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Beneath the Surface

First Tracks
posted: 08/20/2003

As cofounder (with her husband, Doug Fesler, in 1986) of the venerable Alaska Mountain Safety Center, Jill Fredston has pulled so many corpses from the snow that she refuses to count them. Sometimes their faces are frozen in astonishment; other times, their mouths are covered in suffocating masks of ice. Fredston has clearly earned her reputation as one of the country's most serious and insightful avalanche experts. When slides in the Chugach Mountains (and other Alaska ranges) bury climbers, snowmobilers, and skiers, she is often flown to the scene by helicopter, not so much as a rescuer, but as a retriever. Still, she writes in Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches ($24; Harcourt), "One good thing about body recoveries is that they remind us of the thin line we tread."

Fredston is an award-winning writer (her 2001 book, Rowing to Latitude, won the National Outdoor Book Award), and her compelling stories of avalanche deaths are recounted with just the right mix of expertise and emotion. One sunny afternoon, for example, a 35-year-old expert skier-a friend of Fredston's familiar with avalanche safety-lays fresh tracks on a treeless, 40-degree bowl, triggering the avalanche that kills him. Fredston's investigation into the accident reveals that a slab had been resting on a layer of faceted crystals called depth hoar. In his excitement, he had neglected to heed obvious warning signs that the snow was unstable.

Understandable miscalculations like these have led Fredston to feel little tolerance for those who discount such tragedies as the result of stupidity. "My intimate view has taught me to be less judgmental of individuals," she writes, "recognizing in their missteps and blindness the potential for my own." Snowstruck should be required reading for any mountain enthusiast, not only for its eloquent passages on powder blasts, slab avalanches, and shifting water-vapor molecules, but because it takes avalanches out of the statistical realm and into the human one.

October 2005

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