Seven Years of Sailing with Jill Fredston

Photo courtesy Doug Fesler.

Photo courtesy Doug Fesler.

Explorer, author and avalanche specialist Jill Fredston won the WINGS Earth Award in 2008. Among her best discoveries is finding a frozen whale from the time of Shakespeare frozen into the side of a mountain in Spitsbergen, Svalbard. We caught up with her while grounded from traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic to find out what her life has been like since she became a WINGS Fellow. 

WINGS WORLDQUEST: You became a WINGS Fellow in 2008. Can you tell us about some of the highlights of your life and career that have happened since that time? 

JILL FREDSTON: In 2012, I received the American Association of Avalanche Professional’s Lifetime Achievement award. Since then, I have stepped away from full-time avalanche work and focused more on writing and professional speaking. Drawing from decades of avalanche, mountain rescue, and wilderness travel experience, I seem to have made a specialty of speaking about decision-making, risk management in high stakes environments, and strategies for dealing with uncertainty and change. 

WWQ: What does an avalanche specialist do? What drew you to this field? What kind of skill set does the work require?

JF: Somewhat inexplicably (since I grew up in suburban New York), I’ve had a fascination with snow and ice since I was five. This led to a master’s degree in Polar Studies/Glaciology from the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute where, based on field work I’d participated in on the Greenland Ice Sheet, I wrote my thesis on ice cores as indicators of environmental change. I moved to Alaska in 1982 and was hired by the University of Alaska to work on anything frozen, including sea ice, glaciers, and river ice. Shortly thereafter, I was tapped to head the statewide Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center though, at the time, I knew nothing at all about avalanches, a sad fact that Doug Fesler, my future husband and the state’s reigning avalanche authority, was quick to point out. I learned by living, breathing, and thinking snow constantly and ended up spending the next twenty-five years forecasting avalanches, triggering them with explosives, designing hazard mitigation, teaching potential victims how to stay alive, and leading rescue efforts in Alaska. Most of this work was conducted through the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, a non-profit organization Doug and I founded in 1986. The AMSC included the Alaska Avalanche School, started by Doug in 1976, which gained an international reputation for providing top quality, intensive field-oriented avalanche and mountain safety training.

WWQ: Are you writing? Can you tell us more about your specialty of speaking about decision-making and risk management?

JF: I’m holding steady at three books although I’ve published a number of shorter pieces including a cover story for Wooden Boat Magazine (June 2016) about our sailing journey. My mind is interested in writing another book; my body would rather not spend the requisite number of hours sitting at a computer. I enjoy taking what I’ve learned in the field about perception, managing risk, and the influence of human factors upon our decisions and speaking to disparate audiences, including investment banking firms, biotech companies, physician associations, and conservation groups. Regardless of profession, the essential problem we all face when venturing into challenging terrain is one of uncertainty. Is it safe? Is the timing right? What are the alternatives? What assumptions are we making? How can we assess and maximize our chances of success? How can we manage fear and even use it to our advantage? If we know that change is inevitable, how can we plan for it and build flexibility into these plans? If we make our decisions on unchallenged assumptions or pay attention only to the data that tells us what we want to hear, then we are just like the Texas sharpshooter who shoots the side of a barn and draws bull’s-eyes around the bullet holes.

WWQ: Have you been on any exciting expeditions you can share with us?

JF: In 2009, my husband, Doug Fesler, and I began to wonder what it would be like to experience a winter with no snow. We’ll probably never tire of avalanches, but we were becoming increasingly weary of recovering the bodies of avalanche victims and witnessing the same accidents occur over and over again. So, we set sail from Alaska aboard Compañera, our 47-foot ketch-rigged cruising boat, with the idea of spending the winter in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. To our surprise, we only returned after more than seven years and 60,000 miles. We hopped out way down the Pacific coast, spent a year and a half roaming 6,000 nautical miles in Patagonia, rounded the bottom of South America, spent a month in the Falkland Islands, wandered up several rivers in Brazil, and then sailed to the Canadian north, before returning home via the Panama Canal. Back in Alaska now, we spend the bulk of the year navigating our favorite haunts in Prince William Sound, Kodiak, and the Alaska Peninsula.

WWQ: How do you think the landscape for women working in the sciences has changed since you first became a Fellow? Do you feel women are still encountering the same obstacles they were at that time? 

JF: I’m not sure I’m qualified to address these questions. I never really felt that the path I wanted to take was blocked; though, when I was in my early 20s and fresh off the Greenland Ice Sheet, an eminent British glaciologist did inform me that women shouldn’t be working on polar projects and, in the early days, I was one of only four women avalanche forecasters in the U.S. 

WWQ: Has becoming a WINGS Fellow benefitted you in your career? If so, how?

JF: Just as exceptional conditions produce exceptional avalanches, I’ve always found that interacting with dynamic, interesting people always proves interesting.

WWQ: Is there anything else you would like to add?

JF: I admire WINGS for nurturing such a diverse community and fostering the ability of individuals to live deliberately and effect change.

Photo courtesy Rennie Forbes.

Photo courtesy Rennie Forbes.

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