In the Grip of

Jill Fredston
Do you remember our first snowfall? You woke up and you knew by the silence that something was going on and you looked out the window and everything was upside-down: the dark earth has gone white, the bright morning sky has turned dark and menacing, the trees holding fragments of the sky on their branches. Above all, it was the silence of it all, you said: the sifting of the heavens, coming down, coming down, almost menacing in its gentleness.

And there is menace. Which is exactly why Jill Fredston has spent years studying avalanches and their aftermath. She and her husband Doug Fesler might be called "The Powder Blast Kids." They were so mad for snow and ice that they moved to Alaska to study, learn, understand --- and then to teach --- the secrets of snow, its slides, and its ability to decimate cars, and houses, and railroads, and roads, and power-lines, and people. They've spent the last thirty years making themselves experts. And it is hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, even though some of us wouldn't be caught dead in Alaska.

The mortality rate of avalanches in this country --- two hundred people die every year --- is paltry when compared to those who die in their cars or in a bar-room brawl or choking on lobster (one of my old friends did that) or even falling and bonking their heads in their own bathrooms. Still, the figures should be even less, says the author.

Writings about avalanches, according to Fredston, go all the way back to the days of Strabo and Hannibal. When her husband Doug first started out, the literature wasn't much to go on, so he spent his first years reading old newspaper stories, interviewing old-timers, and visiting spots of famous collapses. Alaska was a natural for an on-the-spot study, because it is so large (and so cold), and has "the two required ingredients for avalanches --- steep terrain and snow."

One of the worst disasters took place in 1916: not in Alaska, not in the Western United States, not in the Swiss Alps --- but in the trenches of WWI. On December 12 and 13, "in just forty-eight hours, six thousand soldiers died in avalanches."

The worst avalanche disaster in the United States killed 96 people, in Wellington, Washington, in 1910. They were waiting for a train. It never came.

The second worst was certainly the most famous: the slide that killed 67 (many more uncounted, missing) at Chilkoot Trail, in April, 1898. You remember that one, the photo of the thousands of "stampeders," lined up, tiny upright black figures against the snow, on route to the greatest madness of modern times, the Klondike gold strike of 1897 - 1898. Look up at the snow-packed mountains looming over them all.

The author tells us that probably 100,000 "argonauts" left home, and 40,000 actually made it to Dawson. One historian called it "one of the weirdest and most useless mass movements in history."

Fredston's account of the slide at "the Scales" --- one of the landing areas at Chilkoot --- is both breath-taking and carries a touch of sentimental humor, such as the tale of New Yorker Arthur Jappe, dug out and supposedly left for dead until "the Lady of Chilkoot" "worked on his as only a true woman will" bringing him to life, his first words, after finally revived, being "Vernie." Turns out they had never met before and would never meet again.

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Charlie Chaplin fans will recall the Chilkoot scene and the roaring camps of the goldbugs. (Actually, (The Gold Rush was filmed just outside of Sacramento.) But the rustic air of mad partying lives on. Ms Fredston recalls with disgust the closest modern-day bust: an annual party that takes place just south of Fairbanks, near the Hoodoo Mountains. It's known as the "Arctic Man Ski & Sno Go Classic." In this improbable riot, upwards of 12,000 people (and their snowmobiles) turn up, complete with a 4,000 square-foot beer tent, to watch races "in which skiers and snowboarders are towed at breakneck speeds behind snowmachines.

    On brightly colored steeds that can cost more than $10,000, they ride everywhere --- buzzing across treeless expanses of tundra, flying over bumps, and throttling into the mountains ahead of contrails of blue smoke.

"Almost everyone hoots or speaks loudly at Arctic Man, for there is no other way to be heard over the perpetual whine of straining horsepower." Fredston spent the night in the medical services tent, trying to shut out the noise with earplugs, trying to rest next to three rape victims.

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Fredston and Fesler end up at strange places like this because they are experts on what causes avalanches; therefore, they are called in (usually by state or local police) to bring in explosives if the snowpack can be forced down; otherwise, to evaluate an area, to advise if it is safe for cars, snowmobiles, hikers, skiers, and --- after a major slide --- to determine if the surrounding area is safe for rescue workers.

And how do the two of them manage such an evaluation? Outside of their combined experience, avalanche potential is a matter of two key elements --- the slope angle and the snow, with an additional factor called snow metamorphosis. As Fredston emphasizes, and the Native Americans know, snow may have a hundred different characteristics which give the overhanging mountains a greater or less chance of letting loose their load. It's not unlike having sex with a stranger, no?

Snowstruck is bristling with terms that are used by the professionals: flagging, runout distances, impact pressures, vertical drop, slab fractures, rain crust, glare ice, bed surface, compressive support, and the most fearful of them all: powder blast, "the billowing leading edge of a fast-moving dry avalanche."

    Powder blast packs a knockout punch not only because of winds that can top two hundred miles per hour, but also because the cloud contains fine-grained snow particles and thus has a density roughly eight times greater than air alone.

Fredston tells us about a Ford Econline caught in a powder blast that was carried thirty feet downhill, and "wrapped about the stout trunk of a cottonwood tree in such a way that at no point of impact was the van thicker than four inches." Her husband described the front and rear bumpers as "kissing each other."

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Snowstruck is not just a story of how two self-made avalanche experts made their case (and their cause). It is a story of how the two of them came together. It tells of their fascination with the secret of how these things come about; indeed, whether avalanches can be avoided, if not controlled. What should you and I do if we are snowboarding through a frozen pass and we hear a "whooooosh" and the ground starts trembling? Should we freeze? Should we try to scoot out? Should we pray? Should we try to call Fredston on the cellular?

She tells of the classes they teach on awareness but, as well, reveals their despair that their messages are not getting heard --- and the despair of plucking friends' frozen bodies from under the ice, snow, and debris. The advice Doug gives her when digging them out: "Don't look at their faces." The advice they give for all who survive an avalanche: don't wait for help; start digging for your friends. (They will never forgive you if they die).

Too, there are some details: a revelation of the vulnerability of the White Subdivision of Juneau which might be enough to make you vow to never go to that city, ever -- since no one there seems to care that one part of town is about to be obliterated. This year, or the next ... or the next.

There is, too, the toll of having to deal with families raging over the death of a child or an adult ... a toll so onerous that Fredston and Fesler are now, essentially, out of the game of avalanche rescue.

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It's good writing. Fredston has a story to tell, and she tells it right. She and Fesler come across as no-nonsense people who have joined the battle, fought it to the best of their ability, and finally (and wisely) gotten out because of the unwillingness to sacrifice any more of their psyches to what, after all, might well be an insurmountable task.

--- Angela Blackwell, M. A.
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