American Avalanche Institute’s Don Sharaf has a skill for every time of year

02 Apr 2022

Winter/Spring 21-22

Written By: Molly Absolon | Images: David Bowers

If you want to find Don Sharaf, you need to know the season.

Don, also known as “Big Don,” has never held a 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week job in his 30-year career. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked. In fact, when Don is on a project — regardless of what that project may be — he’s usually working a lot more than 40 hours. He routinely rises before dawn to prep for avalanche courses and wakes up early to make coffee on multi-day river trips. In his spare time, he welds creative works of art (using skills he says he mainly learned at “YouTube University”). And, of course, like most people who make their home in the Tetons, Don skis, bikes, whitewater rafts, camps, travels, and goes on adventurous trips in the wilderness whenever he can. Don’s job titles over the years have included arborist, carpenter, welder, avalanche educator, avalanche forecaster, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor, NOLS winter program coordinator, heli-ski guide, search and rescue volunteer, and, perhaps the one that comes the closest to a classic full-time job, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute. “I like jobs where every day is different,” Don says. “I love working hard and figuring things out. Bottom line: I get great satisfaction pushing myself both mentally and physically.” Don started on this trajectory after college, when he worked with the Appalachian Mountain Club construction crew in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was there he learned “a little to a lot” about everything from plumbing and carpentry to solar-power systems and helicopters. He also worked as an arborist, which is where he first learned the rope and rigging skills he now uses for mountaineering, construction, and, of course, taking down trees. Among his friends, Don is known for his willingness to help with any home project that requires some technical know- how and manual labor. He cuts out dangerous snags in people’s yards, designs and welds metal staircases and decks, and drives heavy equipment. Outside of his close circle of friends, Don is probably best known as one of the leading avalanche educators in North America. Don started skiing in New England and says he was a mediocre skier growing up, but got more into it in his teens. “For some reason, who knows, maybe I saw a cool picture in a Patagonia catalogue, but I decided to try telemarking,” Don says. “Back then, like everyone, I had leather ski boots and 210-centimeter-long chopsticks for skis. I learned to turn those things in the backcountry of New England. If you can ski there, you can pretty much ski anywhere.” But after getting rained out of too many New England winters, Don decided to head west. In 1987, he came to Wyoming for a NOLS winter course and within a year or two was working for the school and living the seasonal, piece-together lifestyle that has come to define his career. “For years, my expenses were next to nothing,” Don says. “Maybe putting gas in my truck. Maybe paying for a storage unit. I didn’t have a full-time residence for 10 years while I worked for NOLS.” Today, Don is a little more settled. He lives with his wife, Julie Mueller, in a house he built in Teton Valley, co-owns the American Avalanche Institute, and serves as a mentor for people interested in working in snow science. But he’s also making more time for his welding business — Whiteout Welding — and for the river trips and travels that feed his soul.
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