Alaska's husband-and-wife team of avalanche experts work to save lives all winter, then take to their kayaks in summer
- By Michael Ryan
- Smithsonian magazine, March 2003, Subscribe
(Page 5 of 5)
Fesler says, “I need the wildness.”
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.
Then, as the Hollywood saying goes, the two met cute and fell in love, with Fredston playing the perky but tough Katharine Hepburn to Fesler’s grumpily amiable Spencer Tracy. His bosses, who had hired the then 24-year-old Fredston to work in the avalanche forecasting center, made her the director—a move he opposed. As she recalls it, “First he was my opponent, then my reluctant mentor, then my mentor, then my husband.” They’ve been married 13 years and now live in a tall-windowed house they built themselves in BearValley, south of downtown Anchorage, with views of the Chugach Mountains to the east and Cook Inlet to the west. They became business partners and started the safety center in 1986, after the state eliminated its avalanche operations the same year.
It’s harsh, sometimes dispiriting work—more than once they’ve dug into a snowslide and found the body of a friend—but the freedom keeps them going. “There’s a different mentality here,” she says of Alaska. “I go back to the East Coast, and all people want to know is where you went to school.”
“It isn’t all figured out,” he says. “I like being in a place where everything isn’t figured out.”
Come the thaw and the midnight sun, they hit the water, stuffing a few hundred pounds of provisions and gear, including a shotgun (mainly for protection), into two sea kayaks they’ve transformed into rowboats. Leaving for sometimes months at a stretch, they have explored the north shore of Alaska as well as parts of Labrador, Greenland and Norway. Last year, they covered 600 miles of the Arctic Ocean along the Northwest Passage, to Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. In 16 summers, they have rowed 22,000 miles.
They have been jammed up in pack ice and have portaged gingerly over tippy floes and ice so thin it reminded Fredston of rice paper. Whales have surfaced near their boats and nearly swamped them. Storms have threatened to capsize them. Bears have accosted them. Camping last summer in the Northwest Territories, a grizzly bear shredded their tent one night. (Fredston scared the beast away by shouting, “Hey, Bear!”) They toss off stories of extraordinary dangers the way other people complain about the hassles of their morning commute. “The few times I can remember fear have been from big waves on the northern coast of Norway and 12- to 15-foot waves off Labrador,” Fesler says. “It’s part of the learning curve. You have to get yourself into these situations to learn how to avoid them.”
Fredston’s parents eagerly support her adventures, but that doesn’t keep them from fretting, she writes in Rowing: “No matter how much I cajole and reassure [my mother], she worries whenever we are beyond the comforting reach of telephone or mail. My father says she is exuberant the first week after I call to confirm we are still afloat, tolerable the second, irritable the third, and impossible by the fourth. I’ve come to realize that Doug and I don’t go on trips by ourselves; our families and friends are with us, and the decisions we make ripple beyond the shores within view.”
As it happens, her parents recently bought her a satellite phone, workable from virtually anywhere in the world. She turns it off a lot. She doesn’t want her mother calling, Fredston likes to joke, when a polar bear is on her tail.
But what life is without danger, really? Her father, Arthur Fredston, a courtly Manhattan attorney, was walking near the WorldTradeCenter on the morning of September 11, 2001. Her mother, Elinor Fredston, was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer almost six years ago. It was word of her mother’s illness that prompted Jill to start writing about her own life, as though to explain it to her mother. That account would grow into Rowing to Latitude, published last year to warm reviews and dedicated to her mother, who is in good health, and her father. So, compared with terrorism and cancer, what’s an occasional polar bear?
One afternoon last September when a plaza in Anchorage was still abloom—to a newcomer, the city appears improbably rich in flowers—Fredston was only a couple of weeks off the water, her hands still calloused from hundreds of hours of pulling oars. “They really are not adventures for us,” she said of the trips. “They’re a way of life. . . . I know a woman who lives in a village up north. She could live anywhere. I asked her why she lives there, and she said, ‘Here I have time to do anything I want. I have time to do my art, to pick berries, to go on trips. There really is a freedom that comes from having not so many choices.’ ”
Fesler says, “It’s about enjoying when the sun comes out. I don’t have to worry about the stock market or what’s going on in Afghanistan.”
Having rowed almost the distance of the earth’s circumference, Fesler and Fredston say when they’re done with the Arctic, possibly in a few years, they might head to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the challenges of the south. “We know it can’t go on forever,” Fredston says. “It gets harder and harder on the knees. It takes time to recover. But we’ll keep going.”
Fesler says, “I need the wildness.”
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