Downtime

Why I Stopped Doing Avalanche Rescue Missions

I learned the hard way that there’s only one real way to survive an avalanche.

An image of an avalanche
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher for the full episode. 

As the pandemic wears on, more Americans are exploring the great outdoors than ever before—and getting into trouble. Survival movies may glorify feats of man versus nature, but expert adventurers like Jill Fredston know the truth. For decades, the author of Snowstruck, Snow Sense, and Rowing to Latitude, led avalanche training and rescue efforts in Alaska—until one day, she had seen enough. On a recent episode of How To!, Jill shared what we get wrong about risk and what led her to stop doing avalanche rescue missions. The key to surviving an avalanche, or any dangerous situation in nature, Jill says, is to put aside our egos and not get caught in the first place. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

David Epstein: Can you tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in avalanches? 

Jill Fredston: I have had a fascination with snow since I was 5, which is a little bit mysterious because I grew up in suburban New York. It led me to a master’s degree in snow and ice, which led me to Alaska, working with the university on anything frozen—sea ice, glacier ice, river ice. And one day it was proposed that I be put in charge of the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center because I knew something about snow. The only problem was I really had never even seen an avalanche.

So I went to the state’s reigning avalanche authority, and he was a big bearded guy who looked a little bit like Moses. He sat back in his chair and he said, “Well, if you want to learn about avalanches, what you have to do is go into the den of the dragons. You have to go to the mountains when everybody else is leaving and you have to climb up the ridge. And it’s probably going to be snowing so hard that your eyes are going to freeze shut. But that doesn’t matter because if you do that for 5, 10, 15, 20 years, maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn something.” I was such a nerd that I wrote everything down and I started doing that. Over the next few years we did a very strange dance where he went from being probably the biggest skeptic I’ve ever had in my life to mentor, to partner, to husband.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Oh, wow. So this was a very fruitful partnership. 

Yes. Avalanches have been a big part of our partnership, really. I mean, it’s kind of funny because I spent all this time focused on the union of circumstances that make avalanches possible—snow terrain and weather—and got completely blindsided by this opposite union of circumstances that ended up having us married for three decades now.

Advertisement

Can you tell us about your work with avalanches?

It’s been a lot of teaching people how not to get caught. In avalanche classes, I would try to trigger avalanches because there’s no better way to learn. If you pick a small slope and you use a bunch of student bodies, it’s quite fun to make small slopes avalanche. In the bigger realm we would use explosives. We also ran the rescues in Alaska for many years. It’s not so much about saving people, because if a call is going out for help, it’s pretty much a body recovery. I think I’ve dug more than 40 people dead out of avalanches and I have done one life recovery of someone completely buried in an avalanche.

Advertisement

What happened with that one?

Advertisement

It was in Cordova, Alaska, which is a fishing port about 110 miles from Anchorage. An avalanche came down into a subdivision. By the time I got there, they had found one woman dead. She had been sitting in her La-Z-Boy recliner still holding the remote control for the television set when they dug her out. The search was going on for the other person who’d been living in that same house. It was a mess. There were bits of house everywhere, and parts carried a half mile out onto a lake. There had been a number of houses completely destroyed. So all we could really do was dig with heavy equipment and then shut the equipment down every 15 minutes or so and shout and listen. Normally, I would say that doesn’t work. I think I got there at about hour 4 and at about hour 6 I was thinking of just trying to shut things down for the night, but just about when I was going to start that, we heard a shout. We dug like crazy and we found a blue door that was on top of this person, which is probably what protected him. And as we dug him out, he actually stopped breathing. He was not breathing when we put him in the ambulance. So we had had this enormous effort to get him out, and then we just sat down completely shattered that we had not done it in time. But they revived him in the ambulance, and he’s alive today.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

That’s incredible. Was there any logic to why he survived or was this pure luck? 

I think in his case, it was luck. He was in his utility room and just heading out the door when the avalanche hit and blew him back in. We found him in an air space that essentially had been created by the door that had been blown off and the air space of the furnace.

Talking about what you should do if you’re caught in an avalanche is a little bit like my telling you to go climb in your dryer and do all this stuff. The whole key to surviving an avalanche is not to get caught. Every accident I’ve seen has had a number of clues pointing to the instability. Most people who are completely buried, there’s less than a 50 percent chance of survival within about 25 minutes. Within 45 minutes, three-quarters of all victims are dead. We’re allowing these accidents to happen because of human factors. We’re not making our decisions based on the mountain’s terms. We’re pushing on with our assumptions and desires. Does the mountain care that you’re such a good skier? Not at all. Does the mountain care that it just got 2 feet of load on top of a weak layer? You bet. So what we often find is that even if people recognize those red-light conditions they’re still allowing their wants and needs to get them into trouble.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

So I know there was a point where you decided you didn’t really want people to think of you as an avalanche expert. Can you tell us about that? 

