Keystone skier dies while skiing with Doug Coombs
KEYSTONE – Chad VanderHam, a 31-year-old Keystone resident and aspiring mountain guide, died Monday after a horrifying fall suffered while skiing an ultrasteep couloir with mountaineering legend Doug Coombs and two other friends near La Grave, France.According to reports, VanderHam took off first down the rugged Couloir de Polichinelle, lost an edge on a sheet of ice and fell off a 200-foot cliff. Coombs, who was skiing second in the group of four, lost sight of his friend and soon realized VanderHam had fallen off the cliff. He signaled for the other two skiers in the all-American group, Matt Farmer and Christina Bloomquist, to bring a rope. However, when Coombs tried to get closer to the edge of the cliff to locate VanderHam, he too lost an edge and fell.According to reports gathered from witnesses and others on location in La Grave, VanderHam and Coombs fell about 1,500 feet over rocks and steep slopes before coming to rest. VanderHam was breathing when rescuers arrived, but could not be revived. Coombs, 48, was already dead.As news of VanderHam’s death trickled through the tight-knit Summit County community over the past week some remembered him as a soft-spoken, goofy Minnesota kid who came to Colorado for college and never left. Others recalled a 5-foot-8, 160-pound guy in glasses who walked into a room and commanded attention for no reason at all, except that his legitimacy could not be mistaken.All remembered a man who made the mountains his life – and, ultimately, his death.”The fact that Chad went down and did that first run (in La Grave),” said Joshua Roth, who attended Colorado State with VanderHam, “it’s really the only thing getting me through right now, just knowing that he died doing what he loved on the mountain.”Rare skierVanderHam was the rare extreme skier. He did not enter contests, did not flaunt his talents and was not after a video segment. All he ever wanted was to be one of the elite – without the attention that comes with it.A successful alpine ski racer throughout his youth with the Buck Hill Ski Club, VanderHam first realized the magnetic draw of big-mountain skiing when he was in college. He attended one of Coombs’ steep camps in Jackson Hole. When it was his turn to take a run in front of the video camera, he impressed the guru.”As Chad was coming down,” Roth said, “you could hear (Coombs) in the background going, ‘Oh, man! Who’s this guy? Sign him up! Sign him up!'”Coombs, an unassuming two-time world extreme skiing champion, and VanderHam became friends. Their tie grew over the years. VanderHam would take classes at Colorado State University in the fall, then, after enjoying the holidays at home with his family, he’d fly to Europe and spend the winter skiing in and around La Grave.Coombs became VanderHam’s idol and mentor – a rare combination in any sport. Still, VanderHam was not your average apprentice.Recalling their college days together, when they ripped the steeps at Arapahoe Basin, Placer Valley resident Rafe Sykes said of VanderHam: “He was a hard-charging skier who went all-out, all the time. We all knew right away that he had a special talent.”Extreme sceneVanderHam did whatever he could to be around Coombs and the unequaled extreme skiing scene in La Grave – a one-of-a-kind resort with 7,000-vertical-foot runs and no boundaries, grooming, trail maps or ski patrol. He began as a shuttle van driver for Coombs’ steep skiing camps. That led to video work at the same camps. Eventually, inspired by the legend who would one day die while trying to save his life, VanderHam decided he wanted to be a mountain guide.Less than a month ago, on March 11, VanderHam passed a ski mountaineering certification test, the first of three tests needed to become a certified American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) guide. Simon Fryer, the AMGA’s program director and a college buddy of VanderHam’s, said he expects his friend would have completed the subsequent tests (in rock and alpine climbing) within two years.Those accomplishments aside, VanderHam’s friends maintain his greatest gift was his personality. “He made everybody around him a better person,” said Alma resident and longtime friend Rob Citron.Citron described the first few days each spring, when VanderHam – who was an only child – returned from Europe and reunited with his friends in Summit. “He’d share stories from his winter over there, and just from the excitement in his voice you could tell how much he loved every day of his life,” Citron said.Fryer and Mitch Marquardt, a former Breck patroller who grew up racing with VanderHam in Minnesota, saw firsthand the reputation their quiet friend earned in La Grave.For instance, Fryer related his surprise when, while walking through the village streets with VanderHam, every shop owner in town stopped VanderHam to say hello.”He was kind of like a local legend,” Marquardt confirmed. “Soft-spoken and quiet, but he did what everybody wished they could do over there.”Marquardt recalled a common conversation he and VanderHam used to share when they were younger, after VanderHam returned from a day of skiing. “It’d be the worst day of the year, like a sheet of ice,” Marquardt said, “and you’d ask Chad how the skiing was, and he’d say, ‘It was good skiing.'”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13630, or at email@example.com.