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Edward R. LaChapelle - Personal Communication

Taped phone interview, 5 December 2001
By Lowell Skoog

Ed LaChapelle's interest in mountaineering began when he was in high school in the early 1940s. In 1942 and 1943 he spent summers working for the national park company at Mt Rainier. He served in the Navy for two years (1944-46) after high school. He spent another summer at Mt Rainier after leaving the Navy. Ed got into skiing while in college at the University of Puget Sound (UPS), beginning in about 1947. He was active in skiing and mountaineering during college, making climbing trips to the Canadian Rockies and serving as climbing committee chairman for the Tacoma Mountaineers. In 1949, he graduated from UPS with degrees in physics and math.

Snow and avalanche career overview

Ed spent the winter of 1950-51 at the Swiss Avalanche Institute at Davos. This experience led to a job with Monty Atwater at Alta, Utah in the fall of 1952. Atwater was a 10th Mountain Division veteran, about 20 years older than LaChapelle. Ed started at Alta doing general snow ranger work and assisting Atwater in avalanche studies. Later, Atwater transferred to Squaw Valley, California to lead U.S. Forest Service avalanche control efforts for the 1960 Olympic Games. Atwater stayed at Squaw Valley after the Olympics and it fell to Ed to carry on the research at Alta. Eventually, he spent all his time doing research, while day-to-day snow ranger work was handled by others.

For many years, Ed had parallel careers. In winter he was employed by the Forest Service doing snow and avalanche research in Utah. In summer, he did glaciology studies. He began working for the American Geographical Society of New York in 1951. In 1952, he did research for this organization on the Juneau icecap in Alaska. In the summer of 1953, they sent him to the Greenland icecap. Later, he did glacier research for the University of Washington (UW). He was appointed to the UW faculty in 1967. He taught autumn and spring quarters at UW and continued working winters at Alta through 1972. During that year he spent time in Japan in support of the Sapporo Olympic Games.

From 1973-77, Ed was involved in avalanche studies at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research of the University of Colorado at Boulder. He spent winters at Silverton in the San Juan mountains. After 1978, he went on an extended leave of absence and in 1982 he retired formally from the UW faculty. He is now retired in McCarthy, Alaska, where he keeps track of the local glaciers and does a little consulting work. He is currently involved as a snow consultant with the architect designing the new visitor center at Paradise, to replace the Space Needle-like building put up in the 1960s. "The flying saucer decoy's days are numbered," he said.

Post-war ski mountaineering

We talked about the growth of the ski industry after World War II and the impact of the 10th Mountain Division. Ed noted that many of the people who got into the mountain troops were skiers to begin with. He thinks that after the war many of them would have gotten into the ski industry anyway. It was not their 10th Mountain experience that directed them that way. The real boost provided by the mountain troops was cheap equipment. In the late 1940s you could buy boots, skis, and poles for $20, with a parka thrown in for good measure. That really boosted skiing.

Ed did some spring ski mountaineering in the late 1940s, while in college. He remembered a spring ski ascent of Mt St Helens, on the east side, near the Shoestring Glacier, probably in May. Everyone still used wood skis, but Ed had acquired a new epoxy ski base that you could paint onto the skis. It had a durable surface and you could put various climbing or downhill waxes on it. He recalled that the snow on St Helens had melted to expose a layer of volcanic dust on the surface. "I was astonished to get to the bottom of the mountain and find that my fancy epoxy ski base had vanished," he said. The pumice had sanded it right off. "But I also remember it was excellent skiing." Ed did a lot of ski mountaineering during summer research on the Juneau icefield in 1952, 1954 and 1956. Maynard Miller was involved with this program.

General post-war avalanche work

In the early years, Gerald Seligman's Snow Structures and Ski Fields (published in 1936) was the big background book that everybody had heard about and wanted to read. The book was hard to find, but it became more available in the 1960s after the International Glacialogical Society published a photocopy edition. The science is pretty dated now but from a ski mountaineering perspective it is an interesting book, with lots of pictures and practical information. It was a good solid book for its time.

Andre Roch of Switzerland visited the U.S. in about 1947. Ed attended one of his lectures in Seattle. Roch's visit is credited with bringing the concept of a scientific approach to avalanche studies to this country. He was responsible for proclaiming that North America has three different climate regimes--Pacific Coast, Intermountain, and Rocky Mountain--which produce different avalanche conditions. Ed noted that this is has become so well known that it is a cliche today, but it was Roch who first pointed it out. I mentioned that Roch was involved in the first recorded ski ascent of Mt Hood in 1931. Ed said he didn't know that, but it sounded plausible. Roch studied at one of the Oregon universities when he was quite a young man. So he was in this country around that time. Roch was a mountaineer and a skier of the first rank. At the time of our conversation, Roch was still living in Geneva, "well into his 90s," said Ed.

