Robert Cocuzzo- Following in the Tracks of Ski Legend Doug Coombs
Alps & Meters Alpinist Robert Cocuzzo grew up skiing at Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, Massachusetts. So did big mountain skiing legend Doug Coombs. Doug would go on to found Valdez Heli-Ski Guides in Alaska and win the World Extreme Skiing Championships...twice. He skied in many Warren Miller movies, of which Robert was a fan.
Coombs was a fixture of the skiing community in Jackson Hole, and when Cocuzzo moved to Wyoming after college, he discovered that Doug, one of his idols, had grown up minutes from him, and the two had learned to ski on the very same trails at tiny Nashoba Valley.
In 2006, while skiing in a couloir in La Grave, Coombs fell while trying to rescue friend Chad VanderHam. He was killed on the scene. Chad died later of injuries sustained in the fall.
Robert, now a freelance writer and editor of N Magazine, spent years following Doug's tracks. Skiing where he skied, interviewing his friends and family members, and learning more about the man who left such a profound mark on adventure skiers around the world. Robert's biography of Coombs/adventure journal releases next year. We caught up with him recently to learn more about his project.
Alps & Meters: Who are you and what do you do?
Robert Cocuzzo: My name is Robert Cocuzzo. I am a writer and magazine editor splitting my time between the mountains of New Hampshire and the island of Nantucket. My latest project is a forthcoming book about the late adventure skier Doug Coombs. The book is being published by Mountaineers Books and should be available this time next year.
Photo: Joshua Simpson
Alps & Meters: Tell us more about your book? How did this project find you?
RC: I grew up watching Doug Coombs in ski movies, but his story didn’t really find me until I moved to Jackson Hole after college. Only then did I discover that Coombs had actually grown up ten miles away from me in Massachusetts. Better yet, he grew up skiing the same tiny molehill where I learned to ski. Discovering that blew me away. I thought, “How did Coombs go from sliding down the pebbled pavement of his driveway in Massachusetts to becoming arguably the greatest big mountain skier to ever live?” Three years ago, I set out to answer that question.
Alps & Meters: You spent quite a bit of time following in Doug's tracks and talking to his friends and family while working on this book...Who was the most intriguing storyteller?
RC: Coombs himself was a legendary storyteller, so reading transcripts of interviews with him was always entertaining. As far as the many people I spoke with around the world, the most important conversations I had were with his wife Emily. She was able to help me understand the man behind the legend.
Alps & Meters: What surprised you most about the process of writing this story?
RC: That the most intense experiences in researching the life of Doug Coombs wasn't skiing no-fall zones, but rather meeting the many people he had impacted throughout his life.
Photo: Joshua Simpson
Alps & Meters: Where did you write your book? Have you found any particular place that helps the words to flow more easily?
RC: I wrote this book all over the world, from a tiny chalet nestled in the French Alps, to my apartment on Nantucket, and many coffee shops sprinkled in between. That being said, my most productive writing periods took place in the home I recently bought in Jackson, New Hampshire at the foot of Mount Washington along the Ellis River. It's a five-minute drive to the Tuckerman Ravine Trailhead where Coombs cut his teeth as a kid, so there was some magic energy in the air. I could write for hours without ever leaving my chair.
"The journey officially began on January 12, 2012 in Jackson Hole. After logging my first interview for my book, I turned to my journal and wrote, 'I envision this being a long project--but it has begun.' Three years later, after thousands of miles of travel, hundreds of interviews, and countless hours of staring at a glowing screen with all-consuming dread--the manuscript is finally done and off to the publisher. There's still lots of editing to do, but the words are on the page and now they will see the light of day."
Words by Robert. Photo by Joshua Simpson
Alps & Meters: What does a typical day in your life look like?
RC: I wake up at 5 am, load up the french press and start writing shortly thereafter. If I break from that routine, I am a miserable person for the rest of the day. Around 10 am I report for duty at my day job as the editor of N Magazine, a lifestyle publication on Nantucket. Around 2 pm I head out for exercise- cycling, running, hiking, skiing, depending on the season and where I am. I thrive on travel and being on the road, but the ritual of getting up and writing will always be at the core of keeping me balanced and creatively content.
Alps & Meters: Who or what inspires you?
RC: I'm fortunate to have many inspiring people in my life, whether it be my parents, cousins, co-workers or friends. I'm surrounded by people who get after it in their own unique ways, and that re-affirms my conviction to stick to my own compass and trust my gut. My professional heroes are National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin and bestselling author Sebastian Junger, both of whom I've been fortunate to interview.
Alps & Meters: Fondest memory of time well spent in the mountains?
RC: I have many fond memories in the mountains, but despite all the big descents around the world, I think I'll most cherish the ski runs I made with my parents last winter in New Hampshire. Riding up the chairlift with them, I remember feeling truly grateful to be able to share something that I love with them- even if they were wearing matching one-piece ski suits from the eighties.
Alps & Meters: Where and how did you learn to ski?
RC: I learned to ski on a 240-foot hill west of Boston called Nashoba Valley. Every Wednesday, my mom dropped me off at the local ice rink with a pair of her old ski boots and some second-hand K2's my dad bought me, and I'd jump onto a school bus headed to Nashoba. When we pulled up to the hill, the bus driver opened the door and we were set free to explore the mountain as we saw fit. I haven't looked back since.
Alps & Meters: How would you describe your personal style?
RC: War journalist on vacation.
Alps & Meters: Favorite way to spend time outside in the off-season?
RC: I don't really have an off-season. I'm a four-season enthusiast. Skiing in the winter. Cycling in the spring. Hiking in the fall, and any number of activities in the summer.
Photo: Joshua Simpson
Alps & Meters: What's next for you?
RC: There's still a lot to be done with the Coombs book, from final editing to marketing, all of which I am excited to undertake. That being said, my radar is always pinging with new ideas and I look forward to meeting the next muse who will guide my journey as a writer.
Alps & Meters: It's been a long week...You need to get outdoors, quickly. Where are you headed?
RC: It really depends on where I am at that moment. If I'm in Jackson, New Hampshire, I'll pop out my back door and walk down to the Ellis River where I can fly fish for brookies. If I'm on Nantucket, I'll jump on my mountain bike and head for the single-track in the State Forest. If I'm in Boston, I love riding my fixed-gear through traffic at rush hour.
Alps & Meters: Après-ski cocktail of choice?
RC: When I was living in La Grave, France while researching my book, I got a taste for vinchaud, essentially warm red wine. Of course, nothing beats a cold beer.