Fredston starts her book describing the chaos surrounding an avalanche that takes out an entire neighborhood of houses in the isolated fishing town of Cordova, Alaska. Gradually she moves into a background of how she became interested in avalanches and came to work with her future husband Doug, who was running one of the first avalanche safety programs in the nation when she arrived in Alaska in 1982 "clutching a brand new master's degree in polar studies and ice." The book then progresses through a history of avalanches in Alaska and through numerous avalanche scenarios on which Fredston and her husband have worked.
Snowstruck is both informative and chilling. Fredston takes readers from the classroom where she and Doug teach avalanche awareness courses to the heart of Alaska outside Anchorage, where the mountains rain down avalanches with frightening regularity. Fredston captivates with her descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness, whether she's describing the 100-mile-an-hour winds that force a reporter to crawl up to her house on all fours or the thrill of watching a slope crack and avalanche. She may dissuade some from ever visiting the region with her descriptions of the stunning amounts of snow that pile up, while others will be lured by that same otherworldly landscape.
Fredston masterfully places readers in the avalanche path, describing the conditions that make for huge releases, the crushing power of snow and the difficulties of rescue efforts. Her fascination for understanding avalanches comes vividly through her writing, such as when she climbs a mountain to purposely set off and briefly ride an avalanche to the shocked horror of a friend who accompanies her climb. Interestingly, Fredston insists at one point to a friend's guffawed laughter that she and Doug do not consider themselves risk-takers, despite the fact that they regularly walk into danger's jaws just to get a better look at an avalanche or its aftermath. Both have had more than one close shave with danger. While simultaneously sharing her expertise, Fredston also displays a gratifying sense of humility. She doesn't hesitate to point out her own faults or scenarios where she could have put people in danger, such as the mistakes she once made while trying to set up an avalanche scenario for a class by setting off a real one.
Overall, however, when other people are involved, Fredston and her husband do err on the side of caution. She and Doug are regularly hired to determine the safety of workers trying to repair electric lines, for instance, or bomb dangerous slopes that are overloaded with snow. Regardless of the pressures on her to open a road quickly or repair damaged equipment or recover a body, she makes safety for others her first priority, sometimes at an exhausting cost. In one story, she details a horrendous snowstorm that accompanies a snowmobiler's avalanche death and the difficult recovery process due the immense grief and anger of the victim's family.
"We have spent our careers chipping away at a metaphorical iceberg, trying to prevent accidents," she says at one point. "Every time we look up, the iceberg appears larger and more treacherous than ever, and we wonder if we have accomplished anything. Though we've taken encouragement from testimonials…the bodies are easier to account for than the unknown number of lives we have saved through education."
Fredston's job as an avalanche expert occasionally takes her beyond tragedy to more than a few quirky side-jobs. Most avalanche shots one sees in movies nowadays were orchestrated by Fredston and her husband after laboriously staging and repeating the filming process countless times. The book concludes with a look at how some Alaska communities face and deal with avalanche hazards.
More a detailed collection of stories than a forward-moving narrative, Fredston compiles fascinating experiences and insight. From purposely setting off avalanches for both safety and curiosity's sake to the grim task of body recovery, Fredston expertly leads readers into the heart of these natural monsters.