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Colby Coombs was interviewed by Dave Krupa on May 29, 2000, at Daryl Miller's home in Talkeetna, Alaska. Colby is an accomplished mountaineer and guide who, together with his wife Caitlin Palmer, owns and operates Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna. The couple have also recently acquired the Okonek's Alaska Denali Guiding. Colby is a gifted mountaineer and teacher, having worked his way through National Outdoor Leadership School and mentored under Brian Okonek on trips in the Alaska Range. He has climbed some of the most technically challenging routes in Alaska, and endured a devastating epic on Mt. Hunter in 1992, when two of his climbing partners were killed by a slab avalanche in white out conditions. Ritt Kellog and Tom Walter were killed by the fall, and Colby suffered a broken neck, scapula, and ankle, then had to get off the mountain by himself. Colby provides a detailed account of the climb and its aftermath, drawing important lessons about controlling risk and paying special heed to the capricious weather in the Alaska Range. Through AMS and now ADG, Colby and Caitlin share their knowledge and experience with students who learn to put safe travel technique above peak bagging.

 

            

 

H2000-17-11

Colby Coombs talks with Dave Krupa in Talkeetna, AK on May 29, 2000. Denali National Park Jukebox Series.

 

1) Introduction and Coombs' background.

London, England\ wilderness -- interest\ New Hampshire\ backyard -- woods\ growing up\ Washington, D.C. \ campus -- mountains\ backpacking -- overnight\ high school -- choice\ program -- outdoor\ Boston, MA\ wilderness -- love\ skills -- learned\ ascents -- winter\ Presidential Mountains\ ice axe\ crampons\ Appalachian Mountains\ junior high -- Shenandoah\ Colorado -- school\ Rocky mountains

 

2) His scholarly career and his relationship with nature.

high school -- junior\ NOLS -- North Cascade Mountains\ glacier -- travel\ senior -- project\ McKinley\ Alaska Denali Climbing\ Okonek, Brian -- mentor\ gear -- hand made\ pack -- frame\ ego\ strength\ boundaries\ skill -- level\ Talkeetna, AK\ Okonek, Brian\ Okonek, Diane\ college -- summer\ NOLS -- instructor's course\ experience\ guide

 

3) Learning about climbing with friends at college.

guiding\ education -- outdoor\ strengths -- teaching\ woods -- playing\ peak -- climbing\ view\ climbing -- winter\ mosquitoes\ people\ skill -- level\ terrain -- exposure\ systems -- rope\ incentive\ ice axe\ crampons\ climbing -- technical\ places -- new\ training\ college -- rock climbing\ ice climbing\ climbing -- technical\ ascents -- technical\ roommates\ people -- experienced\ protection -- placement\ systems -- anchor\ difficulty -- higher

 

4) What struck him as different about Alaska.

courses -- none\ NOLS -- mountaineering\ Alaska\ scale -- larger\ high school -- Appalachians\ Himalayas\ Rockies\ climb -- guided\ clients -- number\ May -- cold\ rescues -- help\ high camp -- weather\ weather --wind\ weather -- temperature\ cave\ storm -- survival\ tents -- lost\ Denali -- extreme\ summit day

 

5) Colby describes the Okoneks.

Okonek, Brian\ Talkeetna, AK\ company -- guiding\ life -- quality\ politics -- local\ Climbers' Memorial\ Miller, Daryl\ Robinson, Roger\ Okonek, Diane\ honesty\ hardworking\ standards -- high\ business -- standards\ clients -- screening\ mountain -- operation\ walls -- biggest\ camps\ knowledgeable\ Denali -- history\ mountaineering\ National Park Service\ Alaska\ dogsleding\ business -- secondary

 

6) Colby describes Brian Okonek and his second trip to Alaska.

