Scientist who made snow safer
SUMMIT COUNTY – When Ed LaChapelle died of a heart attack while powder skiing at Monarch Mountain last week, the avalanche and snow science community lost one of its founding fathers.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 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 skiing through 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.LaChapelle appeared to succumb to a heart attack that came on gradually over the course of about an hour, Williams said.”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.”
LaChapelle was born in 1926 in Tacoma, Wash., and started his snow science career at the renowned Swiss Avalanche Institute as a guest worker in 1950 and 1951. He was 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 aatmospheric 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. The Alta snow rangers were dubbed the Avalanche Hunters. They refined the use of explosives for avalanche control work with some dicey and exciting field experiments While another author 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.The slender, pocket-sized “The ABCs of Avalanche Safety,” has for decades been a mandatory text for winter backcountry travelers. Another book LaChapelle 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.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.
Williams said that everyone who studies snow or avalanches has been touched by LaChapelle either directly or indirectly. “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.The work done in Silverton in the 1970s by LaChapelle, retired avalanche researcher Don Bachman and others gave raise to Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, now headed by Chris Landry. “He was a mentor to us – he taught us with an enthusiasm that was contagious,” said Bachman, who now lives in Montana. “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.”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 doing his work there.