This past summer, when it was over 100 degrees and muggy here in Peaklessburg, I stayed cool by reading about snow, avalanches and hazards in Alaska. In the spring I picked up Jill Fredston’s book Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches (2005) on a whim and put it on the shelf. After reading it I can say that it won’t spend as much time there as others in my library because I plan to reread it.
Fredston tells the story of her life and her studies of avalanches. It’s a dazzling story of her career along with her husband, another expert, Doug Fesler. Together they are best known for being the authors of Snowsense, a guide for surveying avalanche risk.
I can’t say that I love many books, but this one was full of what I crave presented in a terrific, compelling narrative. Fredston weaves her life story in with the accomplishments of her career along with the science of snow and avalanches, the muddiness of professional relationships, detective work and nonprofit work, all around the cause of preventing future deaths and property damage from avalanches.
My experience with avalanches growing in the northeast were mostly limited to the little ones that slide off roofs, so this story was insightful. For instance, even when I ice climbed in the Adirondacks, spindrift was all I really ever suffered from. In Vermont — where I visit almost every winter — the rescue groups don’t respond to too many avalanches either. Avalanches happened there, but not with the severity and frequncy they occur out west. But, as Fredston explains, the majority of slopes — even at a gentle incline — are built to unleash fury under the right conditions.
Through reading the story you learn about the chances of survival, how the most critical moment for survival is when the lost person in the avalanche is found, and how our own personal psychology can lead us into danger. Fredston also talks about how being swept away in an avalanche is avoidable, how even on commonly tread ground — like Flattop outside of Anchorage, Alaska — has attracted more rescues than elsewhere in the Chugach Range, how avalanche beacons and cell phones are often a false sense of security, among other things. I also found this statistic from Fredston chilling: 71 percent of avalanche victims die on slopes they know.
I was also amused by a moment when her Subaru got stuck on the long driveway to her home. I guess Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive can’t overcome all adversity after all.
She gives you a sense of what the best avalanche experts consider when inspecting slopes, and she does this by telling you the stories of how she and Fesler discovered these issues. Questions like what is the slope? What type of snow is it? When did hoar form? Which way did the wind blow last week? Why does the snow sound hollow here? Is the snow cracking? In all, it comes down to the three factors of snowpack, terrain and weather, often represented in a triangular chart.
Snowstruck is well written, romantic, informative and suspenseful all at once. But above all, it’s about enjoying the adventure of living a life with challenges: “[I]f you are taking no risks, you are dead, and without risk, we might forget that we are alive.”