Izzy Kolodejchuk: The man behind Glacier’s first avalanche beacons

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Izzy Kolodejchuk in this photo provided by his family. He was also an avid Ham Radio operator.

For many skiers who head out into the backcountry, wearing an avalanche beacon today is commonplace.

But in 1968, fancy electronics were few and far between and if someone was buried in an avalanche, using probes — long poles that could find a body under the snow — were the most common method of retrieval.

Unfortunately, once a body was found, they often weren’t alive.

Izzy Kolodejchuk, a 38-year-old electronics technician in Glacier National Park, built the first beacons for the Glacier Park plow crews in the spring of 1968. According to a story in the Hungry Horse News at the time, Kolodjechuk used plans developed by Dr. John G. Lawton of the Cornell Aeronautics Laboratory that were provided by Ed LaChapelle of the Avalanche Study Center of Alta, Utah.

Kolodejchuk’s devices included a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter was worn by the plow operator and included a 19-inch antennae sewn into his jacket. In tests on dummies, they worked if buried under three feet of snow.

This wasn’t the first avalanche beacon ever devised — Lawton gets credit for that — but it may have been the least expensive. Kolodejchuk’s devices used off-the-shelf parts and only cost $200. Canadian crews, when they heard about them, were immediately interested because the beacons they were using cost $5,000 apiece — a small fortune at the time.

Kolodejchuk wanted to patent the design, but the Park Service at the time wouldn’t let him, because he built them on Park Service time, his son, Allen Kolodejchuk, who lives in Columbia Falls, said in a recent interview.

Kolodejchuk’s beacon would have come in handy on May 26, 1953. That’s when an avalanche came down on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, killing foreman George H. Beaton and William A. Whitford and seriously injuring crewman Frederick E. Klein.

Crewman Jean Sullivan was buried under five feet of snow for 8 hours but survived.

“That (beacon) sure would have helped me back in 1953,” Sullivan remarked in 1968.

Kolodjechuk loved electronics, Allen noted. He lied about his age to join the Army at the tail end of World War II at the age of 17 and then re-enlisted, serving in Korea. His time in the Army sparked an interest in radios and electronics, Allen said.

In the private sector, Kolodejchuk got his start installing radio transmitter towers for ranchers in North Dakota. He then moved to Missoula and then to Glacier Park after he was hired by the Park Service.

In addition to his work for the Park Service, he also put up the first transmitter on Desert Mountain that brought TV to the Canyon and West Glacier.

Unfortunately, Kolodejchuk also suffered from multiple health problems and he died in 1975 at the age of 46.

It’s too bad, Allen said. He would have loved to have lived today, with all the electronic gadgets and cell phones.

“He would have really been into it,” Allen said.

Kolodejchuk is memorialized on the Veterans Wall at Marantette Park.

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