FEATURE: The Death of Superman

By on November 10, 2015

When adventure athletes become human.

151111CoverFeatJackson, WY – It’s 4 p.m. in La Grave, France, and four skiers are picking their way above a 600 hundred-foot rock band as they exit the Couloir de Polichinelle. The first to descend the chute is Chad Vanderham, a ski guide from Colorado. Vanderham skis confidently toward the high consequence traverse and disappears around the corner. Jackson ski and mountaineer legend Doug Coombs watches from above and follows his friend toward the exit. Cresting the corner, Coombs scans the horizon but sees no sign of Vanderham. Fearing the worst, he calls out for a rope and inches towards the edge of the cliff. In a matter of seconds, Coombs loses his edge and tumbles over the cliff to his death. The only sound that follows is enduring silence. Almost a decade later, the global mountain community continues to mourn the loss of Coombs.

Adventure sports figures have become the superheroes of today’s world, but sometimes their secret human identity reveals itself. For years, Coombs survived in the alpine world with what appeared to be superhuman qualities, but one misstep ended everything. Adventure athletes inspire us with their incredible feats, but they are not unlike you and me. It sometimes takes the death of super athletes like Coombs, Dean Potter and Eric Roner for the public to be reminded of their human fragility. Although they can fly at high speeds, scale cliff faces with heightened senses, and complete mind boggling aerobatic feats, they are still bound by the laws of physics. When these athletes die, we struggle to uncover a lesson from their departure. But sometimes, becoming acquainted with the mortal underneath the cape is the most valuable lesson of all.

Secret identities

Coombs wasn’t always dropping into Corbet’s Couloir or side-slipping a waterfall of ice, often times he could be found at Nick Wilson’s noshing chicken tenders and fries. Coombs’ wife, Emily, says “there were two Dougs: one in the media that went above and beyond and the other Doug that was completely disorganized with mustard in his beard.” Coombs, and adventure athletes like him, become a symbol for our own hopes and dreams. So in order to preserve the fantasy of perfection, we turn a blind eye to their shortcomings. It’s easy then to forget that the images of Coombs carving turns on an Alaska spine were tailored for public consumption, carefully selected to show a lone warrior overcoming great odds to conquer a formidable foe. One picture doesn’t always tell the whole truth, however, as Coombs had fears that were hidden behind the scenes. Emily says Coombs pushed it to the limits in part to face his fear of breaking his neck, a vulnerable body part after Coombs crashed during a high school ski race. So he strived for greatness, not because he didn’t have fear, but because he wouldn’t allow his own fears to control him. The media instead portrayed Coombs as a fearless archetype of invincibility and the public misinterpreted this facade of immortality. Coombs’ true message, Emily explained, was “if I can do it, you can do it.”

Doug Coombs with his son, David, in 2004 outside of the Coombs’ home in La Grave, France. Coombs’ wife, Emily, says Coombs was an adoring father who was enamored with his little boy. (Photo: Emily Coombs)

Doug Coombs with his son, David, in 2004 outside of the Coombs’ home in La Grave, France. Coombs’ wife, Emily, says Coombs was an adoring father who was enamored with his little boy. (Photo: Emily Coombs)

This mentality inspired Emily to honor Coombs’ life by giving folks struggling to climb the socio-economic ladder the opportunity to realize their physical potential. In 2012, Emily founded the Doug Coombs Foundation “after noticing that low-income families were almost entirely absent from outdoor activities that define Jackson Hole.” This past winter the nonprofit helped 160 kids get onto the ski hill that may never have been given the chance otherwise.  It truly takes a village to raise an adventure athlete, and the foundation is helping to create the next generation of superheroes. Coombs may have appeared at the peak of his career as an independent entity, but what the true story indicates is that he had an incredible amount of help along the way.

Coombs wasn’t born with an ice axe in his hand, he grew up skiing on a hill with a vertical rise of 700 feet in Massachusetts. When Emily met him years later living in Montana “he was a disaster” and couldn’t get to the ski hill without forgetting something. Emily said they needed each other to balance themselves out and when they moved to Jackson Hole they did everything together. Emily explained that Coombs then started skiing for sponsors simply ”because he didn’t have any money and wanted to ski and play without working too hard.” From afar, we see images of Coombs the superhero skiing amazing lines, but when we look closer we can see a guy that many folks can relate to. Perhaps people are drawn to superheroes, like Doug, because they break down perceptual barriers, convincing others of humans’ extraordinary potential.

