LA GRAVE, France, May 15 — Many skiers who brave La Meije, a 13,068-foot peak that towers over this village, pack ropes and harnesses so they can lower themselves onto the steepest runs or rappel when the descent becomes treacherous. Most carry beacons that emit electromagnetic signals in case they need to be dug out after an avalanche.
This wild, unfettered setting is what drew Doug Coombs here from Wyoming. Over the past decade, he transformed himself from a famous daredevil skier to a conscientious mountain guide, making a home with his wife, Emily, and their 2-year-old son, David. They earned a living shepherding skiers around crevasses and away from slopes that creak under the snow’s weight.
“La Grave goes from tranquil to frightening and mad, and it’s so exhilarating to be in those moods,” Mrs. Coombs said in a telephone interview last week. Her husband, she said, “never found anything more perfect.”
Last month, Mr. Coombs slipped off a cliff and fell 490 feet to his death. He was 48. He was trying to rescue Chad VanderHam, his 31-year-old protégé and skiing partner from the United States. Mr. VanderHam had gone over the same cliff moments earlier. He also died.
Their accident, during a recreational outing, has focused attention on extreme skiing and on this remote destination, high in the Alps about 50 miles east of Grenoble. The incident has intensified the debate over how much responsibility individual skiers or ski-area managers should assume for skiers’ safety.
The French minister of sports, Jean-François Lamour, recently said that 47 of the 53 people killed this ski season were recreational skiers and snowboarders. He described that as unacceptable.
In the United States, fear of lawsuits spurs resort operators to control the environment. Early every morning, while skiers are still in bed, patrols cordon off danger zones. At some resorts, bombs or howitzers are used to trigger avalanches so the skiers do not.
Here, however, the mountain’s wildness has inspired a rigorous code of personal responsibility. At times, people oppose even the posting of signs to warn of avalanche risks or impassable routes. Guides speak of adapting the skier to the mountain, not the other way around. This uncontrolled environment is what Mr. Coombs stepped into; he had made a name for himself in ski films and extreme-skiing contests in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In 1994, he married Emily Gladstone, an accomplished skier in her own right.
They ran a helicopter skiing business in Valdez, Alaska, learning about avalanches and liability. They were running steep-skiing camps at the Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming in 1997 when the ski patrol accused Mr. Coombs of crossing a boundary in the area as he searched for fresh snow on a challenging slope.
His skiing privileges were revoked. Mr. Coombs, a resort employee and local luminary, disputed the decision, arguing that years of experience had qualified him to ski the slope. The area was later opened to skiers, but by the time Mr. Coombs resolved his differences with the resort, he and his wife had moved their camps to La Grave.
Mr. Coombs was making it his life’s work to introduce the Alps to expert skiers from the United States. He believed that regulation was keeping them from thinking independently, even as more of them were in search of challenge and solitude. “It was our little effort to change the world,” Mrs. Coombs, 46, said. “It was a small little dent, but it was something. And it was a way to make a living.”
At the time of their accident, Mr. Coombs and Mr. VanderHam were skiing a couloir, a narrow passageway that funnels snow and ice down a cliff face. Such runs are often off limits in the United States, but experts relish the soft snow that gathers on them.
“What Doug was guiding in Europe you would never be able to do over here,” said Andrew McLean, a mountaineer and author from Utah. “In Europe, everything is open all the time, and it puts the responsibility on the skier.”
Technically speaking, La Grave is not a ski resort. Each morning, the town’s guide bureau sends certified guides to inspect the mountain. If they feel confident, they advise the mayor to open the tramway, which takes skiers up more than 10,000 feet. That is the equivalent of roughly eight Empire State Buildings.
Skiers venture off a patch of prepared snow, then descend with professional guides who are trained to recognize hidden dangers.
Mr. Coombs flourished here, using his name recognition in the United States to attract groups for his $2,500-a-week camps or for pricier private sessions. He earned certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, a group based in Switzerland that has certified 6,000 guides internationally, including 22 from the United States.
“He was an organizer and doing a great job, and I was much impressed by his way of skiing,” said Pierre Risaldo, a longtime guide in La Grave. “We were just impressed with what we saw.”
Mr. Risaldo recalled being amused when Mr. Coombs showed up at the local guides bureau with a lengthy liability disclaimer that he required his clients to sign. It was a fairly foreign concept in France.
But the community embraced the Coombs family. Here is a rare ski town where an après-ski party might consist of a potluck dinner and an early bedtime after passing binoculars around to examine the tracks made on the mountain that day.
It Began as a Beautiful Day
Such was the blissful life that Doug and Emily Coombs had until April 3, a beautiful day here. They spent the morning with their son, then went skiing with a group from the United States. It was not a commercial arrangement. This was an outing among friends, for pleasure.