During the 1950s, Monty Atwater put together a sketchy handbook on avalanches. There wasn't a single, comprehensive source of avalanche information in this country until about 1961, when Ed wrote the first official avalanche handbook for the U.S. Forest Service. This book has since been revised by Perla and Martinelli and later by McClung and Schaerer. Ed mentioned several good recent books on avalanches.

The ABC's of Avalanche Safety was a by-product of Ed's original 1961 USFS avalanche handbook. Ed realized that "the avalanche handbook was all fine and good, but it seemed like there ought to be a handy pocket reference for people going out on a tour." Ed wrote the original edition "off-hand in a couple weeks" in his spare time, and it has been going strong ever since, after several revisions. There were no compact books on avalanche safety at the time he wrote it, but there are several today.

I mentioned that although the 1950s have been described as the "dark ages" for ski mountaineering, they seemed to have been a boom period for avalanche studies. Ed said that in the 1950s and 1960s the Forest Service suddenly found that they owned a lot of avalanche paths that were being developed for ski areas. Ed was occasionally sent out to investigate prospective new ski areas in the intermountain area. He would make recommendations on how to lay out the area and so on.

It was easy to get explosives and artillery for avalanche work in the 1950s because it was war surplus. Ed recalled, "You could just call the Tolila [sp?] ordinance depot and say I need some powder and they'd say, 'Come out and get it.' You could just take a government pickup out and fill it up." TNT, tetrytol, plastic explosives, whatever you needed. Ed remembered a time when they went to get some explosives and the fellows said they'd just melted down and poured a lot of it, so "go help yourself from that pile over there." They were fifty pound blocks. Ed replied that that wasn't exactly what they had in mind. They were looking for something more like two pound blocks. So the guys said, "Here, take this sledge hammer." Ed explained that, being military explosives, the stuff could not be set off by impact or even rifle bullets.

Mt Olympus IGY project, 1957-58

After some preparatory work in 1956, full-time work for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) project on Mt Olympus began in the summer of 1957. Ed took a leave of absence from the Forest Service to spend the winter of 1957-58 on the Blue Glacier. Ira Spring visited the IGY team to do a picture story during the summer of 1957 (st-1957-oct-27-pic4) and again during the winter of 1958 (st-1958-jan-26-pic4). Noel Gardner was there part of the winter. Gardner had previously worked for the Canadian national parks at Rogers Pass, collecting data on avalanche problems at the pass during construction of the trans-Canada highway.

In winter, the IGY team used skis regularly, both to facilitate travel and to reduce the chance of a crevasse fall. They sometimes roped up, but most of the time did not. Having been there in summer, they had a good idea of where the crevasses were and they established safe routes to common observation points around the glacier. They rarely used skis in summer, except the occasional turn or two for recreation when the ski conditions were good. Generally, they did their summer studies on foot.

I mentioned the winter ascent of Mt Olympus reported by Jim Hawkins of the IGY team. Ed was not aware of it, but he was happy to hear that it hadn't been lost to history. (According to st-1958-jan-26-pic4, Hawkins and LaChapelle were working opposite shifts early in the winter.) Ed has lots of black and white (2"x2") photos from the IGY project and many Kodachromes as well. Although the research cabin is still in place on the Snow Dome, studies in more recent years have been sporadic. Ed said that Charlie Raymond at UW would know about recent work there.

Birth of the avalanche transceiver

Around 1968, Ed began experimenting with the use of a radio transmitter to locate a person buried in an avalanche. Ed built a tiny transmitter that operated in the broadcast radio band. It was about the size of a cigarette pack and could be put in your pocket. He used a small portable transistor radio to pick up the signal. He was trying to figure out how much power to use and what sort of antenna it needed to work well, but hadn't advanced too far when he talked with John Lawton, a regular Alta skier. Lawton was an electrical engineer with some connection to Cornell University. (Ed thought he may have worked as a private consultant.) Lawton said, "I think I know a better way to do this."

Lawton's idea was to use an audio-frequency induction field, in which the strength of the field diminishes with the cube of the distance to the transmitter. By contrast, ordinary electromagnetic radiation diminishes with the square of the distance. The third-power relationship of the audio-frequency induction field makes its signal more sensitive to how close you are to the buried transmitter.