Okonek, Brian\ ascents -- first\ Alaska Range\ Okonek, Jim\ father\ pilot\ influence -- excellent\ Talkeetna, AK\ NOLS -- Palmer, AK\ course -- mountaineering\ Mt. Brooks\ Mt. Silverthrone\ Boston, MA\ client\ accident\ McKinley -- guiding

 

7) Colby discusses planning of his trip in 1992.

Kellogg, Ritt\ trip -- planning\ climbing -- partners\ friends\ Alaska\ Walter, Tom\ team -- joined\ Mt. Foraker -- climb\ elder\ climbing -- experience\ expedition -- big\ mountaineer -- aspiring\ Alaska -- hazards\ area -- serious\ climbing -- progression

 

8) Training for mountaineering at college.

rock climbing -- afternoon\ Colorado College\ Colorado Springs, CO\ weekends -- mountains\ Sangre De Cristo Mountains \ mountaineering\ rock climbing\ ice climbing -- technical\ training\ Walter, Tom\ attitude -- great\ skill -- level\ experience\ confident\ routes -- new\ Pakistan\ accident -- potential\ consequences -- severe

 

9) Mountaineering in Alaska.

Alaska -- mountaineering\ dynamics -- group\ communicating\ goals -- individual\ safety\ Mt. Foraker -- climb\ Mt. Hunter -- North Face\ Mt. Hunter -- West Side\ Walter, Tom\ route -- new\ Kellogg, Ritt\ Kennedy-Lowe Route\ West Ridge\ serac -- ice fall\ earthquake\ flight\ Mt. Foraker -- East Face\ basecamp\ Pink Panther -- route

 

10) Planning the route for the trip of 1992.

glaciers -- hanging\ ridge -- buttress\ basecamp\ Finnish variation\ buttress -- final\ bypass -- couloir\ protection -- rock\ accident -- terrible\ tragedy\ climbing -- excellent\ difficulty\ route-- good\ weather -- inclement\ beginning -- delay\ snow\ weather -- improved

 

11) The first part of the climb on Mount Foraker.

route -- finishing\ stretch -- final\ top-out -- camp\ Mt. Foraker -- summit\ weather -- conditions\ buttress -- rock\ climbing -- moderate\ technique -- French\ South East Ridge -- descent\ visibility -- zero\ route -- history\ Mt. McKinley\ ice\ side -- leeward\ ridgeline -- sharp\ snow --unstable\ Walter, Tom\ white-out

 

12) The accident on Mount Foraker.

protection -- none\ rope -- anchor\ mountaineering -- taboo\ team -- rope\ Walter, Tom\ ice -- honeycombed\ ice screws\ pickets\ speed -- safety\ route -- steep\ weather -- storms\ Alaska Range\ food\ fuel\ water\ packs -- weight\ accident -- consequences\ safety -- effort\ visibility\ cold\ fatigue\ face -- ice\ camp\ ridge -- bivy

 

13) Post-climb plans of the group.

time -- daylight\ helicopter -- Lama\ Walter, Tom\ axe\ [ ], Lisa\ kayaking -- sea\ Kellogg, Ritt -- Outward Bound\ NOLS\ advice\ mountaineering -- Alaska\ patience\ visibility\ climbing -- catch 22\ snow -- stability\ evaluation\ glaciers -- vertical\ snow -- quantity\ glaciation -- active\ weather -- storm

 

14) The avalanche, and gives advice for young mountaineers.

avalanche -- slab\ glacier -- hanging\ cornice\ wind -- deposited\ snow\ hazard -- precipitation\ accumulation\ wind \ hazard -- avalanche\ Alaska Range -- topography\ ridges -- cornices\ attitude -- caution\ teaching\ belay\ slope -- dig\ stability -- assessment

 

15) Conditions in the Alaska Range and making critical decisions.

quality -- unique\ Alaska Range -- light\ conditions\ wind -- fatigue\ climb -- progress\ judgement -- impaired\ discipline\ accident\ weather\ climb\ visibility\ buttress -- rock\ protection -- running\ visibility

