The Perfect Turn

Posted on: July 1, 2006


Mark Newcomb threw open the door to my office. His eyes were puffy. I could tell this wasn't going to be good.

"Doug Coombs," he managed. "Avalanche." And then he began to cry.

One Thanksgiving Day half a dozen years ago, I went with Doug and Bill Dyer into the Tetons to get some early-season turns. Autumn had stretched into Indian summer; dried grasses waved against the asphalt of the parking lot, but snow had yet to accumulate on the valley floor. We strapped skis to our packs and carried them to the Platforms, jumping between roots and snow patches on the Garnet Canyon trail. Some deeper drifts had blown between the boulders, but only a zealot would see an opportunity for a day of skiing.

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Doug's toothy grin interrupted his face as though a twelve-year-old were hiding in his forty-something body. Giggling. Always giggling. "This is perfect!" he giggled when the east face of the Middle Teton came into view. No one else was in the canyon. The Tetons were ours again, wild, ageless, silent except for the winds and the water.

We ascended the trail we knew so well from past seasons, out of the Meadows toward the stark, broken bands of the Moraine. Even in early winter, the Middle Teton Glacier hordes its snow, sheltering it on north-facing slopes. Sweat soaked my shirt as we cramponed up in zigzags.

Spouses and loved ones waited below for Thanksgiving dinner, so we stopped beneath a shoulder on the east ridge, stomped out individual platforms and put on our skis. It was the first time I'd ever skied with Doug. "This is going to be great!" he said, shrugging off his pack. Tall, lanky, with round, outdated glasses and a face weathered by countless mountain days, he was famous for pioneering steep lines from Jackson to Valdez. In recent years his enthusiasm had spilled over to climbing as well. I was both intimidated and excited to be clicking in beside him.

Higher on the mountain, the slopes of the Middle Teton Glacier steepen considerably, but here they are moderate, breaking over in places to maybe forty degrees. Crevasses and ice sheets glinted below us. The Grand filled out the northern horizon overhead. Doug leaned into his turns with the eagerness of a child. I followed in my own rhythmic arcs, the jagged moraine expanding below my ski tips.

Ordinary skiing is a pleasurable way to spend a day; ski mountaineering transforms the joy into an adventure. It's also, in essence, soloing: there's no one to catch you if you fall. When I think rationally about it, I realize I don't like to be so exposed. But Doug was accelerating, Bill was already most of the way down, and an emptiness arose in the fluid expansion between my turns. Soon, all I wanted was that next transition.

The angle lessened; the turns became simply fun again. I opened them up and built speed. Through my peripheral vision, the glacier began to blur. Doug came into focus at the bottom, slowing to a halt beside Bill at the glacier's edge. I skied next to them and whooped in delight as adrenaline caught up with me. Bill's face turned in at the corners, his smile radiating into a crinkle of crow's feet. Doug was making his goofy grin. I'm sure I was smiling like a fool.

From the toe of the glacier, the canyon undulates down, tracing the evolution of the mountains backward toward the plains from which they rise. But although I've been in the canyon a hundred times, in every season, I next remember standing beside Doug, peering into a shaft that I had never seen before and have yet to find again. It necked into a slot that opened some twenty vertiginous feet lower into a powder cone.

"Well, now what?" I asked. We obviously couldn't ski it.

"Let me just have a look," Doug replied, but even before he was finished with the sentence he was turning, his movements tightening as the slot constricted until he merely dropped in a straight line. I've been skiing since I was five, but I'd never done anything like that. He seemed poised between the two walls, motionless apart from an increasing diminishment in size. And then poof, there was an explosion of white that momentarily absorbed him, and a burst of color as he propelled back onto the surface.

There was no way I could do that. No way.

"That was wild!" he yelled up, his voice rising two octaves on the last word. "You're gonna love it!"

"I don't know, Doug...." I called down.

"Oh, yeah, you've totally got it! You're gonna stick it! You're gonna be perfect!"

He already saw me sticking it. He already saw me making those turns in ever-shallower arcs until I straightened them out and soared down the slot as easily as he had. He saw me projected two minutes into the future, and I was perfect. The enthusiasm in his voice presented the scenario in such compelling detail that suddenly I, too, believed it had already happened. And because it had already happened, my doubt disappeared, and I began to turn.

I can remember what followed the way I remember all the best adventures, when hesitation and self-consciousness fall away and the only thing left is the moment. I dropped in, narrowing my turns when I entered the slot. The walls went racing by on either side. Doug stood at the exit, waiting for me to catch up to the reality he had already envisioned. Giggling.

"Yeah!" he exclaimed, as I breathlessly skied up beside him.

Doug was the consummate partner, able to motivate friends and clients alike to accomplish more than they expected. Even his end occurred in the assistance of another: he died not in an avalanche as Mark had first heard, but in a fall, as he tried to help a friend and aspirant guide, Chad VanderHam, who had skied over an edge. I'm hardly the only one these days who's remembering Doug and the adventures he inspired. Eternally stoked, incomprehensibly optimistic, exuberant, inimitable, unforgettable, Doug imbued a sense of the possible in whoever went with him, wherever they went. His enthusiasm seemed boundless, and it grew with the size of the surrounding landscape. That landscape feels a little smaller today than it did on April 2.

On behalf of all of us who never had a chance to say good-bye: thank you, Doug, for the good times. You will be missed.

—Christian Beckwith

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