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"Get Me Doug Coombs!"

posted: 04/07/2006

Forget cheesy staged shots and forced plots. For a ski film that works, find a star who always thinks the line is easy and the snow is good-and who never says no. Hanging from the skid of a gleaming black helicopter, which itself was hanging in cold Swiss airspace, Doug Coombs found himself in a fix. Moments earlier, he'd coaxed pilot Samy Summermatter to within a few inches of the 11,988-foot summit of the Breitlauihorn, deep in the Alps, then he'd slithered out of the hovering ship expecting to stand on the peak, only to find his legs kicking in empty air. The summit had vaporized under his feet; it was nothing but loose snow, sculpted into a point by the wind. Below, the Breitlauihorn's steep flanks plunged thousands of feet on all sides.

"You're sure you want to get out?" shouted Summermatter from the open cockpit. "I'm sure!" Coombs yelled back, his arm still hooked over the skid. Dropping a little farther and swinging his legs, Coombs cleared out a platform no bigger than a lunch tray. Then he gingerly lowered his boots onto the snow, slid his skis off the floor of the cockpit, and let go of the skid. Shaking his head, Summermatter flew away.

"I started to get vertigo," Coombs said later. "I was waving back and forth. Stand on a really small spot for a long time, you start to get a little wavery."

Whup-whup-WHUP. The helicopter swung back into view, rose to Coombs's level, and hovered, the lenses of a film crew glinting from the open cockpit. Directly below was a 50-degree elevator shaft of snow, the "Y Couloir" as Coombs had dubbed it. Tugging the ice ax from the snow at his feet, Coombs wedged it between his back and his pack, where he could get to it in a hurry. Then he tipped forward and slid into the 55-degree entrance of the couloir. His skis skidded, bit, and ran. Showtime.

Just like skiing, ski filmmaking is a game of odds. So savvy cinematographers stack the deck by recruiting the ballsiest skiers and shooting in jaw-dropping locations. But just as a powder day can go sour thanks to a broken binding or a tweaked knee, film production can fall prey to bad snow, bad light, or the bad attitudes of high-maintenance pro skiers. So it helps to have at least one person with such optimism, such utter aplomb, that all he feels, when dropping from a hovering helicopter onto a horn of snow thousands of feet in the sky, is "a little wavery."

This European adventure was Coombs's idea in the first place. Since being banished from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in 1997 after the ski patrol decided he'd ducked the ropes one too many times, Coombs moved to France and fell in love with the Alps, and with La Grave in particular. Here was a towering, technical ski mountain where boundary ropes serve merely as suggestions. In La Grave, Coombs came into his own, both as a ski mountaineer and as a guide, a profession in which he has developed uncanny powers of persuasion.

The extent of those powers I experienced firsthand one time when I accompanied Coombs and a fresh batch of California-based clients to La Grave. Coombs decided to start off their week in the Alps with a bang. Skiing down the Glacier de la Girose, hopping barely covered crevasses as we went, we followed him into a shadowy bowl, at which point Coombs stopped.[""]"You're going to love this," he said. "We've already skied 5,000 feet and we've got a couloir right below us that's another 3,300 feet long! Beautiful ambiance-it's straight down, fall-line skiing with huge rock walls on both sides. Is everybody into it?"

Silly question, given the prologue. But Coombs knew that. "Okay," he said. "It's a little tricky right here. No hero skiing." That's Coombs speak, of course, for "You fall, you die," but why burden clients with thoughts of mortality? Everyone skied 45-degree, patchy ice to the edge of a 100-foot drop-off, where we rappelled into the couloir that consisted of still more 45-degree, patchy ice. Under normal circumstances everyone would have been terrified, even unwilling to ski, but Coombs, in the lead, lazily wound down the chute like it was a Colorado groomer, and everybody relaxed and followed h.

It's just this sort of big descent, which usually ends with a round or two of recovery beers, that inspired Coombs to conceive of "Couloirs to Bars," a story and film segment intended to replicate the quintessential La Grave experience. And just as he does daily with clients, Coombs soon had everybody involved on board. Warren Miller Entertainment and this magazine jumped at the chance. Mike Hattrup, who'd made his name in a series of classic mid-'90s ski flicks by Greg Stump, signed on to costar. Joining the team was Miles Smart, Seattle-born mountaineering wunderkind who spent the winter, like Coombs, ski guiding in La Grave. [""]In february, the team gathered in Chamonix, France, where couloirs stripe the valley walls and the sky over Mont Blanc was a deep, unvarying blue. Unfortunately, clear skies, as Chamonix had been enjoying for several weeks, meant a lack of fresh snow. You wouldn't have known it, however, speaking to Coombs.

