One of Alaska's leading avalanche experts explores the terrible beauty of avalanches and the human toll they exact each year.
Fredston (Rowing to Latitude, 2002) joined with her husband, Doug Fesler, to create in 1986 the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, helping to forecast avalanches and protect rescuers trying to dig out avalanche victims. To the uninformed, avalanches may seem like random “act of God” events. But Fredston and her husband, “avalanche chasers” who could witness snow slides from the rattling windows of their mountaintop home, argue that many, if not most, avalanches can be predicted and avoided. Actually, one of the most effective safety measures is to induce the avalanche intentionally with explosives while the avalanche's “slide path” is free of humans. The husband-and-wife team not only spent much of their time doing just that, but they have actually derived income by creating “designer avalanches” for snowbound B-movies. Nevertheless, Fredston is generally more somber and serious, as she describes the emotional toll of digging out the ever-mounting number of Alaska avalanche fatalities, many of them acquaintances. Too often, Fredston argues, skiers, snowmobilers and mountaineers ignore the warning signs. Moreover, basic safety measures like netting, crevicing and protective tree-planting that are widespread in the Alps and the western U.S. are ignored in Alaska. Fredston brings passion and a wealth of experience to her story, although her writing occasionally borders on the gushy. Talking of her first meeting with future husband Doug, she writes: “He was such an avalanche guru that it didn't feel any more appropriate to fall for him than to date my doctor—or Davy Crockett or Abe Lincoln, for that matter.” And though she’s a capable writer, it's difficult to avoid the repetitious when describing one crunching avalanche after the next.
For those who spend significant time on snowbound mountain slopes, this is an informative and powerful cautionary lesson.