Interview with Jill Fredston
Q: Snowstruck chronicles your adventurous years as an avalanche expert and rescue worker. Yet you grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Did you always crave the outdoors?
A: Yes, my parents are still trying to figure out where they went wrong. I’ve had a somewhat inexplicable fascination with snow and ice since I was a six-year-old with a plastic shovel. I wasn’t much older when I began commandeering the family dog and camping out in the backyard. As I grew older, I migrated west to bigger mountains and wilder country.
Q: What is it about snow, and avalanches in particular, that you find so intriguing?
A: Snow is one of the only materials in nature that changes constantly. It can be soft and downy one minute, hard as a rock a few hours later. It can flow like honey or fracture like glass. It can be great fun one minute and kill you the next. Snow is also a kind of universal language. If you take the time to become fluent, you can go anywhere in the world and read the local history of the winter in the layers of snow on the ground.
To borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll’s Alice, avalanches are “curiouser and curiouser.” They come in all shapes and sizes and can destroy anything in their path: avalanches no thicker than a pizza box can be deadly and people have been buried on hills that are only fifteen feet high. Really big avalanches can move at more than 150 miles an hour, shred trees into strands as thin as spaghetti, turn cars into pancakes, and twist steel highway bridges. I love the power, beauty, and variability of avalanches. They have taught me to pay attention, to anticipate, and above all, to keep evaluating.
Q: How do you set aside fears for your own safety in order to rescue others?
A: I hope I never set my fears aside completely because that may be when I get myself and others in trouble. Instead, I try to use fear to focus.
Q: In addition to having the analytical mind of a scientist, you have the voice of a natural storyteller. When did you first start writing?
A: I’ve been a writer and voracious reader since I was quite young. I love creating visual images and moments of glide from strings of words. I didn’t start writing for publication until I was well into my thirties. My mother had just been diagnosed with advanced cancer and was advised that she had three months to live. When she demanded that I write a book before she died, I bargained for more time. Nine years and two books later, she is lobbying for a third book.
Q: The emotional stress of rescue work is extreme. Snowstruck talks about the importance of CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) in helping rescue workers cope with the emotional aftershocks. What role did writing play in your own self-therapy?
A: I don’t think of writing as therapeutic—in fact, when the words aren’t coming easily it feels more like the opposite. But certainly a lot of understanding comes in the telling of a story. My husband, Doug Fesler, and I have spent our careers trying to prevent accidents but are continually reminded that we have taken on a problem that ultimately, we cannot solve. On the good side, seeing so much death has definitely added conviction to my life—and hopefully to my writing as well.
Q: You also penned the prizewinning book Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge, about rowing remote northern coastlines in a small boat. How did you find time to write while running both the Alaska Mountain Safety Center and the Alaska Avalanche School as well as leading rescues and consulting for companies with projects in avalanche-prone areas?
A: I learned to roust myself out of bed at three o’clock in the morning when I woke up with sentences in my head.
Q: In the course of writing Snowstruck, you passed off the reins of your avalanche safety school and stepped back from rescue work. How did you let go? Are you ever called back into action?
A: More than anything else, snow has taught me to pay attention, to look forward and back, to anticipate, and above all, to keep evaluating. Deciding to make a change can be harder than making the change itself; I feel more like I am walking into intriguing new rooms of my life rather than closing doors. I have to admit that I’m not completely out of the rescue business—the state helicopter will still land at the top of my driveway to pick me up when people and avalanches cross paths.
JILL FREDSTON is the author of Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic’s Edge
, which won the 2002 National Outdoor Book Award for Literature. She and her husband, Doug Fesler, codirect the Alaska Mountain Safety Center and cowrote the authoritative Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard. They live in the mountains above Anchorage.