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