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Colby’s story in Alaska begins on June 18, 1992 when he and two friends were climbing the unconquered "Pink Panther" route on Mt. Foraker, a 17,000-foot mountain in the Alaska Range. Progressing up the mountain, they scaled high seracs of ice and camped overlooking the smaller mountains and glaciers below. On day four, they reached the summit, and began the descent in good spirits.
Descending to 13,200 feet, an avalanche deluged the steep and narrow ridge they were precariously climbing down. Sustaining terrible fractures to his legs, back, and neck, Colby spent a miserable night on a narrow ledge, still roped to his two comrades, both invisible in the stormy night. He planned to continue the descent with them as soon as morning came, but it was not to be. Morning showed that they were both dead. All he could do was try to secure their bodies, salvage equipment, and move down to the glacier below. The next few days were ones that could have only been spent feeling overwhelming pain, exhaustion and stress, unable to even take off his boots, as they were all that held his broken bones together. With these terrible injuries, he forced himself down the mountain's serpentine routes for six days, in a courageous endeavor to live.
Arriving on the glacier, he dug up the team's cache, and found that he could not bear to leave his friends' skis behind, so he pulled them all of the way up the glacier to the Denali base camp. Upon arrival, he decided not to wake up the base camp manager because he felt that his plight was less important than her sleep. In the morning, when he went to the manager, she could not believe he was able to walk. He had to wait still longer for evacuation, until the obscuring clouds finally disappeared from the glacier and a rescue helicopter flew him to the hospital.
The fortitude that Colby Coombs displayed in this entire situation is amazing. Only a person of character like Colby Coombs could find it in himself to overcome so much in the face of this seemingly insurmountable physical and mental difficulty. While this demonstrates his extraordinary physical courage, there was much more to his astonishing self-rescue than just strength. He managed to live because of several important character traits that he displays.
At any point in the journey, it would have been easy for him to just lie down and die, for the mountain never takes long to claim souls from exposure and dehydration. That is not the way Colby's story ends because of his great determination. Strong motivation was key to his successful survival. Characteristic to all heroes is that, even with their abilities, they still force themselves to push limits. Even someone as skilled as Colby may have given himself up for dead, evidence that it was not just sheer ability that saved his life. His resolve in spite of the odds is what really brought him home safely.
The first of these traits is his well-developed sense of duty. He always says that the whole way down the mountain, the only thing that made him put one foot in front of the other was the feeling that his friend's deaths would be in vain if he did not live. The fact that even in his weakened state he tried to ensure the bodies could be recovered is one example of how he puts others first. It was that sense of duty that led him to found the Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS), a nonprofit company that teaches mountaineering safety, just a few years after the tragedy.
Another important attribute making him worthy of commendation is humility. I have never heard him talk about the accident. Everything I know comes from other people. Whether he does not talk about what happened because he does not want to make others feel sorry for him or because the memories are just too painful, I do not know. He never comes close to boasting about himself, and always tends to downplay his participation in any impressive expedition. In the excruciating days as he made his way down the mountain, he says that he kept going just because he knew his death would be devastating to his mother. That humility is what makes him able to interact so well with people, especially his employees. Everyone at AMS respects him as a boss because he consistently demonstrates genuine concern for their interests. So great is his humility that sometimes he does not realize how amazing his accomplishments really are. All of this relates to his sense of duty, as he unconsciously regards modesty as part of adherence to this, putting others first, and by default, himself second.
Others may look at Colby and see someone who is just an extraordinary mountaineer with an amazing story to tell. As Colby's friend, I can say that he runs much deeper than that. What makes him a hero is not his expert climbing ability, but the attributes of self that he perpetrates.