Book Review: Snowstruck, Jill Fredston
Here in Colorado the winter season will soon be upon us, and already the backcountry has seen a handful of avalanche accidents. If you’re interested in reviewing the fundamentals of avalanche safety, but can’t quite bring yourself to pick up and read or re-read one of the standard textbooks, you might try Jill Fredston’s Snowstruck instead.
Snowstruck opens with an in-depth tale of an avalanche hitting the town of Cordova, Alaska. The individual character’s stories are told with an emphasis on what they were thinking and feeling and how that impacted the decisions they made. The style here mirrors the incident reporting in Laurence Gonzales’s book Deep Survival.
After the action-packed opening chapter, Fredston backs off the intensity level and tells the story of her own arrival in Alaska and initial involvement with avalanche studies. Her future husband, Doug Fesler, is also introduced with his own background story. Readers of Jill’s Rowing to Latitude will find most of this information familiar, possibly even redundant.
Doug’s research combing through the old newspapers of Alaska produces a solid history of avalanche paths in Alaska. Skeptical whenever someone reports, after an accident, that this slope has never slid before his research often reveals just how short our collective memory is. Those lessons unlearned lead naturally into describing the avalanche safety courses she and Doug teach to all the backcountry recreationalists, where the couple can “teach them enough to stay alive, but also warn plainly that attitude and overconfidence can kill. . .” This section stands on its own as an excellent summary of a current avalanche level one course.
A chapter on risks and how people process and rank them might leave you wondering what chance we have of ever reducing avalanche accidents. Especially after Jill relates the accident her own husband had caused by a bad choice in terrain management.
A needed chapter of levity follows as Jill describes her experiences with Hollywood. Avalanches are set off by loud noises in silly plot devices and her husband works as a stunt double, wrestling a stuffed animal. More seriously she discusses the logistics of capturing an oncoming avalanche with an armored camera loaded with only 2 minutes worth of film. Timing is critical as explosive fuses and the egg- timer-and-rat-trap-triggered camera must be precisely coordinated to get the shot.
Fredston also covers the role of an avalanche forecaster in protecting transportation corridors and utilities, responsibilities the backcountry enthusiast probably doesn’t think much about when reading the daily condition reports. Imagine the will required to convince construction crews that the slopes above them are safe since they’ve already ran, or alternately, telling their bosses the cost of this project just went up since the conditions are too dangerous to work today. And after a long day of accident investigations you’ve got to try and explain the phenomena to a reporter looking for simple answers.
One of the more visceral tales concerns the aftermath of a snowmobile highmarking-triggered avalanche and the close knit family of the victim. Emotions threaten control of the rescue as efforts are delayed due to new wind loading above the accident site. The family seems ready for a vigilante-style attempt to save their brother, without understanding the danger. In recounting the search, Fredston slips in a few lessons about the variable worth of search dogs and probe lines.
While Jill and Doug are forced to face their own morality after a helicopter crash, Jill refuses to limit the subject to their own incident. Instead she discusses the rescuers who “may be imploding with denial, rage, depression, and grief.” There’s some raw feelings here, about remembering someone better as a corpse than a living person, perceiving a relative’s questions as jabs and knowing that the death needn’t have happened.
Avalanches are inevitable, but humans don’t have to be in their destructive path. There is little mystery behind why we might take risks just for a few hours on a bluebird powder day. More perplexing is why we choose to live in known avalanche paths as the residents of portions of Juneau have done. Jill Fredston doesn’t understand this behavior, but all her work has taught her not to be surprised by it.
Snowstruck doesn’t cover any new ground in terrain selection, group protocols or rescue techniques. It’s decidedly not a text book. What it is, is an excellent narrative that’ll likely stick in your mind and
remind you why you wear your beacon and back away from some slopes.
Lessons in humility should always be welcome, especially when written this well.
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