Kate Koons made her share of backcountry mistakes when she first moved to Jackson in 2002. She recalls an early trip to ski Glory Bowl on Teton Pass—the same day she bought her avalanche transceiver. “I didn’t know about the whole ‘ski one at a time’ thing,” she says. “So I followed right behind my buddies. You know—I didn’t want to lose them.”
As a recent transplant to the Tetons, Koons soon realized she needed to develop her skills to stay alive in the backcountry. Today, she is a pro training coordinator for the American Avalanche Association where she ensures avalanche courses are taught to the highest standards. She also teaches avalanche education courses for other organizations. Koons credits much of her education during her early years in Jackson to a combination of learning from friends and enrolling in a Level 1 avalanche course, followed by a Level 2 course a couple of years later.
She enjoyed the time she spent in the field with students and instructors, and the experience led her to work with the National Outdoor Leadership School, where she taught winter courses and spent more and more time in the snowy backcountry. Winter weeks spent in the backcountry with students and fellow instructors helped her frame some bedrock beliefs about safe snow travel.
These beliefs drive Koons’ passion for avalanche education. The recent turn in avalanche curriculum from a very science-based approach—stellar dendrite, anyone?—to a more human-factor based approach strikes a chord. “Science happens, sure,” she says. “But it’s the decisions we make that kill people.”
She looks at communication within a group as a critical component of a safe outing and encourages people to ask honest questions about decision making, motivations, and group dynamics. She also believes it’s important for women to feel empowered to step into the conversation. When she teaches women-only Level 1 avalanche courses, she often hears the same thing: “I go out with my husband, partner, buddies—and I just follow them. I don’t feel as though I have a voice.” Koons strives to get every woman in the course, at one point or another, to lead a discussion about snow with her peers.
Koons concludes her courses noting students will likely forget many elements of the curriculum, but she urges them to leave feeling they can—and must—be a part of backcountry conversations. “Ask ‘why?’, ask ‘why not?’, say ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this’,” she tells her students.
Her biggest motivator, however, is a widely shared one. “I just want to go out and have fun and ski powder,” she says, acknowledging she is a very conservative skier these days. For her, the most important part of the day is spending time with her friends, not “being rad” or skiing big lines. She just wants to explore and have a good time while staying safe in avalanche country.