Spiderman wasn’t perfect

Local mountaineer and architect of SHIFT Festival, Christian Beckwith reminds us that “if you want to keep your hero as a hero then never meet them.” Taking these athletes out of their fantasy roles, however, may be to our advantage. Seeing adventure athletes as equals, will hopefully allow us to question our own capabilities. Beckwith, former editor of the prestigious Alpinist Magazine, has encountered many heroes of the mountains. Several of his experiences, he says, have illustrated time and time again that even athletes at the top of their game make mistakes. Beckwith defines adventure athletes as “those willing to go into the unknown” and keep coming back even when the “outcome is uncertain.”

Dean Potter was one of those athletes that needed perfection in order to survive. In true Spiderman fashion, Potter could free-solo without ropes up shear cliff faces, then jump with a parachute from the summit to the valley floor. Beckwith says people become fascinated with adventure athletes like Potter because, “they are reaching for the apex of human potential and have such a small space between them and their demise. ” The illusion of perfection, Beckwith said, is needed for some of these athletes to push their limits, particularly when a supreme belief in one’s own abilities is needed in order to commit to an action that could kill them. After decades of superhuman feats, however, imperfection finally caught up with Potter. He died this past spring in a wing-suit accident.

Superheroes appeal to the masses not because they beat the bad guy or summit the highest peak, but because they battle against their own demons. Many of us take the path of least resistance and convince ourselves that we’re not good enough to achieve greatness. However, true accomplishment isn’t marked by a summit tally, but by a willingness to try. Stephen Koch, local snowboard mountaineer, faced his own inner turmoil on Mt. Everest in his quest to snowboard the highest seven summits on each continent. Within sight of his goal, a massive avalanche narrowly missed his team. Koch retreated, admitting that, “for a long time after I felt like a failure, I felt like I was not enough.” Koch later realized, however, that “turning around on Everest was actually a defining moment of success in my life. I now understand a way of being that is not driven by ego, but driven by heart.” Adventure athletes are always applauded when they reach the summit, but the true test of a judicious mountaineer is knowing when to turn around. Koch says that he learned after watching many friends die in the mountains: “If I kept going bigger and steeper, I was going to be next.”

Snowboard mountaineer Stephen Koch is fostering a sense of exploration in his sons and in audiences who listen to his motivational talks. (Photo: Stephen Koch)

Snowboard mountaineer Stephen Koch is fostering a sense of exploration in his sons and in audiences who listen to his motivational talks. (Photo: Stephen Koch)

Superhero ethos

The adventure heroes of today’s world speak to us through their actions instead of their words. They teach us the values of perseverance, loyalty, and humility in the mountain sphere, so we can learn from them on the valley floor. These superheroes allow us to watch the action from afar without being engulfed in it, so we can learn before taking the risk ourselves. When Jimmy Chin and his climbing partners approached the Shark’s Fin on Meru, they passed Hindu pilgrims who asked them, “tell us what you see.”  In their eyes, the climbing expedition was approaching their religion’s inner sanctuary, the true “center of the universe.” Adventure athletes, in some ways, have become the sages of today’s world and provide “answers” to life’s existential problems. Beckwith believes that adventure athletes teach us about the “fragility of life” and that “personal evolution isn’t possible without risk.” Koch adds, “the mountains teach us how to deal with our own mind in everyday life and even though we are all vulnerable, adventure helps us learn how to control the fear.”

Living for longevity

It is perhaps a useful reminder that professional athletes are tasked with promoting their “brand” – purposeful entertainment, not just a theatrical show for enjoyment. So often we look at the Photoshopped lives of adventure athletes and wish we could be them, believing that everyday for them must be bluebird powder. Rob Kingwill has been a professional snowboarder for the last 20 years.

“It’s not as glorious as it appears to be,” he admitted.

Rob Kingwill coaches Native American kids snowboarding during the Intertribal Winter Sports Summit last winter. The pro-snowboarder is involved in myriad youth outreach efforts. (Photo: Rob Kingwill)

Rob Kingwill coaches Native American kids snowboarding during the Intertribal Winter Sports Summit last winter. The pro-snowboarder is involved in myriad youth outreach efforts. (Photo: Rob Kingwill)

For instance, Kingwill recalls waiting for eight days in various airports just to film a five-minute snowboarding segment for a Warren Miller film in Nepal. Kingwill explains that it hasn’t always been easy making a career of snowboarding and “nothing lasts forever, so you must create your own future.” So Kingwill did just that by starting his own winter accessory and clothing line in 2007, Avalon7. He says it keeps his vision of mountain life afloat.  You can also find him coaching snowboarding at Camp of Champions in Whistler, BC, in the summertime, and deeply immersed in youth outreach efforts throughout the valley the remainder of the year. Adapting is Kingwill’s specialty.