 

16) Conditions surrounding the accident.

fatigue -- influence\ mountains -- accident\ mistake\ protection -- running\ visibility\ conditions -- ice\ slope -- ice\ camping \ ice axes -- cave\ partners -- dead

 

17) What he wishes he and his team had done.

route -- slope\ slopes -- final\ calculation -- careful\ buttress -- rock\ wind -- load\ slope -- steep\ ice\ wind\ avalanche\ white-out\ bergschrund -- camp\ plan -- prudent\ rope -- tension

 

18) What happened when the avalanche hit.

slack -- sudden\ alarm\ snow -- powerful\ self arrest -- attempt\ downhill -- sliding\ airborne\ unconscious\ light -- changed\ morning\ avalanche\ hanging

 

19) Coming to after the avalanche.

Walter, Tom\ movement -- none\ rope -- caught\ Kellogg, Ritt\ [ ], Cliff\ face -- ice\ condition -- dead\ Fesler, Doug\ Fesler, Jill\ Avalanche Safety Center\ recoveries\ mask -- common\ blessing\ nerves\ face -- expression\ descent\ mindset\ bones -- broken\ condition -- severe\ survivor -- strategy\ error -- room

 

20) How he finished the descent.

survival\ emotions\ climbing -- accident\ death\ fear\ pain\ ankle -- broken\ scapula --broken\ neck -- broken\ tent -- sitting\ focus\ step -- next\ route\ mentality -- unstoppable\ disabilities -- physical\ state -- emotional\ mind -- frame

 

21) Changes in his climbing style due to injuries from the avalanche.

boots -- plastic\ swelling\ ankle -- bending\ shoulder -- pick\ neck -- broken\ neck -- turning\ body --rotating\ sitting -- technique\ neck -- muscles\ techniques -- adjusted\ mountain -- familiar\ war -- Kuwait\ injured\ environment -- familiar\ food -- ration\ fuel -- rationed\ stove\ tent\ clothes\ Kellogg, Ritt\ Walter, Tom\ impact -- minimum\ technique -- abandoned\ weight -- critical\ helmet -- smashed\ trash -- tossed

 

22) How his faith in God helped him through his descent.

God -- faith\ blame -- factor\ avalanche\ faith -- strength\ religious\ helpful\ state -- mental\ pray -- help\ effort\ mother -- connection\ death -- coping\ responsible\ parents\ wife\ severity\ nervous\ grief -- parents

 

23) What he would like others to learn from his accident.

students\ safety -- accidents\ effect -- ripple\ wave -- shock\ parents\ friends\ trauma -- accident\ descent -- forgotten\ memory -- short\ family\ relatives\ mountains -- death\ tragedy\ mothers\ fathers\ brothers\ sisters\ individual -- larger\ aware\ students -- ambitious\ partner\ reason -- none\ kid -- dead\ tragedy --- endured\ life -- nadir\ teacher -- effective\ words -- wisdom

 

24) How the accident has affected his life as a climber.

climbing -- quitting\ risk -- manageable\ routes -- particular\ college -- eager\ glaciers -- hanging\ criteria -- stringent\ drive -- gone\ Mt. Foraker\ climb -- hardest\ Wyoming\ ascent -- winter\ ascent -- day\ Grand Teton -- North Face\ conditions\ life -- stop\ plans -- hold\ accident -- focus\ wheel chair\ crutches\ climbing -- prime\ jobs -- guiding\ jobs -- teaching

 

25) How he has recovered.

scale -- small\ upset\ normalcy -- important\ recovery\ life -- upside down\ years -- mellow\ accidents -- more\ wilderness -- mountains\ safety -- content\ desire -- burning\ routes -- harder\ challenge -- constant\ rock climbing -- safe\ mountaineering -- Alaska\ factor -- danger\ routes -- moderate\ climbs -- personal\ routes -- new\ Cassin Ridge\ weather -- bad\ Denali\ safety -- margin\ level -- comfort

