When It Comes To Avalanches, Gravity Always Wins

I am a disaster aficionado–have been since I can remember. Books, movies, documentaries–if something on the planet erupted, shook, blew, flooded or flamed, I’m interested.

Maybe it’s the awesome power of Mother Nature that attracts me. She is one tough chick you just don’t mess with–and I want to be her.

Anyway, for a disaster buff like myself, a book sporting a title with the word “avalanche” in it has to get my attention. And Jill Fredston’s “Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches” not only grabbed my attention, it held me by the throat to the very end.

Fredston has an impressive resume: She has spent the last 25 years studying avalanches and worked in education, prevention, rescue, and recovery. She is co-director of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center and co-author of “Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard.” Her partner in both endeavors is Doug Fesler, who also happens to be her husband. But more important than her credentials is her awe of and respect for the forces she studies.

She tells the reader of her arrival in Alaska in 1982, proud possessor of a master’s degree in polar studies and ice. Landing a job as a snow and ice specialist for the University of Alaska, she become known for her expertise in “anything frozen.”

When the university inherited the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center, Fredston was appointed director, even though she knew nothing about the subject. That’s when she met Fesler, who at that time was Alaska’s “reigning avalanche authority” and recommended against her hire.

But Fredston, “blithely unaware that he thought me as green as they come,” eagerly learned from him, following him out into the field, studying snow whenever she had the chance–and face it, in Alaska, there’s about six months of the year, at least, to study snow–and learned “to read the history of a single winter’s weather in a snow pit wall,” as Fesler advised her.

Eventually, the two fell in love and started a domestic partnership, combining it with business when both lost their jobs with the state during the budget crisis of the late 1980s.

Fredston has an easy, charming style, a way of mixing science, anecdote, narrative, and history into a coherent and inherently readable book. Vivid description and imagery, a thorough knowledge of her subject matter and a love of all that it encompasses add passion and depth to what could have been a dry treatise on why snow falls.

Listen to this: “Snow voices complain in a variety of ways,” in describing the sounds an avalanche makes. It almost never sounds–or looks, as she points out in a later chapter–like movie avalanches do.

“My thoughts always seemed folded in among the layers of the snowpack.”

“The thin line that tethers us to life is invisible, far from straight, and famously fickle. It is a line we are walking yet are only allowed to stray across once.”

Powerful words. Powerful images. Powerful message.

In fact, I got so caught up in the story I kept forgetting I was supposed to be reviewing, not enjoying. I had to keep going back and re-reading to make sure I wasn’t liking it for no reason. You know, being a disaster buff and all.

Tough job I have.

To be sure, the book’s not perfect. The first chapter begins with the January 2000 avalanche in Cordova, getting into the head of one of the victims–and then she veers off onto Doug Fesler, who at the time is a stranger to the reader and not even close to Cordova. There’s a lot of meandering and sidetracking through this chapter, giving the reader back story and some historic and scientific facts about avalanches. All very interesting, but … she gets us caring about the people in Cordova, so breaking away and going on another trail is disconcerting.

And, with her citing of other sources, books on risk management and survival, as well as quotes from an incredible range of writers from Maya Angelou to Henry Thoreau, a list of works cited or read would have been fantastic. It would have saved me from having to rifle through pages trying to find identifying information.

Not that I’m complaining. Because she goes back to Cordova at the end, coming full circle back to where she started, leaving the reader with a sense of closure. And a wish the book was longer.

If Fredston (and Fesler, for as she says, “without him, there would be no story,” and he is on every page with her) has a mantra, it’s “Educate people. Educate people. Educate.” Because far from advising people to stay inside and avoid snow all together, Fredston knows that’s not going to happen. And she knows, as statistics she quotes show, 95 percent of avalanches that kill are triggered by the victims (page 126) and experts are more likely to be killed than amateurs (page 151).

Complacency, overconfidence–these are factors in those stats, Fredston says, but most avalanches can be avoided by reading the snow pack, and knowing the history and the science enough to judge when danger is imminent (a red light, she calls it).

Rather than blaming the victims, Fredston feels great sympathy and pain for every frozen, battered not-breathing body she and Fesler have dug out of the snow.

“… of course greater exposure increases the probability of becoming a statistic. The problem is that behind every statistic is an individual with a name and a circle of friends and relatives left with holes in their hearts.”

This grief has gotten to both Fredston and Fesler; Fredston quotes Soren Kierkegaard: “How did I get into this and this and how do I get out of it again, how does it end?”

Bottom line: I loved this book. I could read it again and learn more, even though I took prodigious notes and underlined pages of words and facts. It is compelling because the author describes a world in which man is not the center of the universe nor is he at the top of the food chain. Far from being masters of our universe, we are subject to the rhythms and patterns of those around us, the animals and plants which share the world with us, and the forces of nature that shape it. It’s a humbling thought, but a conclusion I reached long ago (about the time I realized that gravity always wins).

I found a quote years ago that sums up my philosophy of my place on this rock, and was quite surprised–but maybe I shouldn’t have been–to find it near the end of Fredston’s book: “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice,” according to historian Will Durant.

This is not a land where we ever want to forget that.