DENVER – Humble, quiet, inconspicuous. In many ways, skiing in the formidable shadow of world-renowned alpinist Doug Coombs is comparable to skiing the hidden couloirs of La Grave, France, beneath the majestic 13,000-foot Peak La Meije. But those who knew Chad VanderHam best say those were the two places he was most at home.
VanderHam, a 31-year-old ski mountaineer who split his time between Keystone and the fabled extremes of La Grave, died last week after a horrific fall in one of La Grave’s many steep and treacherous couloirs. While skiing with Coombs – his mountaineering mentor – and two other friends in the Couloir de Polichinelle, VanderHam lost an edge on a patch of ice and slid over jagged cliffs and steep slopes before coming to rest about 1,500 feet below. Skiing behind him, Coombs died on the same exposed face while attempting to help his fallen friend.
Unlike two-time world extreme skiing champion and multiple ski movie star Coombs, VanderHam didn’t enter contests or work his way toward the cinema marquee. Ski historians would be hard-pressed to uncover the photo of VanderHam shredding the steeps of La Grave in a Powder magazine story centered on Coombs’ Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide, his lone moment in the ski culture limelight.
But as is so often the heritage of the understudy, there was much more to Vanderham than most ever knew.
“No one knew him, but he was The Man and just as big as Doug. Just a low-key Summit County boy living in Keystone with eight seasons in La Grave, but a Jedi Master on skis,” said Joe Vallone, an international ski mountaineering guide from Summit who spent the past three winters skiing alongside VanderHam and Coombs in La Grave. “He is truly one of the best skiers I have ever known. Unfortunately the ski world never got a hold of this guy, but that is how Chad wanted it. Chad never got caught up in the scene; he was just trying to be the most elite skier he could and just improve his personal level for himself.”
Originally from Minnesota, VanderHam was a relatively successful alpine racer with the Buck Hill Ski Club before attending Colorado State University and pursuing his passion for the mountains. After attending one of Coombs’ Steep Camps at Jackson Hole, Wyo., he became friends with the equally modest guru and joined Coombs in ensuing winters at the French Alps resort of La Grave, an unparalleled big-mountain skiing environment offering 7,000-vertical- foot challenges off one gondola with no boundaries.
“They kind of took Chad under their wing,” former Powder editor Keith Carlsen said of Coombs and his wife, Emily. “Their relationship, I saw, was that he was their surrogate son.”
After working as a shuttle driver and videographer at Coombs’ camps, VanderHam was inspired to become a certified international mountain guide.
“Chad’s love of the mountains and dedication to them was monumental,” said his friend, Rafe Sykes of Breckenridge. “Most important, Chad learned well the lessons of humility, beauty and grace that the mountains can teach us all and applied it to everything he did, in the mountains or not. I think the greatest compliment I can give is that his life was a testament to the mountains he loved so much.”