Ed LaChapelle, a pioneer in avalanche research, died enjoying the thing he loved most — snow. A former University of Washington professor...

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Ed LaChapelle, a pioneer in avalanche research, died enjoying the thing he loved most — snow.

A former University of Washington professor and a Tacoma native, Mr. LaChapelle was skiing in fresh powder at Monarch Mountain in Colorado when he suffered a heart attack and died Feb. 1. He was 80.

“To have that be his last day on the planet was perfect. He launched himself into some kind of legend with that,” said his son, David.

To many who study atmospheric sciences and avalanches, Mr. LaChapelle had already attained legendary stature.

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“He was universally recognized as a giant in the field,” said Rich Marriott, meteorologist for KING 5 TV and a former student of Mr. LaChapelle’s.

Mr. LaChapelle authored “The ABC of Avalanche Safety,” a handbook still used by backcountry adventurers, and developed a beacon to locate buried skiers. He also played a key part in founding the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle.

“Ed thought we needed to bring real-time safety information to the state of Washington,” said Mark Moore, director of the center, who also studied under LaChapelle at the UW.

While it’s hard to measure how many lives have been saved by Mr. LaChapelle’s work, which took him from Greenland to South America, Moore said it “touched almost everyone in the national and international avalanche community.”

Marriott said he came to the UW’s graduate program in atmospheric science in 1975 largely because of Mr. LaChapelle’s reputation. “We referred to him as Obi-Wan Kenobi,” said Marriott, who spent parts of 10 summers studying the Blue Glacier in the Olympic Mountains with Mr. LaChapelle.

Mr. LaChapelle graduated from Stadium High School in Tacoma. His father was a labor mediator in the logging industry. While a teen, Mr. LaChapelle worked as a bellhop at Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier. In a letter he later wrote, Mr. LaChapelle recalled seeing the evening sunlight on Mount Rainier and deciding in a “single blinding moment” to dedicate his life to snow, ice and mountains, his son said.

On his 21st birthday, Mr. LaChapelle — who had overcome polio as a child — climbed Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Hood on three consecutive days, his son said.

After a stint in the Navy at the end of World War II, Mr. LaChapelle went to Switzerland to study avalanches. He then plunged into research for the U.S. Forest Service in Utah and became part of a group of snow rangers called the Avalanche Hunters, who experimented with explosives in avalanche control.

“Ed was always interested in mountains and skiing and explosives. Avalanches were a good way to bring it all together,” said Marriott.

From 1967 to 1982, Mr. LaChapelle was professor of atmospheric sciences and geophysics at the UW. He retired to the remote town of McCarthy, Alaska, at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains in the southeastern part of the state.

Mr. LaChapelle and his partner of 25 years, Margaret (Meg) Hunt, lived “off the grid” in McCarthy, which has about 50 year-round residents. Their one-room log cabin relied on solar energy, which Mr. LaChapelle also used to power his electric car and electric bike.

Despite his imposing credentials, Mr. LaChapelle was modest and fun, said Mike Loso, a neighbor, friend and assistant professor of geology at Alaska Pacific University. Loso, also a bluegrass musician, said Mr. LaChapelle would sometimes pluck a homemade stringed instrument along with Loso’s band. “He’d get right into it,” Loso said.

Mr. LaChapelle was a practical joker with a mischievous streak, his son said. While a teenager, Mr. LaChapelle created explosive pellets he called “power pills” and once overloaded the Stadium High School cannon with gunpowder. On a hike with his son, he had a friend create a fire-breathing “dragon” in the woods using a parachute and a fire extinguisher.

Hunt said that whenever she went hiking, climbing or skiing with Mr. LaChapelle, he always left the trail to bushwhack his own route. “He had to go off the beaten path,” she said.

In addition to his son and Hunt, Mr. LaChapelle is survived by his sister MLou Doyle of Shoreline. His former wife, Dolores LaChapelle, died previously. Donations in his memory can be sent to the Mountain Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 542, Silverton, CO 81433.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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