According to a thread posted on TelemarkTips.com, snow scientist and avalanche guru Ed LaChapelle died Feb. 1 at Monarch Mountain ski area. LaChapelle was skiing with Knox Williams, former director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and Art Mears, another Colorado-based avalanche expert, when he became ill and was taken away in an ambulance.
Ed LaChapelle died just a week after his ex-wife, Dolores LaChapelle, died of a stroke in Durango, Colorado. Both were known for their deep, intimate involvement with the world of mountains and snow, and both will be sorely missed.
Ed 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 1950-1951. He served as a U.S. Forest Service snow ranger at Alta, Utah 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, retired as Professor Emeritus of Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences in 1982. Between 1973 and 1977, Ed was involved in avalanche studies at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) of the University of Colorado at Boulder, spending winters at Silverton in the San Juan mountains.
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-size how-to manual that has for decades been a mandatory text for winter backcountry travelers.
The Alta snow rangers were dubbed the Avalanche Hunters in Monte Atwater’s seminal book 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.
A detailed history of the birth of the avalanche transceiver, including the text of a letter penned by LaChapelle, is online at Lou Dawson’s Wild Snow blog.
Ed LaChapelle was a well-loved and respected member in the brotherhood of avalanche experts, and his passing leaves a big void. A few of the comments on the TelemarkTips thread 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.