Lawton made several versions of the device and sent them to Ed to test. The first one had a wire coil about 15 inches in diameter which was intended to be sewn into the back of a parka. The transmitter and battery fitted into a pocket and the coil acted as the antenna. It worked great, Ed recalled, and had quite a long range, but wasn't practical because it was integrated into a garment. The next version was what Ed called a "ferrite loop-stick thing" with a nice compact antenna. The first operating model was known as the "hot-dog Skadi." It was long and narrow, about the size of a hot dog. Lawton continued to improve the design and started a company with his son to build and market Skadi avalanche transceivers. (I found a note about the Skadi in summit-1971-mar-p29.)

The Skadi was the primary avalanche search beacon for a number of years. Ed recalled that the audio-frequency induction signal was virtually free of interference and "would penetrate anything." You could follow someone walking through a tunnel in bedrock with it while walking on the surface. The Swiss subsequently did a lot of research and eventually moved to a higher frequency (450 kHz) which has since become the international standard. The higher frequency gives better range with less power. The third-power relationship doesn't apply for the newer higher frequency models, but they have other advantages. One is that they can use an entirely different antenna which is less sensitive to antenna size than the Skadi. Several companies in Europe and the U.S. now manufacture avalanche beacons.

Avalanche work in Washington

Ed participated in a study of the North Cascades highway for the Washington state highway department. The engineering was complete at that point and the road was already under construction. Willow Milroy, chief research engineer for the Department of Transportation (DOT) realized "they were buying themselves into a lot of avalanche problems," so she visited Ed at UW to request the study. He produced a thick report that included an atlas of avalanche paths, recommendations on how to set up control programs, maintenance requirements, and so on. The DOT used the report to argue against winter plowing of the highway because of the cost. Ed noted that the hairpin turn below the Early Winters Spires gives avalanches two opportunities to hit the road, on either side of the switchback. He recalled that during the highway study he brought some visiting Japanese colleagues to Washington Pass to observe the avalanche problems. "They looked around," recalled Ed, "and saw how the road comes up the west side and goes down the east side. Then they shook their heads and said, 'We would tunnel.'"

During the development of the Yodelin ski area, Mel Borgersen retained Ed to do an avalanche study as part of the general development planning. Later, the area was sold and there was uncertainty about how much of this information was conveyed to the new owners. Ed thought the new owners had the information but didn't look at it much. He later sent a letter to alert them to the dangers of developing cabins in the area. After the fatal avalanche [1971], there was an article in the Seattle P-I that covered the issues very well. (I didn't ask whether Ed had a copy of it.) The families of the victims filed suits against several parties, including Chelan County, and Ed gave a deposition. He recalled that the suit was settled out of court. I asked whether the suit brought an end to the ski area, and he said it probably did, but it was never a great location for a ski area anyway.

During the controversy in the 1970s over developing an open pit copper mine on Miners Ridge in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, I remembered reading a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times from Ed pointing out that the proposed mine was located in a huge avalanche path. Ed said he remembered writing that letter. He'd never made a formal study of the area, but when he saw a picture of it in the newspaper, it was just an obvious case of somebody looking for trouble, so he felt obliged as a citizen to point this out.

As a result of the work Ed did for the Washington state DOT on the North Cascades highway, the state became more interested in snowfall and avalanche forecasting. Pam Hayes, one of Ed's graduate students at UW, did work on detailed snowfall forecasting for the Cascades that was quite successful. The highway department was able to demonstrate that they could save a lot of money deploying highway crews if they had more accurate snowfall forecasts. Around the same time they started considering the possibility of central avalanche forecasting. Mark Moore and Rich Marriot, two of Ed's graduate students in geophysics and atmospheric sciences, did masters theses related to avalanche studies. Their timing was just right. According to Ed, "The highway department pirated their masters theses and turned them into a couple of jobs." That was the birth of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.

Frank Foto was the snow ranger at Stevens Pass. Roland Emetaz worked in the Portland office of the Forest Service. Emetaz did less hands-on work in the field than Foto at Stevens Pass or Dick Stillman in Colorado.

Avalanche safety education

In the early years, avalanche training was mostly for snow rangers and professional ski patrollers. The Forest Service avalanche school has a long history. Monty Atwater started it and Ed helped develop it. Today there are many safety courses for recreationists taught by private industry. We talked about some of the new systems for avalanche hazard evaluation and Ed offered this bit of wisdom:
"There's a lot of basic common sense and good judgment factors that you don't have to have a slide rule to use. I always emphasize to people that the important thing is terrain recognition. Good route finding is the secret of staying out of avalanche trouble. Especially if you're going to an area where you haven't been and nobody else has been, where there's no data. You can't try to outguess the snow. You may stop and poke around, maybe even dig a pit, but well, that's some evidence, but you still have to make some practical decisions on the next slope you're going to cross, and it could be entirely different. Whenever I work with people on avalanche education, I put a strong emphasis on safe route finding."

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