being dynamic enough or they're working too hard or they're skiing too much. If they're an east coast skier they tend to do too many turns- slalom turns- and if they're a west coast skier they tend to lean back because they think it's powder skiing and that's what you're suppose to do. And so I'm always- I'm an instructor by heart so I'm always looking to improve people's skills so they can have a more comfortable experience. And then they can keep the energy up- if you're leaning back all day, you're thighs are going to be killing you and if you're not nailing your pole plants, you're all twisted up and you're technique is failing you and you actually work harder at it all. The whole deal here is there's a smooth, efficient way to ski down theses mountains and I try to share that through imagery. I try to have the other skiers in the group show that through imagery and we're always working on that.

VALDEZ AND FAT SKI TECHNOLOGY
AB: How big of a thing are those fat skis? Go back to when you first skied Python in 1990 when you were probably on a 63 mm wide ski. How much better can people expect to be and do you have equipment here for them? Do you have 80 and 90 mm waists here demo equipment? Most of our readers have never been on that equipment.

DC: Yeah, we have the full fleet of wide skis, but they're high performance wide skis here. And those wide skis are nice in torsional stiffness and they're a little soft flexing and they're real friendly in the tip so the turn initiation is real easy and it makes skiers having a little trouble into heroes. When people first get on them, they're just loving life. It takes one run to get used to them and suddenly you've just improved your ability level a whole notch. When I first came here I was on K2 TNCs, these GS, sidecut, old race kind of skis, really skinny and every run was a million turns. It was quite exhausting. And if you got any funny snow, any crust, windblown, suncrust, whatever, it was a lot of effort and strength, it was real tough. And now you can just cruise through that stuff. These new skis are like the snowbusters, like ghostbusters, they can bust down anything. Everything feels good, feels easy. If you want to go fast, they're like Cadillacs, if you want to go slow, they plow through anything- like a Jeep wheel drive.

BEING AWARE IN VALDEZ
AB: What are some of the dangers and the things you look for out there? Give me your checklist of things you've got to be aware of.

DC: I think the biggest danger is the natural things like cornice drops, crevasse holes... sure avalanches are prominent. We try to work around those problems. We don't get a lot of avalanches up here-our record has been real strong (knock on wood) and not just our company, but every company up here has had a really amazing record for the thousands of skiers that come here, and what kind of skiers they are. I think it has something to do with the snow pack here, it just sticks to everything. And the amount of time it takes to glue on here is a lot quicker then let's say, Colorado and those places. The other dangers are other people-when people are not being safe in the mountains, it endangers other people. I think everybody comes here with a good heaith cruiser runs and end the day with cruiser runs and peak in the middle of the day on some exciting adventure runs. Wouldn't call them all extreme skiing, I'd call them more adventure skiing. And adventure skiing is just travelling down through glaciers and areas like that and real long, 2-3 mile runs.

AB: How much instruction do you incorporate into what you're teaching? Is it sort of what people ask for? When people think of instruction they think of technique but yours goes beyond that. How much do you work on people's technique? How much do you help them?

DC: I like to see people ski relaxed and comfortable. If they're pole plants are off or if their turns, they're not being dynamic enough or they're working too hard or they're skiing too much. If they're an east coast skier they tend to do too many turns- slalom turns- and if they're a west coast skier they tend to lean back because they think it's powder skiing and that's what you're suppose to do. And so I'm always- I'm an instructor by heart so I'm always looking to improve people's skills so they can have a more comfortable experience. And then they can keep the energy up- if you're leaning back all day, you're thighs are going to be killing you and if you're not nailing your pole plants, you're all twisted up and you're technique is failing you and you actually work harder at it all. The whole deal here is there's a smooth, efficient way to ski down theses mountains and I try to share that through imagery. I try to have the other skiers in the group show that through imagery and we're always working on that.

VALDEZ AND FAT SKI TECHNOLOGY
AB: How big of a thing are those fat skis? Go back to when you first skied Python in 1990 when you were probably on a 63 mm wide ski. How much better can people expect to be and do you have equipment here for them? Do you have 80 and 90 mm waists here demo equipment? Most of our readers have never been on that equipment.

