Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, who are married and live in Anchorage, are gaining recognition outside Alaska for the thousands of miles they have covered in their converted sea kayaks—her recently published memoir, Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge, lyrically documents their watery adventures—but around the Last Frontier they are perhaps best known for their deep knowledge of snow and ice. As codirectors of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, they are called on to rescue avalanche victims. At the affiliated Alaska AvalancheSchool, they hold classes in forecasting and avoiding snowslides. (Snowslides killed 11 people in Alaska and another 24 in other states in the year ending June 2002—the highest toll in modern times, thanks to the growing number of backcountry hikers, skiers and snowmobilers.) Fredston and Fesler’s 1984 self-published book, Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard, has sold more than 100,000 copies. Filmmakers have hired the couple to trigger avalanches for the camera. One piece of footage has been resold so many times they often find themselves watching a documentary or feature film and saying, “Hey, that’s our avalanche!”
Fredston, 44, and Fesler, 57, have investigated hundreds of avalanches, trying to learn more about what causes them, and they have raced to dozens of accident scenes to rescue victims. Fredston recalls the first time she was part of a team that dug out someone buried alive by an avalanche. “He was a volunteer fireman. He had bought a house right in the path of the avalanche. There was wreckage strewn for hundreds of yards.” The man had been buried for six hours in 15 feet of snow that had thundered down onto Cordova, Alaska, a couple of hundred miles from Anchorage, in January of 2000. “It took us more than an hour to get down to him.” The man’s partner, however, didn’t make it; the rescuers found her in a chair in front of the TV, the remote control still in her hand.
Bystanders at avalanches, she says, have an understandable urge to seek assistance for those who’ve been trapped. “We try to tell people, don’t go for help,” she says. “You are the help.” Time is critical. Nearly everyone buried by an avalanche, Fredston says, remains alive for 15 minutes, and about half are still breathing after 30 minutes. Most avalanche deaths could be avoided; it’s usually the victim who sets off the avalanche to begin with. She remembers a man who was buried up to his waist one morning, extracted himself, then returned to the area, only to be entombed in snow.
An avalanche, which can weigh thousands of tons and travel more than 200 miles per hour, is essentially a body of snow that has lost its grip. There are four main types: a loose slide, in which the topmost layer of snow tumbles down a slope; a cornice collapse, in which an overhanging snow mass breaks off; an ice avalanche, which occurs on glaciers; and, the one that traps the greatest number of backcountry visitors, a slab avalanche, in which a mass of snow detaches from a slope. Asudden disturbance, including a stimulus seemingly as slight as a hiker’s steps, or the sheer force of snow’s own weight, can shake snow loose and send it roaring down a slope. To preempt deadly slides, avalanche specialists deliberately trigger slides by setting off explosions near ski areas, roadsides and other high-risk zones. Around Anchorage, Fredston and Fesler, when they’re not teaching avalanche science and safety, ski or hike into avalanche areas to assess hazards by gauging a snowpack’s stability. Sometimes they helicopter in and toss 5- to 30-pound explosives onto a precarious slope to get the snow rolling.
In some ways, they seem an unlikely couple. She is wiry and petite, from well-to-do WestchesterCounty outside New York City, a focused student who earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and environmental studies at DartmouthCollege and a master’s degree in glaciology at CambridgeUniversity. (She rowed competitively for both schools.) While hiking in Alaska after grad school, she landed a job at a state avalanche forecast center in Anchorage. By contrast, the tall and burly Fesler had more of a knockabout youth, growing up in New York but also in Chicago and Boston suburbs. In the summers of 1966 and 1967, between terms at North DakotaStateUniversity, he hitchhiked to Alaska, where he worked as a longshoreman, ditchdigger and carnival hand, among other odd jobs. After earning a degree in sociology and education, he returned to Alaska. Later, as a park ranger, he gained so much experience with snow survival techniques and avalanche behavior that the state hired him to do rescues and avalanche forecasting.