Dolores LaChapelle revels in the magical early-morning glow that she loved so much. Katie Lozancich illustration.
“Powder snow cannot be merely considered a metaphor for living, but rather, skiing powder shows us how to live.” - D.L.
Three years into my quest to find a copy of Dolores LaChapelle’s Deep Powder Snow, I was finally on the cusp of unearthing the elusive tome. My search had led me to Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon, and as I closed in on my quarry, I felt the weight of a multi-year journey begin to lift.
Out of print since 1993, Deep Powder Snow was — and is — hard to find, and over the years the volume has gained legendary status as one of the best philosophical/academic examinations of powder skiing ever written.
Today, LaChapelle has mostly become an obscurity, but her teachings still echo in the hearts and minds of some of the most influential people in snow sports.
Silverton Mountain cofounder Jen Brill was a personal friend of LaChapelle, often visiting her home in the San Juans to talk about life and their shared love, powder skiing.
“Dolores was close to me on a lot of levels," Brill told TGR. "As a friend in town, but also as a huge inspiration.”
In fact, LaChapelle made such an impact on the Silverton community that the now-infamous ski area named a 2,000-foot avalanche chute/run after her: Dolores.
“She was groundbreaking in backcountry skiing, regardless of her gender,” Brill said of her old friend. “Whether male or female, what she was doing at the time was historical and phenomenal. Then you add to it that she was a female mountaineer in the 1950s. For anyone who whines today that it’s hard being a woman in the backcountry or there’s not enough voice can only imagine what Dolores was up against.”
Zooming forward to the present, with the weight of history on my shoulders, I rounded a corner into the winter-sports section of Powell’s, and spotted the volume. Picking it up — palms sweaty with anticipation — I felt years of searching culminate, the moment a capstone to the quest.
The book — only 112 pages in length — would cost $75; a small price to pay to read the teachings of the godmother of powder skiing.
Ed and Dolores LaChapelle exploring the countryside of Switzerland.
The first time Dolores LaChapelle touched a pair of skis was at an army surplus store in Denver in 1944. World War II was winding down, and a glut of cheap military gear was for the first time making recreation available to the masses. Although she didn’t know a thing about skis, the rows of stiff, white planks looked beautiful to her and called out with a strange magnetism.
Grabbing a pair of seven-foot hickory army skis, she felt an arcane power, and in that moment she committed to learning the emerging mountain sport.
A few months later, Dolores hitchhiked up Loveland Pass to test out the surplus sticks. That first run was filled with tumbles and hard falls, but upon reaching the bottom, Dolores knew that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. For the following three years, Dolores dreamt of skiing all night, every night, until, in 1947, she was offered a teaching job in Aspen, Colorado. She accepted, and never looked back.
In a time when almost all skiers stayed on Aspen’s groomed trails, Dolores stuck to the deep stuff, which meant she inevitably befriended other pioneering powder-hounds. She would later describe those early days as a dreamlike time filled with unlimited powder lines.
But this era of purity — and the community that accompanied it — quickly ended once people realized that skiing was a marketable commodity. Investors moved in to stake their claim, and what had been a golden age soon passed into memory.
Seeking sanctuary from Aspen’s rapid commercialization, Dolores spent some time climbing in the Northwest, eventually making her way north to the Canadian Rockies, where she met and fell in love with her future husband, Ed LaChapelle.
After parting ways, the two wrote love letters for many months until, one crisp autumn day, the Federal Institute of Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, offered Ed a research position. Not wanting to leave his newfound love in America, he proposed by mail, and Dolores accepted.
The Tao of Pow
Dolores sporting her signature braided ponytail Steve Meyers photo.
During her time living in Switzerland, Dolores became fascinated with the Alps’ peasant culture, and how they were able to live in harmony with the natural world. Her observations of these folk — combined with her religious devotion to powder skiing — ignited a chain reaction of thought that Dolores would continue exploring for the rest of her life. This body of work and theory eventually developed into a philosophy that combined aspects of Chinese Taoism and Martin Heidegger’s concept of Being.
In Deep Powder Snow, Dolores makes the case that skiing itself is not an enforcement of will, so much as a reaction to the forces that are innately external to the self. In other words, when skiing powder well, the ego recedes, and the natural world has more control than the human psyche.
“I discovered that I was not turning the skis, but that the snow was — or rather, the snow and gravity together,” she wrote. “I then quit trying to control the skis and turned them over to these forces. Once this rhythmic relationship with snow and gravity is established on a steep slope, there is no longer an ‘I,’ but a continuous flowing interaction that has no boundaries.”
I cannot tell where exactly my actions end and the snow takes over.
This level of surrender to the external requires what Heidegger referred to as Being in the World. The dips and contours of the earth, Dolores argued, almost fully dictate the way to follow, transcending a skier’s consciousness. Today, we commonly refer to this dynamic as flow state, a type of ecstatic, hyper-present awareness that relates to peak-level performance and joy.
In her writings, Dolores makes the point that only through these moments of Being do humans shatter the ego, thereby transcending beyond the self and touching the infinite.