After almost 30 years for me, longer for [my husband] Doug, we just burned out on digging out people dead out of avalanches and giving the same explanation to families over and over again. So we decided that we would sail away to Baja and experience our first ever winter without snow and by the time we came back, people would forget about us. We did that, but we had such a good time that we ended up not coming back for 7 years.

Advertisement

In the summers, we took off on long rowing journeys and rowed about 25,000 miles in northern terrain. The philosophy that we use in the mountains is exactly the same as what we use on the water. When you’re traveling in a wild place, you need to make your decisions from nature’s perspective. So we’ve learned to build fluidity into our decision-making—to allow ourselves more time, to have lots of food, to make sure nobody is expecting us at a particular place and time so that we don’t fall into that human trap of forcing ourselves to move because we think people are going to come look for us. And it’s interesting because as we’ve become more comfortable with hazard—I’m not uncomfortable rowing in big waves or standing on very steep snow-covered slopes—we realized that it was going to take a much smaller mistake for us to get into trouble. So we’ve made a pretty conscious effort to step back. We don’t push ourselves to the full range of our skills so that we’re trying to allow a greater margin for error, because, to some extent, if you do something for 10, 20, or 30 years, you’re up against the law of probability. One of the reasons I hated being called an avalanche expert is that the avalanches don’t know you’re an expert. And the fact that you’ve done it for 10, 20, or 30 years doesn’t mean that you can’t make an error in judgment.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That’s interesting you don’t want anyone expecting you at a certain time. It sounds like you set your constraints ahead of time and then you stick to those.

What we have tried to do is to put into place a pretty good set of habits. So if I’m talking about rowing, we always have each other in sight. Even if we have just had a ripping argument and we can’t stand each other, we stay within shouting distance of each other. We also have to have a pact between us that we go with the more conservative judgment. Risk is a funny thing because it stems from an Italian word, rischio, meaning to dare, and that implies both opportunity and choice. But if we take on these risks and we treat them like games of chance, then we’re just shaping our fate. We’re a very fickle society when it comes to risk because we celebrate it when it succeeds and we denigrate it when it doesn’t—like, oh, those people were being so reckless. We all take risks, but the key is to understand the risk that you’re taking. You have to start out with what’s your purpose? Why are you there? If you’re there because you want to climb an impossible peak no matter what, then you’re going to accept a higher level of risk. If you’re there to just have a good time and come back another day, you’re accepting a lower level of risk.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

What was the most harrowing instance you’ve personally been involved in? I know you’ve encountered some polar bears. 

Oh yeah, we’ve encountered dozens. Our closest encounter was in Spitsbergen, Norway and we had been told that there would be a polar bear behind every rock. The government requires that you carry a shotgun, so three of us were sharing a tent and we had three shotguns in the tent. And I thought that the greatest hazard was that we were going to shoot each other’s feet off. But we woke up in the morning and Doug was already outside. He’d heated up water on a camp stove and was washing his hair. I looked behind him and there was a polar bear on a rock right above him. Doug had his head down and shampoo in his hair and was paying no attention.

Advertisement

Normally just yelling to a bear or doing something unexpected, they’ll run off, but this was, as Doug later liked to say, a teenage polar bear. So it had a little bit of an attitude. It wasn’t very afraid of us and it didn’t back off, which was really the first time that I started to get a little bit scared. I did not have my gun because it was in the tent. I couldn’t really back up to the tent without increasing the danger to Doug. But our friend John was still in the tent, and he came out with his gun and ended up firing a cracker shell, which is a combination of a flare and firecracker. It was a hard judgment call because it would only have taken less than a quarter second for that bear to be on Doug, so do you fire another cracker shell or do you actually shoot at the bear? We were very reluctant to shoot at bears because we feel like we’re in their territory. John made the right call. He shot a third cracker shell and the bear ran off and we got out of there. He made the right call with the third shell, but if the bear had jumped on Doug, he would have made the wrong call.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Wow. Would you say that you and Doug, in terms of adventure seeking, have you changed over the years? 

I’d say we’ve become a lot more boring. We used to come back with a lot more stories about the polar bear that came right into camp or these huge waves. Now we’re a little bit smarter, so we don’t have a lot of really exciting stories anymore. Most of the time we can still accomplish our goal. We just do it on nature’s timing and not on ours.

Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher

To hear more of Jill’s stories plus how to survive a rattlesnake attack from our expert Kyle Dickman, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

Advertisement