Happiness in the mountains of Jackson Hole

07 Mar 2023

Former American Avalanche Institute co-owner Sarah Carpenter reflects on living life in the backcountry

Winter/Spring 22-23

Written By: Evie Carrick | Images: Lara Agnew

Skiing has always been central to Sarah Carpenter’s life. As a kid growing up in Santa Fe, she skied in Taos, and as a teen, she and some friends convinced Ski Santa Fe to start a freestyle team on the mountain. “It was basically us convincing the ski area that we should be able to build some big jumps on the side of a run — and somehow it worked,” she remembers.

From there, the mountains got bigger. She studied at Montana State University and became a regular at Bridger Bowl, eventually landing a job on ski patrol. In the summer, she worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The outdoors became — or perhaps always were — her true home, her happy place.

“I was always happiest outside. My mom tells me that’s when I would stop crying when I was a baby ... when she’d take me outside,” Sarah says. “There was something about being in the mountains for me, even when I was a kid. I have always felt the most alive when I was outside.”

From Bridger she went to Big Sky. “While living in Big Sky for a year, I would always look south at the Tetons, wondering why I wasn’t skiing there — so I picked up and moved. And the rest is history,” she says. “I’ve been in the Teton Valley since the early 2000s.”

In the Tetons, she found more snow, less wind, and perhaps most importantly, backcountry terrain that was more accessible. The landscape became her playground — a playground she shares with her snow-loving husband, Don.

“He’s my best friend. He’s hilarious. He’s curious. He’s an incredible athlete. We have a great time wandering through the mountains together,” she says. In the winter, her perfect day involves “morning coffee, a little time to stretch, a little time to read. A great day out powder skiing with Don and some friends. And then time painting by the wood stove at the end of the day."

In addition to being the setting for her grandest adventures, the Tetons have also been Sarah’s office for many years. She started teaching avalanche classes for the American Avalanche Institute (AAI) early on, eventually purchasing the organization with her husband and their business partner, Don Sharaf, in 2009. The trio spent 12 years running and expanding AAI. Highlights for Sarah include the middle and high school program that educated “Jackson youth about snow and avalanches in school and outside of school” and the multi-year avalanche classes she led for ski patrol teams in Colorado.

These days, Sarah is taking a backseat at AAI. She’s still coordinating and working avalanche courses for ski patrollers, but is no longer an owner — nor is her husband or Don Sharaf. AAI was sold to Russell Hunter in late 2021.

“I am so proud of the new leadership and I’m having a great time working with them. ... I’m really grateful to work with the AAI leadership team and the instructor staff. It is an incredible group of people,” she says, taking a moment to look back on all that she’s accomplished. “I hope that I have made backcountry skiing more approachable for people. ... I hope I have offered people systems to approach backcountry skiing with, and have given them tools to recognize places where it is appropriate to learn.”

These days, in addition to her work with AAI, she’s working part time as a risk management consultant for the Recreation Law Group and remains open to the next adventure — both on and off the mountain.

She’s taken up watercolor painting and still considers building her strawbale house one of her greatest accomplishments. “I didn’t have any building experience before that, but I gained a lot of confidence and experience. I designed our heating system after reading a book I checked out at the Teton County Library,” she says.

Between work and painting, you’ll find Sarah in her happy place, skiing her favorite lines with her favorite people. “For me, time in the backcountry is about time with good people, so that tends to be my priority these days. Connecting with my community.”

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