"Conditions are great!" he said after his warm-up run of the week down the notorious 4,900-foot Cosmiques Couloir with Smart. "It was firm getting into it, and we had to side step on our ski tips and tails over some rocks, but then it was powder! All the way down to the entrance of the Mont Blanc tunnel!"

A few words of clarification: Though Coombs is a six-foot-tall 43-year-old with graying sideburns and fine wrinkles webbing the corners of his eyes, he somehow keeps forgetting he's a middle-aged adult who should know how to modulate the excitement in his voice and refrain from exaggeration. Somehow, that snippet of DNA that has to do with growing jaded as you age misfires in Coombs. As evidence, take his frenzy when he learned that Ingemar Stenmark was sharing our Chamonix hotel. "You should have seen him tearing our room apart looking for a pen," said his wife, Emily. When Stenmark autographed Coombs's new skis, it never occurred to Doug to mention who he was. This was Stenmark, after all, "The Technician," as Coombs calls him. Later, while eating in the hotel restaurant, Coombs would suddenly say, "You feel that? That was the wind. The wind of Stenmark's presence."

It's that same overamped enthusiasm that has Coombs routinely distorting conditions. He'll understate a couloir's steepness before you ski it with him, then overstate it later. The lengths of climbs, the quality of the snow, the hours of daylight remaining-all are subject to alteration by Coombs, who means no harm by it. "You have to take into account the Coombs factor," Hattrup said later in the week, while following Coombs up a steep slope. "You have to add 20 percent to whatever he says."

Hattrup must have done some quick factoring when he arrived in Chamonix to find that Doug had already picked out their first run of the trip. "Bring your harness," Coombs said. "We're going to do a little rappel in the morning."

What they did, in fact, was provide a spectacle for the tourists who'd ridden up the Aiguille du Midi tram. The most famous lift in Europe, the tram glides 9,000 vertical feet onto Mont Blanc's spiny shoulder, disgorging its passengers into a warren of tunnels carved into the granite cone of the Aiguille du Midi, which roughly translates as "middle needle." One of these tunnels ends in a sunny terrace, where Doug, Emily, Hattrup, and Smart put on their climbing harnesses and crampons and clambered over the edge onto a snowy 12-inch-wide knife-edge ridge. Unroped, they walked 100 feet with 1,000 feet of airspace below the left foot and 5,000 below the right. Then, one at a time, they clipped into a rope, leaned back, and rappelled down a vertical fin of rock to the entrance of the S Couloir.

Doug and Emily skied the far right side of the slope; Hattrup chose the more dangerous left side and slashed down the gullet, casually hopping a gaping bergschrund.

"Wow," said a female tourist from America, standing beside me. "I've never seen anything like that in my life."The couloir had been ticked; time to hit the bar. Crew, stars, and hangers-on alike headed down the Vallée Blanche glacier to the Refuge du Requin, a centuries-old mountain hut overlooking an imposing jumble of blue ice and dark crevasses. In reality everybody was too exhausted to party. With the film crew along, the drinking part of the Couloirs to Bars concept seemed scripted.

The skiing and climbing, however, continued to be anything but staged. Two days later, Coombs was punching steps toward the Aiguille du Plan, one of the highest needles soaring over Chamonix, with the rest of us following single-file."It's a grunt," said Coombs of the Aiguille du Plan.

The Coombsian understatement was lost on cinematographer Tom Day, who was waiting at the tram's upper station to shoot across the mountains.

"Where are you guys?" came Day's voice over the radio, the wait clearly getting to him.

"We're a half hour from the top," Coombs radioed back.

An hour later, we were still climbing. Day: "Doug, I don't see you guys. Are you getting close?"

Coombs: "We're close. Shouldn't be more than a half hour."

An hour later we pulled over the top. The sun was straight up in the sky, washing out the shot for the entire 9,000-foot descent.

Despite Coombs' willingness to climb and ski everything and anything in Chamonix, we needed powder. Which meant that mere hours later, Coombs had us jammed into a convoy of rental cars, speeding toward Switzerland. He had picked out just the place for our snow-strapped team: the Lötschental Valley. Big, remote mountains. Lots of snow. No tracks. And a helicopter at the ready.