They rode the tramway up several times, then Mr. Coombs proposed skiing the Polichinelle couloir. The Polichinelle, an exposed and hidden slot on the mountain’s lower half, had been discovered 10 years earlier by an Italian mountaineer who had floated over it in the summer while parapenting, an activity similar to hang-gliding.
Polichinelle invokes a French term meaning “open secret.” It also refers to the couloir’s shape: a notch that zigzags down a cliff, forming three segments.
Three of the experienced skiers in the group — Mr. VanderHam, Matt Farmer and Christina Blomquist — jumped at the opportunity. Mrs. Coombs decided not to descend the perilous chute.
“I dreaded this day all my life,” she said. “I didn’t want to do that, because I’m a mother now. I went to the bottom, saw the helicopter come in and thought, oh no.”
Mr. Farmer carried a digital camera that afternoon, and the photographs he took show the group members looking thrilled as they descended. Elsewhere on the mountain, sunlight had converted soft snow to ice, but this shady notch still had untracked powder.
A former ski racer from Minnesota, Mr. VanderHam had been skiing with Mr. Coombs since visiting La Grave years earlier as a client in one of the steep-skiing camps. He showed an enthusiasm and ability that led Mr. Coombs to take him under his wing.
“Chad really admired Doug,” Mrs. Coombs said. “By the time they skied that last run together, they were more equals.”
The events of April 3 were described in a report filed with the American Mountain Guides Association and in interviews with friends of the men and guides who were familiar with the Polichinelle.
Toward the bottom of the couloir, Mr. VanderHam led the way. He entered the final portion, disappearing around a rocky bend. Mr. Coombs went next; Ms. Blomquist had begun to follow when Mr. Farmer heard a voice from below.
“Chad fell,” Mr. Coombs yelled. “Come down with a rope.”
Mr. Farmer moved into the final segment and joined Ms. Blomquist. They looked down and encountered a scene that Mr. Farmer later described in the report.
“I could see down to Doug, who was sidestepping down a rock rib below and right of the constriction at the base of the couloir,” Mr. Farmer wrote, describing the precipice. “Christina and I saw Doug yelling Chad’s name while sidestepping 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.”
It was an uncharacteristic mistake for a man who had made a name descending steep Alaskan peaks at high speeds. Mrs. Coombs offered a possible explanation.
“He just slipped looking for Chad, and he didn’t have all his senses because it was a friend,” she said in the telephone interview. “A little adrenaline probably made him react a little more quickly than he would have.”
Mr. Farmer called a rescue helicopter and guides at a lodge whom Mr. Coombs worked with closely. A small group soon gathered on a roadside about a mile west of the village, where it had been possible to see Ms. Blomquist and Mr. Farmer at a great distance as they attempted to revive Mr. Coombs and Mr. VanderHam.
Mr. Coombs’s eyes were open, and his pupils were fixed and dilated. He had no pulse and did not respond to Mr. Farmer’s first-aid attempts.
Mr. VanderHam had a pulse and was breathing, but he had blood in his nose and did not respond to shouting or show that he felt pain.
A helicopter arrived within 20 minutes, lowering rescuers and a doctor. They treated Mr. VanderHam and took him to a hospital, where he later died. The doctor declared Mr. Coombs dead on the mountain, but Ms. Blomquist and Mr. Farmer continued trying to resuscitate him for another 20 or 30 minutes.
The next morning, the town rang the church bells for them.
Mrs. Coombs stayed here for two weeks. Her husband’s death had sent shockwaves through the skiing world. Testimonials sprouted on the Internet, praising Mr. Coombs’s influence on the sport. People also started memorial funds for his family and raised money in Mr. VanderHam’s honor.
Mr. VanderHam’s father, Gilbert, who lives in Minnesota, said he was touched by the support. He said his son had left home for Colorado State University and the bigger mountains there. “He never came back,” he said. “He loved the mountains so much.”
Mrs. Coombs has since returned to Jackson, Wyo., where people will always remind her son, she said, “that his daddy was a great man.” She added, “How many people get to say that when they die that the whole world takes a moment for you?”
She says David, her son, is young enough that he will not be scarred by his father’s death but old enough to remember that his father taught him to ski.
France, meanwhile, may be moving toward more control over skiing, something that several of La Grave’s guides said they believed could, in fact, generate more reckless skiing.
Mrs. Coombs says that she sees a greater need for the steep-skiing camps, and that she hopes to continue the business that she and her husband started. Their business employs some of the 30 or so guides living in La Grave. The draw, she admitted, was her charismatic husband.
She speaks forcefully on behalf of the free environment in which her husband found his purpose and his demise.
“You know, the mountains are full of dangers, and they swallow you up,” she said. “But mostly, they give.”