Mountain Skills: Jill Fredston on 20 years of education, safety and snow science

Is it safer to be a backcountry skier now than it was 20 years ago? It’s a complicated question, but most snow-safety gurus believe the answer is yes. We spoke with eight leaders in avalanche mitigation and rescue about the progress made—and challenges that remain—since Backcountry premiered. 

Jill Fredston, 56, is a longtime avalanche forecaster and educator in Alaska who coauthored “Snow Sense” with her husband and fellow avalanche guru, Doug Fesler. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation on 20 years of education, safety and snow science.


Jill Fredston contemplates three decades of avalanche education. [Photo] Anna Raup

Students seem to be intent on getting their Level 1, 2, or 3, but certification, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual is actually making safer, wiser decisions. The plus of standardizing what is taught is to make sure certain minimums are met. The downside, as I see it, is that it results in a certain amount of “dumbing down” of the curriculum and also tends to inhibit innovation among educators.

“Snow Sense” was first published in 1984 and is now in its fifth edition. While we’ve added and improved sections over the years, the bottom line is still pretty much the same. For backcountry travelers to make good decisions, they must understand the interaction of critical terrain, snowpack, weather and human variables.

We have more safety gizmos to wear when in the backcountry and there is no question that they can make the difference between life and death. But if they make us complacent enough to act in ways that are not safer, then they do not make us safer. I could still travel safely if I happened to leave my beacon home, but I would be very uncomfortable without my inclinometer, which I use constantly to help me make good decisions.

This story was first published in the November 2014 issue. Find the other conversations in this series here.


  1. Lara Mabry, D.D.S. says:

    Greetings from Alaska JILL! Fun to be reading this magazine and see that you are featured! Hope your doing well. As you have probably heard, there is NO snow in Alaska. They say we will be receiving some this weekend, hope so. Take good care…hope to see you again soon!

    • Kathleen jones says:

      Jill, we up here in Alaska are wondering where you are these days…..and if you’re writing again. Hope to see more from you, and hope you are well wherever your journeys take you!

  2. Mason williams says:

    Does anyone know how to get in touch with Jill and Doug? We cruised with them for a bit in the Sea of Cortez in 2014/2015. The email I have from then is coming back as no longer valid. Would love to know how they are doing.

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