Renowned avalanche researcher dies
ALTA - A world-recognized pioneer in avalanche research died Thursday while doing what he loved best - skiing.
Edward R. LaChapelle, long considered the grandfather of American avalanche science, spent his final morning powder skiing at Monarch Mountain in Silverton, Colo. Within an hour of reporting chest pains, the 80-year-old died.
Yet LaChapelle's legacy will long outlive him, experts say.
His decades of research on the slopes of Alta ski resort laid the groundwork for avalanche control in Utah. He wrote the U.S. Forest Service's first avalanche handbook and developed a beacon to locate buried skiers.
"If you talk about avalanche researchers in the United States, he definitely is on the top of the pile," said Bruce Tremper, director of the Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center. "He has figured out most of everything we know about avalanches these days."
LaChapelle plunged into avalanche research in the early 1950s after attending the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland. His studies brought him to Alta, a 9,000-foot ski resort at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, about 20 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
There, photo albums still contain black-and-white images of the scientist preparing explosives for avalanche control and skiing through a massive slide that rumbled unexpectedly down the resort's Baldy Shoulder area.
LaChapelle's research spanned 20 years as a U.S. Forest Service snow ranger, beginning in 1952. His colleagues say he strung wires all over the mountainside during those years as he conducted experiments using everything from old bike tires to record players.
But his genius earned him a national and international reputation, Tremper said. His pocket-sized text, The ABCs of Avalanche Safety, remains a must-read for backcountry travelers.
"He would be the Michael Jordan of avalanche guys," said avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon, standing at the base of an avalanche rescue operation Saturday in Little Cottonwood Canyon. "He was a rock star."
LaChapelle left Alta in 1972, but continued his research for the next 10 years with the University of Washington and Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, according to a taped interview with the Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project.
He later retired to McCarthy, Alaska, but returned religiously to Utah to ski and visit his colleagues in the avalanche community.
Onno Wieringa, general manager of Alta, choked back tears Saturday as he reflected on a man he described as his mentor when he was a young director of snow safety at the resort.
"We're missing him," he said.
Wieringa said LaChapelle stayed abreast of new backcountry technologies and never tired of the slopes. He said the man's death after a morning of skiing seemed only fitting.
"He skied powder all morning before he died, which is how we all ought to go," he said.
LaChapelle's death comes two weeks after the death of his former wife, Dolores LaChapelle. He had visited Silverton for her memorial service.
Tremper said news of LaChapelle's death will rumble through the avalanche community worldwide.
"It is definitely an end to an era," he said.
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