Donald Sharaf is a lead avalanche course instructor and an owner of AAI.
He has spent 30 years backcountry skiing and riding all over the US and Canada. He has taught avalanche and mountaineering courses for the last 25 years and been a heli-ski guide and avalanche forecaster in Alaska for the past 15 years. In other words, enough time to pay attention, to learn a few lessons, and to see the value of remaining humble in the face of the dragon. Although he constantly challenges himself to figure out how avalanches work, his true passion still remains moving through the mountains… and rivers.
Don, Don Carpenter and Sarah Carpenter purchased AAI from founder, Rod Newcomb a little over a decade ago. Since that time the team has worked hard to preserve and advance Rod’s legacy and set the standard for avalanche education across the industry.
Where are you Based?
Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska
What avalanche courses do you teach?
Easier to answer what I haven’t taught recently for AAI 🙂 Most of my courses are in the Professional Track, but Level Ones still keep me grounded. Sometimes I think the Level ones are the hardest to teach, as they are the foundation for everything that follows. The checklist helps a lot, but it is truly at a lot of information to convey in 24 hours of instruction. I know that many of our instructors are better at teaching level ones than I am.
What is your favorite snow story?
Too many to choose from, so I’ll relate one of the most recent stories. For years I have been aware of snow crystal types that are common, but I haven’t seen them much at all. We were up in Grizzly Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon of Utah. It was COLD and snowing and blowing. We only had 3 inches of new snow at 10,000′ but it was all composed of columns, plates, capped columns, and bullets. All these rare’ish snow crystal types together in the same layer. They were microscopic – you couldn’t see them clearly without a good loupe or lens. Less than 0.3mm in size. But they were BEAUTIFUL! The natural world still is fascinating to me. On a more macro level that storm that put down 3-4 inches at upper elevations laid down 16-24″ at lower elevations. The next day we were skiing about 20″ of blower stellars at 8000′ in White Pine Drainage. Definitely an uncommon storm! The NWS did a good job predicting it and Jim Steenburgh did a good job explaining it. Classic Upside Down Storm
What was the path that led you to avalanche education?
I figured that to go where I wanted on skis I better learn about avalanches. Of course, once I started into it I was hooked. As a geology student, I saw many parallels to what I was learning. Structural Geology at Formula One speeds. Once out of college I put my education to ‘use’ as a carpenter/maintenance guy for the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire. For three years I roamed the White Mountains skiing, climbing and learning everything I could glean from the USFS Snow Rangers in the ravines of Mount Washington. I reached my limit of rain on snow events and moved out to Wyoming in the winter of 90/91 to work for the National Outdoor Leadership School. In 13 years of working for them, I became the Winter Program Coordinator and taught a ton of avalanche courses to both students and instructors. Those years were amazing as we got to import instructors for our Level 2 program, so I learned from Scott Gill, Bruce Tremper, Ron Johnson, Jim Woodmencey, Janet Kellam, Jill Fredston, Doug Fesler, Karl Birkeland, and Dale Atkins. I was truly fortunate to work with Ian McCammon for several of those years and learned more from him than anyone in the avalanche industry – and I can still say that today. In 1996 Rod Newcomb asked if I could start working courses for AAI. I jumped at the opportunity and started harvesting pearls from Rod, Robbie Fuller, Ron Matous, Rick Wyatt, and Kelly Elder. These lists may seem like a name dropping vendetta, but all of these folks have given me a lot to think about and I am truly grateful to all of them. In December of 1996 I took an Operations Level 2 Course from the Canadian Avalanche Association. It blew my mind! They had a degree of organization and standardization that was far beyond US avalanche education at the time. I took many of their skills and techniques and introduced them into the pro courses that I worked thereafter. In 2008, Don and Sarah Carpenter and I took the reins of AAI from Rod and it has been full-on from that time. November through March I teach full time now for AAI. Heliski guiding and forecasting, Industrial Avalanche Mitigation and Forecasting, and personal trips still add relevance and focus to what I teach.
Why do you enjoy teaching?
I LOVE learning from my former and current students. So many students have gone on to become operational forecasters, lead guides, snow safety techs…I am blown away by the research they do, the observations they make, their ability to call BS on what I taught them. I recall John Fitzgerald telling me about some wet slab cycles in Alaska that didn’t follow many of the guidelines that I had offered him in my years talking about wet snow. Watch the rivers during rain events – not really helpful, watch for early onset of avalanching with rain on dry snow – sometimes maybe. The list went on – wet slabs are difficult to predict, but at least a little more predictable than glide slabs…In the recreational world, I like it when the gears mesh and folks see that there is a way to travel safely in the backcountry regardless of the avalanche hazard. I am dismayed when people are overwhelmed by all they need to consider, but i get it. It took me a couple of intro courses to understand what folks were trying to teach me and another few years before I realized how complex it all can be. Still I revert to Level 1 when there is uncertainty. “If snow is the question, then terrain is the answer.”
What do you do with your offseason?
I follow the snow down river on a 14′ Avon raft or a 7′ packraft. I also have recently transitioned from making sawdust to making sparks. More than anything I try to spend more time with my wife Julie, who still seems to recognize me after the winter.
Courses With AAI
Our instructors are the core of your experience with the American Avalanche Institute. They bring the science and knowledge of avalanche safety to life in real-world settings. If you’re interested in learning more from Sarah, or one of our other amazing instructors check out our full course offerings today.