Author’s note: Throwback Thursday, July 2015! I wrote this review back in 1994 when pioneer North American skier Dolores LaChapelle was still living. While doing ski history research I’d had a few enjoyable conversations with her on the phone, and shared dinner once at a friend’s house. To put it mildly, Dolores was outspoken and her writing reflects her personality. I still remember her at dinner, ranting about religion with nary a care about who she might have been offending. I was thinking at the time that a bit of tact might have been appropriate — yet smiling to myself thinking creatives (e.g., writers, artists) should always be allowed some leeway as we charge them with being interesting and challenging. That was Doris, a “wild woman” in the best sense of the phrase.
Dolores (Doris) LaChapelle doesn’t pull any punches in her book, Deep Powder Snow. If you telemark, you won’t like what she says about you. If you ride a snowmobile, you are evil. If you’re Catholic, you won’t like her take on your religion. Yet somehow, though having been both in the telemark position and on a snowmobile, and even attended Mass on occasion, I rose above my sinful nature and enjoyed what Dolores has to say.
In a nutshell, LaChapelle shares her initiation and subsequent religion of powder skiing.
It goes something like this. Back in the golden age of western U.S. skiing, when guys with names like Alf, Sverre, and Cormier were the bronzed snow gods who showed Americans how-tu-duuu-ittt, Lachapelle learns a turn called the single dipsy. Her technique of making tightly linked powder turns was a precursor to the technique employed by many of today’s powder skiers (as of 2015 wide, rockered and shaped skis have evolved technique that’s smoother and less oriented to producing turns than the style of powder skiing Doris writes about, but these foundational techniques are still part of skiing to one extent or another depending on style.)
And turn she did. Through years with Utah’s legendary snow (early Alta tales), Aspen’s founding 10th Mountain Troopers, and points in between, LaChapelle literally becomes one with the earth by letting “snow and gravity together” turn her skis. In the process, she becomes one of the West’s most prolific and best known powder skiers, and develops a radical personal philosophy that meshes tightly with the Deep Ecology movement.
Deep Ecology holds (in short) that if humans blend with the earth, all our political and environmental problems will be solved. LaChapelle’s uses skiing to explain, “There is no longer an I and snow and mountain, but a continuous flowing interaction. I cannot tell where my actions end and the snow takes over…That’s deep ecology!” Using her experiences of mountain living and powder skiing, LaChapelle leads us through the development of her beliefs. She quotes from Alan Watts, and at length from philosopher Martin Heidegger, a German savant who skied with his students to teach them his ideas.
For me the book operated on two levels. I could cruise and enjoy LaChapelle’s account of how American skiing grew up — while I schussed over the more obtuse philosophical paragraphs. Or, I’d cut my pace in half, and linger over her ideas of earth, man and skis. In the end, I read the book twice.
In case you’re wondering about the new age part, as in “but what does this do to help me find my car keys?” Doris does get slapped a few times. Her marriage to Ed LaChapelle doesn’t work, and she gets badly injured in an avalanche. Thus, her book has a more earthy feel than others of this philosophical genre, which sometimes wax over realities of life as a human being in the material world. Rest assured, Doris doesn’t just get caught in a slide. Instead, she wakes up in a body cast, then weaves her avalanche accident into her struggle with marriage, sexuality and religion.
Powder skiing is a potent experience. Social groups are built around it, and it is a big part of many a personal philosophy. Indeed, snow has been one of the prime forces along my spiritual path. Here is one powder pilgrim who put it in writing — who wants to share it with you. You may not agree with everything Doris LaChapelle says, but her words come from her heart, and they’re not sanitized by the scourge of political correctness. If powder snow has ever been part of your life, I urge you to give this book a few turns on the couch.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.