“I cannot tell where exactly my actions end and the snow takes over,” LaChapelle wrote.“Once this loss of ego boundary has been experienced, there is a radical shift in consciousness which gradually extends further and deeper.”
What we experience in powder is the original human self, which lies deeply inside each of us, still undamaged despite what our present culture tries to do to us.
Later in her life, she would come to the realization that people are at their happiest in this raw state of Being because, for much of human evolution, we dwelt in this state of balance and hyper-presence with nature.
“Why do I climb for hours for a handful of turns in untracked snow? Why do I grin and dance afterword? Why is fun such an anemic answer to the questions above?” wrote LaChapelle. “Powder skiing is not fun. It’s 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 despite what our present culture tries to do to us.”
Presence in the Moment
Dolores was a devoted practitioner and instructor of Tai Chi, which she's pictured performing here above Silverton, Colorado. Steve Meyers photo.
As a rule, LaChapelle believed that powder skiing, flow state and Heidegger’s concept of Being are all innately right-brained activities that become inhibited when anything comes between you and the purity of the present moment.
Long before she fully understood these concepts, the essence of it came to her during a bluebird, three-foot pow day at Alta in the 1950s.
Unhurriedly loading the lift (because powder panic wasn’t a thing back then), a friend informed Dolores that famed cinematographer Warren Miller was interested in getting some footage of her skiing Peruvian Bowl. At the top of the mountain she met up with some friends, and having some extra time before meeting Miller, they took a lap down the clean face, finding total, untracked bliss.
The conditions were sublime; the snow perfect. But after meeting up with Miller and setting up the shot, an unexpected thing happened. She and her companions lined up on an untouched portion of the bowl. It was the same perfect powder, the same slope, the same skiers, so she expected to have the same great run. But when she got to the bottom, there was no bliss.
Thinking it over on the lift later that day, Dolores came to the conclusion that it had been because she’d been thinking about where and how to turn, undercutting the process of Being and Flow State.
“The snow is no longer a gift from the sky but a medium for making a good film,” LaChapelle wrote of her distaste for the ski-filming process. “Being retreats, the sky, the Earth and the gods all retreat—and all that remains is a technically perfect ski run down the hill, which looks fine on the screen and makes money for the photographer; but there is no Being, and the loss is felt in the hollow emptiness inside.”
Being in the Modern Age
This “hollow emptiness” Dolores referenced is an all-too common feeling in the age of social media in the 21st century, but in many ways, social media is just a symptom of the manner in which technology writ-large subdues our relationship with nature, inhibiting experience and the intimacy of direct human interaction.
Applying Dolores’ concept of Being to our own collective experiences is easy. We’ve all been on the chairlift — rocking tunes — and cut ourselves off from those around us. We’ve all been on a mission where the focus on photography or filming detracts from and destroys the very reasons for being there in the first place. Dolores had a taste of this cultural narcissism — and it bothered her.
My search for Dolores’ book was like a return to another time before the digital world put everything at our fingertips, just clicks away. Perhaps it was better that way.
The truth is, I could’ve ordered Deep Powder Snow from Amazon in just a couple minutes without ever interacting with anyone, and so could you. But isolating the self and cutting off from the experience of Being has created a cultural sickness — and a deep longing inside us all. In searching for the book, and taking time to have the experience, I found romance and meaning.
Dolores is Still Dancing
In her later life, Dolores moved around frequently, but eventually settled in Silverton, Colorado. She and Ed struggled for many years, but their marriage gradually collapsed under the strain of diverging paths.
Finally liberated from the unhealthy partnership, Dolores spent most of her later years writing, skiing and building her ideas into a coherent school of thought. During that time in Silverton, she acted as a mentor and powder guru to many locals, including Fort Lewis College English professor Steve Meyers.
Interestingly, the first time I heard of Dolores was in one of Steve’s classes, where he would often apply her anecdotal wisdom to flesh out points in his lessons. After a chance meeting on the flanks of Kendall Mountain above Silverton, Steve and Dolores became close friends, spending countless days touring the San Juans while also exploring the deeper processes that powder snow and Being unleash.
In his book, Notes From the San Juans, there’s a chapter titled, “Dolores is Still Dancing,” in which Steve reflects on the aura of his departed friend.
“After a season of following in her track I found that I felt a little of what she felt when she skied. I turned where she turned. To this day, if we ski down a slope beside each other … at the end of the run we will look up and marvel at the fact that our turns came in the same places," Myers wrote. "At least I will marvel. It makes perfect sense to Dolores. ‘Well, of course, we turned when the mountain told us.’ ”
Her relationship with Steve was emblematic of the effect she had on the people in her life. She lived and breathed her beliefs, and those in her presence inevitably learned from her and adopted her intensity and devotion to transcendence beyond the self.
Before her death, Steve reflected on the concepts he and Dolores had shared and the radiance his dear friend had brought into the world.
“Ideas of place disappear in the experience of place itself, in the experience of snow and gravity and mountains, and Dolores becomes a little girl playing in the snow,” he writes. “A long braid flows from her head to her waist. She is bathed in the high-altitude light she loves so much. She is dancing. Dolores is still dancing.”
From The Column: Adventure Archives
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