Avalanche expert discusses disasters and safety

Seven men outside of Eureka Lodge headed up a gully on their snow machines in a long line. The ridges were wind loaded; the gully, steep. A one-foot-thick crack started near the top of the ridge and extended more than a half mile. As the snowslide barreled toward the group, one man was knocked off his machine, but was able to bound up a side slope. Another rider was caught on a rock and managed to hold on. The last rider in line turned back before entering the gully. As the slope settled, the survivors started calling out. Two names went unanswered.

Jill Fredston looked out on her audience and told them that all accidents are preceded by a series of events. In this case, a weak snow layer in October created an unstable snow pack by February. High winds placed a heavy load on the overhanging ridges. And finally, the snow machiners triggered the avalanche with the weight of their machines.

Fredston, a former forecaster for at the University of Alaska’s Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center, was at the UAA bookstore Nov. 29, to plug her latest book, “Snowstruck.” A long-time Alaska resident, Fredston was back in state after a book tour that led her through Canada, Colorado, Utah, Washington and the East Coast.

Fredston has helped uncover more than 40 people buried in the snow. Her husband, Doug Fessler, one of the first rangers in Chugach State Park, has uncovered even more. Unfortunately, because the survival rate for buried victims is only 50 percent after 30 minutes and nearly zero after an hour, most of those 40 were already dead.

“I felt like the stories were filling my soul,” Fredston said. “So why not write a book? The title was my editor’s idea, not mine. It has a double meaning, though, because it speaks to the interface between people and avalanches as well as avalanches being a vocal third party in my marriage.”

Fredston’s husband has rescued people from remote locations that he wouldn’t willingly travel into. He rarely goes on avalanche missions these days, but at the urging of Fredston, he came out to the Eureka Lodge recovery. On the way in, the helicopter he was riding in crashed.

“I see things through avalanche eyeballs,” Fredston said. “It’s amazing to see how snow behaves within a few degrees of its melting point. I can read winter’s weather in a snowpack like it was handwriting.”

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Her new book shares many anecdotes from past avalanche missions as well as useful facts. Fredston warns her audience not only about the avalanche itself, but also to the ensuing powder blast, a mixture of air and snow that is can move up to 100 mph. Eight times denser than air, the blast can splinter wood into toothpick-sized pieces and throw rocks 60 feet up into trees.

Despite statistics showing that 80 percent of avalanche fatalities happen to back country enthusiasts, Fredston warns of increasing risks to residents in snow country. In Cordova, an avalanche ripped into a neighborhood. One woman was found dead, still sitting in her recliner.

Powder blasts have hit one area of Juneau five times since 1898. Forty-four houses now stand in the path of this slide zone, but half the residents are unaware of the hazard.

“We’re good at responding to disasters,” Fredston said, “but bad at preventing disasters. We will see more residents dying as more houses are built in avalanche areas, such as Hiland Road in Eagle River.”

As for back country enthusiasts, experience and skill can sometimes work against them. People can focus on their goals and be blind to hazards that exist around them.

“I lost a friend on Tincan Ridge,” Fredston said. “He called Doug (her husband) the night before and Doug told him stay off the north-facing slopes. He could see other slides on the way up and he still decided to ski the north slopes. He was going to be married in two weeks. Sometime experience can be as much a prison as a classroom.”