“Life in the mountains is a progression and you must be ready to constantly reinvent yourself,” he said.

Kingwill happily admits that he is not extreme 24 hours a day. “There is a limit to the amount of adrenaline you can put into your system,” he said, adding that he sees a disturbing trend in extreme sports with increasingly blurry boundaries between what is possible and  what may likely result in death.

“Snowboarding competitions are getting so high impact, that sometimes as a coach, I’m getting scared to encourage my students,” Kingwill admitted. Indeed, across all ends of the adventure sports spectrum there seems to be tremendous pressure to perform beyond the capabilities of what is humanly possible. In some ways the press and social media has turned extreme sports into theatre, where the athletes become characters we cheer on from the sidelines, while they risk their lives to entertain. However, Kingwill stands out as an athlete that embraces reality, instead of trying to escape it. When he considers a risk, his mind rolls over the question, “Is it worth it?” and very often he says his answer is, “Lets skip this today so tomorrow we can do that.” The long list of Kingwill’s accomplishments illustrates a tendency to select balance over bravado.

Julie Zell, local snowboarding pioneer, witnessed the “leaps of mental and physical evolution” that have occurred in adventure sports since she started snowboarding in 1989. Zell says that athletes today seem to be emulating fantasy “video game movements and applying them to the real world.” Zell, who won Alaska’s Queen of the Hill competition for three consecutive years, is no stranger to risk, but says that today’s athletes are “not trapped in the same rules of mind and body that I was.”  With the advancement of adventure sports, however, comes higher risk and Zell hopes that the current generation doesn’t fall prey to the same hazards that she faced, hazards that perhaps come with the territory of certain sports no matter the time period. When competing in big mountain competitions, Zell laments that “nobody talked about being scared, but I was terrified in Alaska.” Zell recalls thinking, “What am I doing here, I didn’t start snowboarding to die.” Looking back on her career, which she says “she was lucky to survive,” Zell hopes that todays heroes of the mountains learn to “perform for themselves and not for the cameras.” Zell says she never considered herself to be an extreme athlete and explains that she was able to push her limits only after a gentle “progression of my ability levels.”

Sometimes what shapes an athlete’s superhero-human trajectory are the battles they face when they’re young. Years later, even when it feels like the battle has been won, those old feelings never completely disappear. Instead, they become the catalyst for action and great ideas. Crystal Wright, two-time winner of the Freeride World ski tour, was told as a child, “you can’t do that because you’re a girl.” Growing up at the base of the Wind River Range with no electricity or television, however, Wright says she learned that she could do whatever the boys could do and sometimes even more.

Pro-skier Crystal Wright is an architect of mountain enthusiasm, particularly with the group she spearheaded to offer support to female alpine enthusiasts, the Jackson Hole Babe Force. (Photo: Crystal Wright)

Pro-skier Crystal Wright is an architect of mountain enthusiasm, particularly with the group she spearheaded to offer support to female alpine enthusiasts, the Jackson Hole Babe Force. (Photo: Crystal Wright)

“Women tend to second guess themselves a lot” she said. “But believing in your abilities is necessary in order to try something that scares you a little bit.”

When she repeatedly wasn’t granted access to the “all boys clubs” that proliferates mountain culture, Wright founded the Jackson Hole Babe Force to help empower other women with alpine aspirations. The organization is currently offering two scholarships to two local women for Avalanche 1 instruction.

Wright says it’s imperative that we teach the “next generation of female skiers and riders to not make the same mistakes I did while getting into the backcountry.” Wright says while growing up she “was fearless, did what seemed cool, and followed what other people were doing.” Providing females with more instruction and social support through the JH Babe Force, Wright says she hopes to create an environment for females to gain a “proper education so they don’t have to depend on their husbands or guy friends to lead them around the backcountry.”

Athletes, like Wright, illustrate that to achieve beyond the ordinary a commonly held belief among adventure athletes must work its way into more people’s psyches: the extraordinary is possible. PJH


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