Skiing community loses a pillar |

Skiing community loses a pillar

BOB BERWYNsummit daily newsSummit County, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyEd LaChapelle, left, walks with a fellow snow scientist near an avalanche site.

To view the thread on LaChapelle at, link to: read a transcript of a 2001 telephone interview with LaChapelle, conducted by Lowell Skoog, link to: Dawsons Wild Snow blog includes a detailed section on LaChapelles role in the evolution of the modern avalanche beeper. Link to: COUNTY – The avalanche and snow science community lost one of its founding fathers this week, when Ed LaChapelle died of a heart attack while skiing powder at Monarch Mountain Thursday.LaChapelle, who was 80, was skiing with a group that included his wife, Meg Hunt, Paula Mears, former Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Knox Williams and Art Mears, another Colorado-based avalanche expert.LaChapelle was known for his groundbreaking research on basic snow safety and avalanche control work, as well as for his writing and his involvement in the development of the first practical avalanche rescue beacon.Speaking from his home in Buena Vista, Williams said the group was enjoying 17 inches of fluffy powder that had fallen at Monarch the previous two days.”Ed said, ‘Let’s go ski some powder.’ So we got some skiing in before things went bad,” Williams said, explaining that LaChapelle appeared to succumb to a heart attack that came on gradually over the course of about an hour. LaChapelle was transported toward medical care via ambulance but died later that day.

“It was a great day, but a sad ending,” Williams said. “Like his wife, Meg, said, here’s a guy who lived for skiing and the mountains, and he was skiing some pretty good powder on his last day on the planet,” Williams said.LaChapelle died just a week after his ex-wife, Dolores LaChapelle, died of a stroke in Durango. Dolores LaChapelle was another legendary figure in the world of powder skiing. She pioneered groundbreaking routes and powder skiing techniques in Alta, Utah, while her husband was based there as part of a seminal U.S. Forest Service team of snow rangers. “He contributed so much to basic avalanche research and forecasting,” Williams said, explaining that everyone today involved in the field has been touched by LaChapelle either directly or indirectly. “Almost everyone knows him or knows of him,” Williams said, explaining how LaChapelle’s expertise and mentoring spanned three generations of snow safety experts.”He was the experimenter. He had this huge base of knowledge and an inquisitive mind, always asking how can we look at the snowpack and understand it better,” Williams said.”He was a mentor to us,” said Don Bachman, a retired avalanche professional now living in Montana who worked with LaChapelle in Silverton during the 1970s. “He taught us with an enthusiasm that was contagious,” said Bachman, who also served a very short stint as ski patrol director at Arapahoe Basin. “We’re walking in Ed’s sizable footsteps, or ski tracks, rather, since he would rarely walk if he could ski.”Bachman recalled LaChapelle’s distinctive, sonorous voice, “always speaking with purpose, always with a twinkle and a wry sense of humor.”

Out of the work that Bachman and LaChapelle (along with others) did in Silverton during the 1970s grew the current Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, now headed by Chris Landry. LaChapelle was born in 1926 in Tacoma, Washington, and started his snow science career at the renowned Swiss Avalanche Institute as a guest worker in 1950 and 1951. He served as a U.S. Forest Service snow ranger at Alta from 1952 to 1972, with breaks to do glacier research in Greenland, Alaska and Mt. Olympus. He was appointed to the faculty of the University of Washington in 1967, and retired as Professor Emeritus of Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences in 1982. LaChapelle was part of the pioneering crew of Forest Service snow rangers at Alta who laid the basic groundwork for avalanche control programs at ski areas and for highway departments. As well, he authored “The ABCs of Avalanche Safety,” a slender, pocket-sized how-to manual that has for decades been a mandatory text for winter backcountry travelers. Another book he authored that graces the shelves of many snow enthusiasts is the “Field Guide to Snow Crystals,” beautifully illustrated with spectacular photos of different types of snowflakes.The Alta snow rangers were dubbed the Avalanche Hunters in Monte Atwater’s on the Forest Service research program. They refined the use of explosives for avalanche control work with some dicey and exciting field experiments, well-described in Atwater’s book.While Atwater wrote the first Forest Service avalanche manual, LaChapelle refined the work and published the agency’s first official avalanche handbook in 1961. “The ABCs of Avalanche Safety” was a direct outgrowth of that work, according to a telephone interview with LaChapelle, taped by Lowell Skoog in 2001.

He was also involved with another ground-breaking innovation that has become a standard piece of equipment for backcountry powder skiers – the avalanche transceiver. LaChapelle began experimenting with the use of radio transmitters as a locator for buried avalanche victims in 1968. Working with John Lawton, an electrical engineer who skied regularly at Alta, LaChapelle refined the device, which gradually evolved as the “Skadi,” which remained the primary avalanche search beacon for many years.Ed LaChapelle was a well-loved and respected member in the brotherhood of avalanche experts, and his passing leaves a big void. Comments on several online ski forums reflect the respect he engendered, as other avy pros recalled their last meetings with him at the International Snow Science Workshop in Telluride this past fall.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at

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