Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Skiing Legend Dies

"Extreme Skiing Legend Doug Coombs Dies" - I met Doug Coombs this winter when taking my AMGA ski guide course in Jackson Hole. He seemed like a great guy, and everyone in the class idolized him for his many accomplishments. I guess if you live by the gun you die by the gun. It's a little disheartening when a skier like this dies in the mountains... is it just a matter of time?

"Here is a report from Matt Farmer on the accident involving Chad VanderHam and Doug Coombs. If you are not interested or uncomfortable with reading the details of the accident please do not read any further.

La Grave, France 16:45 April 3, 2006
Christina Blomquist, Doug Coombs, Chad Vanderham, and I, descended from the top of the Telepherique de la Meije to ski the “Le Polichinelle” Couloir.
This route maintains an average steepness of 40-45 degrees through a series of three successive couloirs linked by leftward traverses at the base of each chute. The couloirs get progressively longer, from approximately 40 to 100 meters, before a final leftward traverse leads to mellower lower angled gullies which feed back into the apron below the couloir. The base of the third chute is approximately 3-4 meters wide and exposed to the top of the final cliff which is about 50 meters high. Below this cliff is a small couloir to the right and a 15-20 meter cliff to the left which both end up at the top of the snow apron below the main couloir system. 30-40 cm of untracked light snow was well bonded to a base of firm neve. General stability of the snow pack was good and the hazard rating for the day was a 2 on the French scale. Weather conditions were beautiful, the sky clear and blue without clouds or wind.
Chad descended the first couloir and waited to the left of the base as Doug skied, followed by me and then Christina one at a time. Doug traversed left and skied the second chute followed by Chad, then myself and Christina. Chad led the third couloir which curves right out of view of the starting point. Doug skied next and was subsequently followed by Christina.

Just as Christina entered the middle of the top of the third couloir Doug yelled up that “Chad fell, come down with a rope.” I traversed into the middle of the couloir to the point at which I could see down to Doug who was side stepping down a rock rib below and right of the constriction at the base of the couloir. Christina and I saw Doug yelling Chad’s name while side stepping down and attempting to see over the cliff to his right. We saw his skis slip on the rock and he fell out of view over the rib.

I skied down to the constriction and carefully continued down softer snow left of the rock rib that Doug had been standing on. I continued along side the rock rib, sidestepping down and right on snow to within 2 meters of where Chad’s ski was sticking vertically in the snow at the top of the cliff. From this vantage point I could see Chad’s body approximately 150 meters below on the apron of snow below the cliff at the base of the couloir. Doug’s body was also visible, motionless, but sliding slowly down the apron coming to rest about 30 meters beside Chad.

At this point, 17:29, I called the Haute Alps rescue services for a helicopter and then (17:33) called a local guide friend to confirm the helicopter dispatch and set other resources in motion. I directed Christina down, through the crux constriction, and left towards the exit into the mellower gullies that feed back into the apron below the central cliff at the base of the third couloir. I side stepped and boot packed 15 meters back up to the left exit and proceeded down.

I arrived at Doug first, at about 17:40, as he was slightly higher on the slope than Chad. I repositioned Doug, who was lying on his right side, bent at the waist and facing up hill with his skis off. There were no immediately obvious major injuries or deformities. He was pulse less, with out respirations. His eyes were open, pupils fixed and dilated. His lips were yellowish gray and his right ear purple. I preformed rescue breaths and CPR for approximately two minutes by which time Christina had arrived at Chad and declared that he was breathing. I left Doug, who had no indications of response and moved downhill 20 meters to Chad.

Chad was lying face down in the snow with his feet facing up hill. We carefully reoriented him and opened his airway. His breaths were regular and deep, his pulse strong and about 90 bpm. He had much coagulated blood in his nose, his eyes and lips were slightly swollen and discolored. Chad’s pupils were equal and responsive to light but he was unresponsive to shouting or pain. Christina returned to Doug while I maintained Chad’s airway, giving occasional rescue breaths, until the helicopter arrived at 18:03. Three members of the PGHM were lowered to the scene with their equipment and began administering an IV to Chad. We installed an oral airway in Chad’s mouth and placed him in a rescue sled. By this time Chad’s facial edema was pronounced but his breathing and pulse were still strong and he had begun to move his arm and squeeze my hand in response to my own squeezes. As the doctor began administering medicine to Chad, I returned to Doug to resume CPR. The helicopter returned in 10 or 15 minutes to transport Chad to a hospital in Briancon, 30 kilometers east. At this time one of the two remaining PGHM informed us that the doctor had already declared Doug dead. We replied that we knew and continued CPR for another 20 or 30 minutes. The helicopter returned and transported Christina and me back to La Grave. We were met by Jean Charles of La Meije and brought to where many of our friends had gathered. While debriefing the current situation with them the local police arrived to take a statement and during this process we were informed that Chad was dead as well."

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