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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...

This regular column highlights what some of the nearly 75,000 grads around the world are doing with their NOLS education. From writing books, to climbing mountains, to making change, these folks are taking NOLS lessons in leadership, wilderness ethics and more out of the wilderness and into their communities.

Jill Fredston

Jill Fredston
Avalanche Specialist

Two-time NOLS grad Jill Fredston has always been into snow. “I have been interested in snow since I was a little girl,” Fredston says. “I was also the kind of kid who whined when I was cold.”

Now, at 45, Fredston is one of the country’s most recognized avalanche educators and has spent countless hours suspended above avalanche fracture lines, peering closely at an icy world that’s always changing. “What I love about snow is that the one constant is its variability,” she says. “What you see today isn’t going to be out there tomorrow and that’s really fun.”

When Fredston returned home from her NOLS Adventure course in 1973, she built a fire in the backyard of her suburban home in Westchester County, New York. Her passion for the outdoors ignited into a series of summers spent in the backcountry, including a NOLS Prince William Sound Sea Kayaking course in 1975. After earning a bachelor’s degree in geography and environmental studies at Dartmouth College, Fredston followed her childhood calling and received a master’s degree in polar studies and snow from the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University in England.

After graduating from Cambridge, Fredston went to work for the University of Alaska. “Anything frozen was deemed my purview,” she recalls. Shortly after her arrival, she was put in charge of the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center, though she hadn’t yet seen an avalanche. In 1986, she and her husband, Doug Fesler, created the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, where they educate the public about avalanche hazard evaluation and have investigated hundreds of avalanches, deciphering the complex chain of events that trigger a slide. The couple’s 1984 book Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Avalanche Hazard has sold more than 130,000 copies and has become required reading in the NOLS winter classroom.

Over the years, Fredston has seen a lot of snow. Most days during the Alaska winter, she’s either teaching about snow, investigating avalanche accidents, or else, unfortunately, leading an avalanche rescue. For the past 20 years, she and Fesler have been involved in most of the avalanche rescues in Alaska.

In a big place like Alaska, one thing Fredston says she can always count on is big avalanches. In 1983, she rappelled into a slide that had fractured 36 feet deep and 1,700 feet across the slope. The slide had moved a billion pounds of snow in less than 30 seconds, filling an area equivalent to 22 football fields. She and Fesler determined that it would have taken 75,000 dump truck loads to remove the snow.

Despite all the snow, Fredston says she still isn’t tired of it. But she and her husband do seek out a different kind of wilderness when the snow stops flying. Her book Rowing to Latitude chronicles the thousands of miles they’ve logged in their converted sea kayaks each summer, exploring the rugged shorelines of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Spitsbergen and Norway. Carrying what they need to be self-sufficient, Fredston says she still “does things kind of a NOLS way—lots of little tiny things like the way I tie the knot on tent strings, or the way I’m pretty fanatical about leaving no sign that we’ve been somewhere.”

But they always paddle back to the snow. “The process of learning about avalanches has been a fascinating one for me because it’s a combination of being in the mountains and also trying to figure out a scientific phenomenon,” Fredston says. “In my lifetime I’ll never see all the combinations of snow layers. I’ll never get tired of the power of avalanches.”

Jill Fredston

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