Within the first 30 minutes of our visit to the Lötschental, Hattrup skied a 2,000-foot chalky ramp. Emily powered down every exposed line she pointed her tips into. And Coombs went to work on Samy the pilot.

"When you work with a heli pilot you have to build his confidence," Coombs said. "So I started to ask Samy to do toe-ins into the sides of mountains, where you don't really have a landing, you just hop out and grab your skis. He realized we were pretty good at it, and we just built up from that."

Having spotted the Y Couloir on his first heli lift, Coombs saved it for his last run of the trip. Beginning with the long, 50-degree couloir and ending in a glaciated maze of blind rollovers and crevasses, it would be an imposing line, and Coombs asked Samy to make a pass over the terrain so he could rehearse it.

"When I slipped into the couloir," Coombs said later of his run, "the far wall came up fast. I thought, 'ooh, I better turn now,' so I threw my head down the fall line and everything followed behind me. I dropped 40 feet into the next turn, and it was perfect snow. I started skiing hard after that."

From where I stood, most of the run was hidden. I couldn't see Doug in the upper couloir; all I could see was the helicopter buzzing down the mountain, following him with its cameras. Doug was flying, following his mental map of the glacier's crevasses and drop-offs at warp speed. Occasionally he'd shoot up onto a shoulder I could see, arc a turn, and disappear again.

Coombs skied the whole 5,000-foot run in about a minute and a half. "When I stopped, I was hyperventilating," he said. And that, finally, was not a Coombsian overstatement.

Time to hit the bar. Crew, stars, and hangers-on alike headed down the Vallée Blanche glacier to the Refuge du Requin, a centuries-old mountain hut overlooking an imposing jumble of blue ice and dark crevasses. In reality everybody was too exhausted to party. With the film crew along, the drinking part of the Couloirs to Bars concept seemed scripted.

The skiing and climbing, however, continued to be anything but staged. Two days later, Coombs was punching steps toward the Aiguille du Plan, one of the highest needles soaring over Chamonix, with the rest of us following single-file."It's a grunt," said Coombs of the Aiguille du Plan.

The Coombsian understatement was lost on cinematographer Tom Day, who was waiting at the tram's upper station to shoot across the mountains.

"Where are you guys?" came Day's voice over the radio, the wait clearly getting to him.

"We're a half hour from the top," Coombs radioed back.

An hour later, we were still climbing. Day: "Doug, I don't see you guys. Are you getting close?"

Coombs: "We're close. Shouldn't be more than a half hour."

An hour later we pulled over the top. The sun was straight up in the sky, washing out the shot for the entire 9,000-foot descent.

Despite Coombs' willingness to climb and ski everything and anything in Chamonix, we needed powder. Which meant that mere hours later, Coombs had us jammed into a convoy of rental cars, speeding toward Switzerland. He had picked out just the place for our snow-strapped team: the Lötschental Valley. Big, remote mountains. Lots of snow. No tracks. And a helicopter at the ready.

Within the first 30 minutes of our visit to the Lötschental, Hattrup skied a 2,000-foot chalky ramp. Emily powered down every exposed line she pointed her tips into. And Coombs went to work on Samy the pilot.

"When you work with a heli pilot you have to build his confidence," Coombs said. "So I started to ask Samy to do toe-ins into the sides of mountains, where you don't really have a landing, you just hop out and grab your skis. He realized we were pretty good at it, and we just built up from that."

Having spotted the Y Couloir on his first heli lift, Coombs saved it for his last run of the trip. Beginning with the long, 50-degree couloir and ending in a glaciated maze of blind rollovers and crevasses, it would be an imposing line, and Coombs asked Samy to make a pass over the terrain so he could rehearse it.

"When I slipped into the couloir," Coombs said later of his run, "the far wall came up fast. I thought, 'ooh, I better turn now,' so I threw my head down the fall line and everything followed behind me. I dropped 40 feet into the next turn, and it was perfect snow. I started skiing hard after that."

From where I stood, most of the run was hidden. I couldn't see Doug in the upper couloir; all I could see was the helicopter buzzing down the mountain, following him with its cameras. Doug was flying, following his mental map of the glacier's crevasses and drop-offs at warp speed. Occasionally he'd shoot up onto a shoulder I could see, arc a turn, and disappear again.

Coombs skied the whole 5,000-foot run in about a minute and a half. "When I stopped, I was hyperventilating," he said. And that, finally, was not a Coombsian overstatement.

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