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Spring 2006 Issue
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Bury Yourself in Jill Fredston’s latest book, Snowstruck
Reviewed by Joanne Kuntz

If you missed her in the Fall 2003 edition of The Leader, now is a great time to catch up with Jill Fredston, NOLS alum, award-winning author and one of the nation’s leading avalanche experts. With over 20 years in the field of avalanche forecasting and safety education, her new book Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches (Harcourt, 2005) goes beyond the technical aspects of avalanche science to the heart of the matter—human nature. 

From her personal relationship with her husband and business partner, Doug Fesler (founder of the Alaska Avalanche School and cofounder of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center), to her fascination with the intricacies of snowpack, Snowstruck is indeed a love story, a story of passion for life and the sometimes precarious role we play in our own fate. Readers will be awestruck by Fredston’s fervent retelling of lives pock-marked by avalanche debris, including her own.

“‘Snowstruck’ has multiple meanings,” concedes the author. “Avalanches have been a great passion in my life, furthering my love of snow, introducing me to my husband and playing an integral role in our partnership. And they pack a tremendous punch—not only in terms of destructive force, but also in their impact upon those caught and those left behind.”

With each new chapter, Fredston shines her light from different angles. Whether reporting on the chaos of an accident site, sharing nuggets of avalanche history, consulting with moviemakers for snow stunts, or reflecting on the metamorphosis and bonding of her personal and professional relationships through years of enduring unnecessary tragedy, Snowstruck is a story with as many layers as the snowpack she studies. Elegantly, she brushes away extraneous information to reveal the most difficult factor that remains prevalent in her field: the human factor.

“If we want to talk about avalanche threat…without the presence of people or property, there is no hazard,” Fredston vigilantly reminds us.

Intimate with avalanches, Fredston is no stranger to NOLS either. A two-time NOLS grad herself from the early ‘70’s, her and Doug’s unassailable 1984 handbook Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard is still used in the NOLS winter classroom today.

“Jill is an inspirational woman, a mentor in our field,” says NOLS Instructor and Editor of The Avalanche Review, Lynne Wolfe. “Snow Sense is an excellent starter book for our students [and] has given us much of our basic common language. She and Doug did the first real examination of the human factor in [avalanche] decision-making, and that role and how people ignore obvious clues is still at the center of modern avalanche education.”

Snowstruck is similar to Snow Sense in that Fredston takes the time to explain the science of avalanche triggers, that delicate balance between terrain, snowpack, weather, and, of course, people. In her newest book, though, Fredston gets personal with stories of avalanche victims, the impact on victims’ friends and family, the dangers assumed by rescuers and forecasters as they determine safety margins, and the stresses put on her own life and relationships due to her sometimes tragic work.

By the end of Snowstruck, readers will get a full sense of the direct influence people can have on their own safety in, or even just near, the mountains. Immensely powerful as avalanches are, we should feel obligated to hike with our heads ups, our “avalanche eyeballs” wide, and our senses attending to clues Mother Nature gives us. Take Fredston’s journey with her through this book, and you too will have a new respect for this natural phenomenon.

 

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