Half a century on skis
From wooden boards to resort development, a mountain legend looks at where we’ve been and where we’re headed

Dolores LaChapelleThere is perhaps no setting more befitting Dolores LaChapelle than her simple wood cabin nestled on a snow-packed Silverton street. Wearing an Outward Bound T-shirt and a long, plaid wool skirt with her signature braid – now a brilliant silver – hanging loosely down her back, she sits in a sunny nook, surrounded by mountains. Out the window behind her, the sun is setting over Sultan. To her right, Kendall looms. On its shadowed lower flanks, a lone skier rides the town’s rope tow.

Before the interview can commence, LaChapelle lays down the rules. Whoever sits in the west-facing seat must don sunglasses to shield her eyes from the glare.

I dutifully fish mine out, however unconventional the request may be, thankful for the reprieve from the late-afternoon rays.

Outside, the snowbanks have already reached respectable heights, thanks to the most recent storm that dropped about a foot of snow on the town. Inside, LaChapelle is reading a paper and shaking her head in disapproval.

“Seventy-one dollars to ski at Vail,” she says in disgust. And while the price is steep, the veteran skier admits the steep price won’t keep her away, “I wouldn’t ever ski Vail anyway,” she says.

If she sounds disdainful, it’s for good reason. LaChapelle spent the better part of five decades skiing, or more specifically in pursuit of the purism offered by untracked powder. In fact, she knows the subject so well, she published a book, Deep Powder Snow, on it in 1993.

The septuagenarian not only knows skiing history, she has lived it. When Aspen fired up its first chairlift, she was there. When Alta, Utah, was but a tiny speck on the map, she was there, too.

Wooden skis? She had them. Avalanches? Survived those, too. She will also tell you how many of the places she loved have been ruined by commercialism and greed. And now, she watches with a knowing eye as more development is about to take place down the road from her home of 30 years.

“They’re going to develop that whole corridor,” she says of the swath of mostly empty land between Durango Mountain Resort and Cascade Village. “I guess you knew it had to happen some day.”

Originally from Denver, LaChapelle cut her teeth skiing Loveland Pass on a pair of World War II Army surplus boards. In 1947, she graduated college early with the intent of finding a teaching job in a mountain town and landed in Aspen. And although today the former mining enclave is synonymous with wealth and glitz, LaChapelle says the old Aspen was anything but.

“They had just built the lift,” she said. “It was before skiing became fashionable. At the time skiing was not a big money-maker. I know it seems bizarre, but everyone was just there to ski.”

LaChapelle took advantage of cheap ski lessons and soon found herself not only teaching skiing but hiking the steeps of Bell Mountain (which at the time was not lift served) in search of untracked powder. It was during her third and final year in Aspen that she started a correspondence with Ed LaChapelle, whom she met on a summer climbing trip in Canada. A year later, the two married, and Ed’s work as an avalanche researcher took the couple to the Swiss Alps.

The change couldn’t have come at a better time for LaChapelle, who says she sensed the carefree days of Aspen coming to an end. She said people had begun to realize money could be made in skiing and were taking over the small town.

And while a chapter in skiing history had closed, in her eyes, another had just opened: the invention of metal skis.

“Howard Head ruined skiing,” LaChapelle said, partly in jest. Much like the shaped skis of today, LaChapelle said the 1950 introduction of wood-core metal skis (the predecessors were made of solid wood) revolutionized the sport – and not necessarily for the better.

“Now anyone could ski,” she said.

After the stint in Europe, Ed’s job eventually landed the couple in Alta, which they called home for the next 20 years.

“The greatest snow on Earth,” LaChapelle says, well aware she may sound like a “Ski Utah” billboard. “But it’s true,” she insists.

During the ensuing seasons at Alta, which included many brushes with avalanches, including one that left her hospitalized in a body cast, LaChapelle became renowned in skiing circles for her powder skiing prowess. She even earned the nickname “Witch of the Wasatch” for her uncanny ability to predict storms. However, much like her tenure in Aspen, the good times at Alta came to an end with the opening of Snowbird in the early ’70s. Knowing that all of Ed’s time would be taken up with control work rather than his true love – research – the couple packed their bags, this time headed for the San Juans.

