Current Issue / DU Alumni

Dolores LaChappelle: a tai chi master in the high country

Snow clings to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains like a white satin dress on a voluptuous woman. The region’s mining history and freezing temperatures are expressed in the orange, iron-stained ice formations lining the single highway winding through the landscape. It is here that Dolores LaChapelle, BA English ’47, has cultivated a life steeped in tai chi and deep powder.

For 30 years, LaChapelle has awoken to a mountain view in Silverton, Colo., where she teaches and practices tai chi and reflects on her days of skiing the backcountry.

“Tai chi is the same flowing motion as powder skiing,” says LaChapelle, who explains that while skiing, she can’t tell where her legs end and the powder begins. The same is true of tai chi, she says.

When practicing tai chi, she says, her spine mimics the stability of a mountain; her arms sway like the wind. The ancient Chinese martial art embraces the philosophy that the universe and its inhabitants revolve harmoniously among all elements.

LaChapelle was introduced to tai chi in the 1970s when her friends practiced a session in front of her. She was mesmerized by the curious, dance-like movements and felt a connection between it and her first love—powder skiing.

In her book Deep Powder Snow: 40 Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches, and Earth Wisdom (Kivaki Press, 1993), LaChapelle wrote: “It is important to realize that when one skis in deep powder snow, there is absolutely nothing there—no resistance whatsoever.” For LaChapelle—who jokingly refers to herself as a “failed Taoist”—nothingness is the beauty of both tai chi and powder skiing. Only when nothingness is achieved can you become your surroundings.

Her followers agree. LaChapelle has acquired a group of devotees—college professors, fellow environmentalists and neighbors—who quote her books, visit her isolated home several times each year and take tai chi lessons from her whenever possible.

LaChapelle’s first book, Earth Festivals (Finn Hill Arts, 1976) marked the beginning of her brief but influential role in academia. Arne Naess, who founded the deep ecology movement in the late 1970s, grabbed hold of LaChapelle’s insights on the connectedness between the earth and its inhabitants. He asked her to join his lecture circuit, which she did. LaChapelle then published a second book, Earth Wisdom (Guild of Tutors Press, 1978), and gave deep ecology lectures, workshops and seminars at many universities, including DU.

“Deep ecology is the most important part of my most recent and last book—Return to the Mountain: Tai Chi, Between Heaven and Earth (Hazard Publishing Unlimited, 2002). If you only read one page,” she instructs, “read the page that explains the meaning of deep ecology.”

Deep ecology promotes economic growth through environment-friendly means, and poses “deep” questions about why humans the planet the way they do. According to LaChapelle, humans come from the earth and thus are connected to all living things. So, when we progress and grow, it behooves us to protect the planet, as it amply provides for our vital needs. LaChapelle is so convinced that she has appropriately explored the subject, she has vowed stop writing about it.

So, instead of writing about tai chi and deep ecology, LaChapelle practices them every day. And although a brush with an avalanche several years ago keeps her off of the slopes, it is still nearly impossible to tell where her feet end and the earth begins.

 

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