 

26) His role as an educator and a guide, and the Alaska Mountaineering School.

motivation\ guiding -- teaching\ clients\ goal -- summit\ summit -- focus\ sickness -- altitude\ injuries -- cold\ measure -- preventative\ teaching -- dynamic\ weather -- storm\ shelters -- snow\ searching -- transceiver\ ascent -- peak\ flexibility\ group\ program -- best\ course -- idea\ goal -- education\ climbing -- peaks\ setting -- real\ application -- fun\ school -- students\ focus -- education\ trips -- guided\ Aconcagua\ break -- fun\ clients\ guides\ ascent -- guided

 

27) The idea of a mountaineering school.

school -- establish\ skills\ NOLS -- teaching\ Outward Bound\ kids -- risk\ kids -- handicapped\ councelor -- camp\ Maine\ dishes -- washing\ education -- outdoor\ training\ Talkeetna, AK\ work\ Okonek, Brian\ Okonek, Diane\ community -- value\ school -- climbing\ NOLS\ Alaska Denali Guiding\ mentor\ Alma Mater\ competition\ differences -- important\ guiding\ courses -- longer\ areas -- other\ Palmer, Caitlin\ Mt. Crosson -- summit\ weather -- storm\ Mt. Hunter -- guiding\ guiding -- extreme\ objectives -- harder

 

28) How the school was established.

situations -- hazard\ clients -- safety\ guiding -- tradition\ Kellogg, Peter\ Kellogg, Cindy\ Kellogg, Ritt\ Mt. Foraker\ help -- starting\ boots -- plastic\ gear\ equipment\ debt -- pressure\ Palmer, Caitlin\ met -- chance\ fundraiser -- dinner\ house -- fire\ [McCullough, Brian]\ [McCullough, Whitney]\ neighbors\ love -- immediate\ Talkeetna, AK\ McKinley\ Miller, Daryl\ University of Alaska, Anchorage -- teaching\ program -- wilderness\ expedition -- fundraiser\ Denali\ women -- breast cancer\ trip -- guided\ Alaska Denali Guiding\ Okoneks\ Maine\ Prescott College\ wilderness\ climbing -- interest

 

29) His relationship with his wife, Caitlin.

Palmer, Caitlin\ lifestyle -- transient\ relationship -- destroyed\ road trip -- rock climbing\ Yosemite\ Wyoming\ marriage\ Alaska Mountaineering School -- operation\ APU -- connection\ Anchorage, AK\ programs -- outdoor\ credit -- college\ [McGivern, Dave]\ course -- taught\ guide -- mountain\ [Tordock, Paul]\ instructor -- NOLS\ Ajango, Deb\ Smith, Blaine\ Denali\ network

 

30) Relationship between guides and the National Park Service.

relationship -- complicated\ National Park Service -- role\ activities -- climbing\ regulations\ registration -- procedure\ McKinley -- guiding\ school\ West Buttress\ snow machine -- use\ hunting\ guiding\ relationship -- good\ climbers\ guides\ rangers\ guides -- acclimated\ high camp\ waste -- human\ latrine -- cleanup\ park -- help\ guide -- steward\ clean -- safe\ fixed lines\ rescues\ priority -- safety\ team

 

31) Guided groups helping with rescues.

emergency\ team -- guided\ climb -- summit\ rescue -- involved\ ethos -- help\ goals -- forfeited\ help -- needed\ climbing -- quality\ people -- foolish\ walls -- small\ tent -- exploded\ signs -- early\ problems -- altitude\ people -- route\ National Park Service\ issue -- growing\ numbers -- management\ parties -- guided\ rescues -- consumed\ climbing\ Okonek, Brian

 

32) Why he is surprised that more accidents do not happen.

habits -- poor\ experience -- gaining\ walls -- none\ gear -- everywhere\ Denali\ wind\ problem -- big\ accidents