One of Dolores LaChapelle’s friends called me yesterday with the news that the powder skiing pioneer had died of a massive stroke at her home in Silverton, Colorado. LaChapelle was one of North America’s most prolific and best known early powder skiers. She authored several books that covered everything from the philosophy of powder skiing to a branch of radical environmentalism known as “deep ecology.” Please leave a note in remembrance of Doris.
From my history book, “Wild Snow:”
…By 1952 other skiers at Alta, Utah such as instructor Junior Bounous, had established the double dipsy invented by Dick Durrance as today’s modern parallel powder turn. Refined techniques followed, such as using minimal upper body movement, and starting a run by jamming ski tails in the snow, facing downhill, and pushing off with your ski poles (now known as the Alta Start).
The new powder skiing methods developed at Alta spread around the world like pollen in strong wind. I’m told that when they [the Engens] first turned up in Europe,” says Jay Laughlin, “the European professionals were amazed. They had never seen anything like it.”
In the early 1950s Dolores LaChapelle, who lived and learned in Aspen and Alta during these pioneer days, took the new turn with her to Davos Switzerland, where the entire ski school learned to mimic her technique.
Through her years with Alta’s legendary snow LaChapelle literally became one with the earth by letting “snow and gravity together” turn her skis, as she wrote in her book “Deep Powder Snow.” She became one of the West’s most prolific and best known early powder skiers, and developed a radical personal philosophy that meshed tightly with the a branch of environmentalism known as “deep ecology.” LaChapelle explains by using a powder skiing metaphor: “There is no longer an I and snow and mountain, but a continuous flowing interaction, that’s deep ecology!”
The cultish tradition and technique of deep powder skiing are Utah’s lasting legacy to backcountry glisse. Complete social groups are built around the sport. Skiers and snowboarders seek out deep snow as the religious seek the Word; and the source of the powder gospel is the Utah backcountry. As LaChapelle writes:
Powder snow skiing is not fun. It is life, fully lived, life lived in a blaze of reality. What we experience in powder is the original human self, which lies deeply inside each of us, still undamaged in spite of what our present culture tries to do to us. Once experienced, this kind of living is recognized as the only way to live — fully aware of the earth and the sky and the gods and you, the mortal, playing among them.
Dolores LaChapelle and other Alta denizens such as her husband Ed, George Sormer, Peter Lev, Ted Wilson, and Rick Reese did quite a bit of Utah ski touring in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of this was on terrain initially accessed by ski lifts, but almost every skiable summit in the Wasatch also felt the touch of glisse. Indeed, the area received national recognition in a 1956 Summit Magazine (an early mountaineering publication) article entitled “Alta, the Hub of Deep Powder Touring.” Nonetheless, backcountry skiing in Utah remained a cult activity until the outdoor recreation boom of the mid 1960s, when interest in ski touring increased all over North America. By 1965, ski tourers were exploring most of the Wasatch backcountry. That same year, North Americs’s first modern backcountry ski guide service was operated as part of the Alf Engen Ski School at Alta. The school brochure listed various ski tours, including the “Alta-Brighton-Alta” trip…