DC: Yeah, we have the full fleet of wide skis, but they're high performance wide skis here. And those wide skis are nice in torsional stiffness and they're a little soft flexing and they're real friendly in the tip so the turn initiation is real easy and it makes skiers having a little trouble into heroes. When people first get on them, they're just loving life. It takes one run to get used to them and suddenly you've just improved your ability level a whole notch. When I first came here I was on K2 TNCs, these GS, sidecut, old race kind of skis, really skinny and every run was a million turns. It was quite exhausting. And if you got any funny snow, any crust, windblown, suncrust, whatever, it was a lot of effort and strength, it was real tough. And now you can just cruise through that stuff. These new skis are like the snowbusters, like ghostbusters, they can bust down anything. Everything feels good, feels easy. If you want to go fast, they're like Cadillacs, if you want to go slow, they plow through anything- like a Jeep wheel drive.

BEING AWARE IN VALDEZ
AB: What are some of the dangers and the things you look for out there? Give me your checklist of things you've got to be aware of.

DC: I think the biggest danger is the natural things like cornice drops, crevasse holes... sure avalanches are prominent. We try to work around those problems. We don't get a lot of avalanches up here-our record has been real strong (knock on wood) and not just our company, but every company up here has had a really amazing record for the thousands of skiers that come here, and what kind of skiers they are. I think it has something to do with the snow pack here, it just sticks to everything. And the amount of time it takes to glue on here is a lot quicker then let's say, Colorado and those places. The other dangers are other people-when people are not being safe in the mountains, it endangers other people. I think everybody comes here with a good healthy respect for the mountains that they're in. That keeps everybody happy and not endangering each other. And when fear creeps in, that's a danger in itself. We always have to control the fear factor. Some people's fear-I don't know where it comes from-they're imagined a lot of times and sometimes and you can get rid of that imagined fear pretty quickly if you can catch on to it as a guide.

VALDEZ GUIDES
AB: What do you think the most important aspect of your operation is?

DC: Hiring the best guides I can find in the United States. The guide qualifications are tough because you have to be a super expert skier- top, top expert You've got to be top level avalanche specialist, you've got to have all the certifications, you've got to have the high first aid and you've got to know the mountains and you've got to be a guide for a long time, you've got to know how to work with people in the mountains. Heli skiing is all about getting down the run as fast as you can, it's not like ski touring, where you do one run a day, we're doing 6-10 runs a day on pretty intricate, adventuresome runs. That kind of person is rare to find- he has to have all those qualities, most of them are guides who work all year round. Then they have to have the attitude- the attitude that this is exciting, this is fun and I can teach people to follow me down these runs and everyone comes down with a smile.

ON STARTING VHSG IN 1994
AB: You started Valdez Heli Ski Guides in 1994?

DC: 1994. I did a little under...poaching, whatever you want to call it. I didn't have any business set up. I would take people in 1993, out skiing to show them, unguiding here, there's no guiding going on. I'd say, "Have you ever gone here?" And they say, "No" and I'd go, "Where are you going?" And they'd say, "I don't know, the pilot is going to show us." And I'd say, "Well I can show you if you pay for my seat." So I had these people pay for my seat and we would get out and we'd get to learn a lot of ski runs and terrain just by skiing for free with someone paying for and the next year we said, "Ok, they need a guide service here." And I jumped on it because I was into heli ski guiding in the Jackson Hole in the late 80's and early 90's so I had a concept of how that worked. The whole heli ski business. We just started right from there with three guides. I think we did 200 customers the first year, the second year it went to 500, the third year it went to 700, the fourth year it went to 900 and now it's been hovering around 1000-1200 for the rest of the years.

AB: And now you've decided to get out of the ownership business and leave that to Scott Raynor, who's a former avalanche forecaster for another group and a longtime guide. How is that working out and where do you see Scott taking this with your help?

DC: What I like about Scott is he's younger, he's got a lot of energy, new energy...sometimes you can get tired in this kind of business- it's a people business and a weather business and when you're working with people and weather all the time and things don't go right- it's tough. I had all these other things going on in my life and I'd rather spread out a little bit more than concentrate just on heli skiing because heli skiing actually takes up 12 months of the year. Then you get a guy like Scott Rainer who's got expertise, he's been a guide, he's worked as an avalanche forecaster, you know, he's a perfect candidate. He comes in with all this energy and excitement and then he has some more futuristic plans to expand with client care. Now we're going to have the lodge open next year and it's going to be a little heli village with a beautiful base like the way it was. I think his idea of upgrading everything, trimming up...I was more bare bones, he's going to make it more comfortable for the whole picture. The best thing is the skiing and the guiding are not changing.

PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE SHIPS
AB: <

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