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NOLS Snow Scientists
By Kerry Brophy
When the temperature drops and the snow starts flying, life doesn’t get much better for these NOLS grads...

Don Carpenter

Don Carpenter
NOLS Winter Instructor

NOLS Instructor Don Carpenter teaching in the backcountry.
© Marco Johnson
NOLS Instructor Don Carpenter always looks at the snow crystals that land on his jacket sleeve. His favorite is the capped column flake, a six-sided design that he finds particularly beautiful. “People on the ski lift look at me like I’m crazy,” he says.

Since 1998, Carpenter’s been taking that same passion for snow into the backcountry with NOLS winter students. Part of his love for all things frozen came from a NOLS Alaska Mountaineering course in 1993. That’s when, he says, he started “loving outdoor stuff and teaching.”

When out in the winter backcountry with NOLS students, whether in the Tetons or the Wind River Range, Carpenter has found a few tricks for teaching his students to love snow, too. First of all, he keeps classes short so students don’t get cold standing around. Many of his NOLS students have never seen so much snow, and it’s exciting to see their reaction. “It’s amazing to get students into a [snow] pit and see the lights go on,” says Carpenter. “It’s fun to talk about [snow science] in class and then go stick our heads in the snowbanks.”

Getting up close to snow crystals never gets boring for Carpenter. “Snow is an amazing substance,” he says. “It’s dynamic, falling out of the sky looking like one thing and then changing itself throughout the winter. I love looking at the snowpack and then putting the puzzle together, trying to correlate different events throughout the winter to how the snow pack looks right then.”

Indeed, as the winter progresses and snow melts and accumulates in a continuous cycle, an intricate pattern develops in the snow layers. Digging a snow pit and getting in close to touch and see the layers is like deciphering a record book of the entire winter. It’s this kind of code breaking that Carpenter tries to teach his students. He’s also teaching students how to make smart decisions when they’re in the winter backcountry. “Snow science is another tool for students to be able to apply and travel safely,” says Carpenter. “That why it’s important to stand in a snow pit and look at what’s going on.”

With a degree in geology, Carpenter also enjoys the scientific aspect of topics like snow crystal formation. “I love looking at crystals that fall out of the sky,” he says. “Occasionally I see one that’s really rare.”

But, in general, he just loves looking outside on a snowy night and saying to himself, ‘Hey, I can make it out there.’ Carpenter says his body adapts well to the cold, as long as he changes his socks a lot, and, if something’s cold, takes care of it right away.

When Carpenter’s not out teaching students to stay warm in the wintertime, he’s often seeking some fresh powder of his own. He’s skied in British Columbia and Alaska, and this fall traveled to Patagonia to “just drive and ski.” And find those snow crystals. “I love living in the winter,” Carpenter says. “It’s such a quiet, pristine time in the mountains.”

Don Carpenter

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