Although LaChapelle admits it was hard to say good-bye to Alta’s famous fluff in favor of the equally infamous San Juan cement, she said there was enough terrain and powder surrounding her new home to survive. In fact, it could be said that she even thrived – becoming a regular fixture in the backcountry ski scene. She even pioneered a ski descent of a gully near Sam’s, a popular backcountry shot near the abandoned enclave of Chattanooga. Nevertheless, LaChapelle dismisses the recurring suggestion that she was the first female extreme skier.

“I’m not extreme. No way,” she says. “I was the best female powder skier, but there was nothing extreme about it.”

In fact, the competitive nature of extreme skiing runs precisely counter to LaChapelle’s entire theory of skiing and life in general. If anything, LaChapelle was one of the first female soul skiers.
For her, skiing wasn’t about conquering the mountain, she says, but surrendering herself fully to the forces of gravity, rock and snow. She always realized that her love of powder went deeper than an entertaining hobby or pastime. Rather, it gave her a unique connection to the world. It was an escape from what she refers to as the “rational hemisphere,” the part of the brain that constantly seeks reason.

“Anything that gets you out of the rational hemisphere is good,” she says. “And skiing does that, as long as you’re not out to prove something or how good you are.”

However, it wasn’t until many years later, when California philosophy professor Paul Shepard coined the phrase “Deep Ecology” that LaChapelle had a name to attach to her concept.

She immediately became an advocate of Deep Ecology, which espouses the virtue of humans living in harmony with nature, and once again found herself at the forefront of a revolution. Today, Deep Ecology is a worldwide environmental movement that counts famous redwood-sitter Julia Butterfly among its followers. LaChapelle has written several books on the subject, which are standard reading in many college courses, and has traveled the world lecturing on the subject.
Yet, despite her fame and success, LaChapelle actually shuns the limelight, preferring the isolation of Silverton.

“I try to hide out here so people can’t find me,” she says.

And to make it even more difficult, she has no Internet, no fax machine and no TV.

“I have enough people calling for interviews, and I have plenty to keep me busy,” she said. “If I had all that I’d go crazy.”

This is not to say that LaChapelle prefers to stick her head in the snow, oblivious to the world around her. Quite the contrary, she has a voracious appetite for reading (or “finding answers” as she calls it.) The walls in her house are lined with books, and she gets up from the interview no less than three times to fetch various works to refer to.

And although she gave up skiing 10 years ago because of a hip injury (a lasting reminder of the Alta avalanche) LaChapelle stays physically active as well. She has a pair of snowshoes for touring the backcountry and is a devout practitioner of tai chi, which she teaches once a week.

She has penned a book on tai chi as well, Return to Mountain: Tai Chi Between Heaven and Earth, which is due in stores any day. It will be LaChapelle’s seventh book, nevertheless, she is reluctant to call herself a writer, preferring the term “information dispenser.”

“I didn’t want to be a writer,” she says. “I was just trying to save the world, but now I think there’s no hope.”

Yet, there is something about this woman, who has endured 7-foot wooden skis, several avalanches and a lifetime of mountain living, that tells you she is not about to give up the fight.
In fact, she admits that if there is any hope, it will come through practice of this ancient form of martial art.

“All you need is a little outdoors, and you do it every day,” she said. “Eventually you will fall in love with the place where you do it, and you’ll do anything to save it.”

A constant reminder of what she’s working toward is propped up in her house, near the front door for all to see. It is the top portion of a log from South Mineral Creek, split down the middle by lightning and worn smooth as marble by years of human passage. LaChapelle herself has used the log many a time to cross the stream. When she noticed the bottom was rotting away, she lugged home the top, which is now a banister.

“What I’m seeing there is hope,” she admitted while rubbing her weathered but strong hands along the well-polished surface, “humans and nature working together to make something beautiful.”






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