How Rod Newcomb influenced a generation of avalanche education

Rod Newcomb, founder of the American Avalanche Institute (AAI) and a longtime avalanche educator, is a living snow-science legend. He started backcountry skiing in the early ’60s and established early on a career in all things snow related, from forecasting at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to instructing at the National Avalanche School in Alta, Utah, and finally establishing AAI in 1974. Through his career, Newcomb has influenced generations of students and guides, including Sarah Carpenter, who now owns AAI with her husband, Don, and business partner Don Sharaf. Here’s what Carpenter had to say about her long-time colleague and teaching inspiration.

Rod Newcomb pauses to reflect outside of Kelly, Wyoming. [Photo] Mark Fisher

I first met Rod 13 or 14 years ago when I moved to the Tetons and started teaching avalanche courses with Don Sharaf, who shepherded me into the fold of the American Avalanche Institute. Rod founded AAI in 1974, and my husband (Don Carpenter), Don Sharaf and I bought the company nine years ago. The inspiring thing about Rod—I have worked quite a few courses with him now—is that he has been studying snow for a long time and teaching avalanche courses since the ’70s, and he’s remained curious. He’s always reading about the next thing and is always willing to say, “Well, I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s call Karl Birkeland or Kelly Elder or whomever else.” And I always found that so inspiring. It was so fun to watch him when it came to checking out snow and understanding avalanches.

A few years into working for AAI, I started running his Bozeman program, because I used to ski patrol up at Bridger Bowl. I would go up there and register the courses and teach them with people like Doug Richmond, Scott Schmidt and Don Sharaf. That eventually led to buying the company. When we first bought the business, I would call Rod once a week and ask him how he did things and check to make sure we were still on the right track. He was always open and available to talk and guide us through the learning curve of running a company.

The thing that Rod has always been good about is teaching to the conditions, and that is really what I took away from teaching and working with him. You can dovetail your teaching to the conditions you are experiencing on any given day.

The other thing that I really learned from Rod is storytelling and how it is such a powerful education tool. You walk around with Rod, and you have this historian who can tell you about an avalanche cycle in 1971 and the conditions that led up to it. He has an incredibly intimate knowledge of terrain and conditions—I think that is a powerful way to educate people.

We are always trying to carry on Rod’s legacy, and it’s a highlight when we run into him during classes. Like Rod, we continue to spend as much time in the field as we possibly can during courses. We have adapted Rod’s approach to field time and shifted it more toward initially focusing on decision-making and a systematic approach to the backcountry and delving into the science more gradually along the way.

Rod is a pioneer in our industry. He started the oldest avalanche education school in the country, so he paved the way for all of us. But I think the most striking and inspirational thing about Rod is that he is in his 80s now, and he is still curious and active in the field, still reading The Avalanche Review and asking questions of the authors. He has been an inspiration and a model for all of us to follow, showing us that you never stop learning, especially about snow and avalanches.


  1. Liam Fitzgerald says:

    Rod is truly a legend in many ways, as a mountaineer, an avalanche researcher, and an avalanche educator. He has been a hero of mine since the first time I met him when he was a part of the legendary “Silverton Avalanche Research Project in 1972. He has inspired many of us to follow a career in the avalanche world. He is also, one of the finest humans I have ever known.

    Thanks for everything Rod.

    Liam Fitzgerald

  2. I was a student of Rod’s and it was great learning from him – great info he shared, great way with people and a terrific instructor. Thanks to Rod, I got swept up in the avalanche science and teaching world.

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