You Rock – Do it Safely

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September 2021

Debra McGhan

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Preparing Pays

Four-year-old Avery waited impatiently beside her father’s little boat dancing excitedly, eager to get aboard and out on the water. A thin film of ice could be seen along the shores of the lake. Fish darted beneath the cold surface, rising sporadically to scoop bugs into their mouths. “First things first,” Allen told his daughter, … Continue reading

Avoid the Terrain Trap

The powder is calling. As the skies clear and the spring light returns to Alaska, it’s easy to get caught in the terrain trap! Those deadly places that lure us in and trap us with their terrain features. Dips, gullies, cornices, flats under slopes… Learn the signs and make sure you avoid the danger. Learn … Continue reading

November – Avalanche Awareness Education Month

Every year at this time, the folks at the Alaska Avalanche Information Center start gearing up for November, Avalanche Awareness Education Month, in Alaska. This year will launch with a host of activities planned in collaboration with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, Alaska Mining and Diving Supply, Black Diamond and a host of other partners … Continue reading

Snow Starved Danger

Erik Peterson and Michael Hopper know exactly what it means to be snow starved. After two seasons with little or no snow, the two were ‘jonesing’ to get out in the backcountry and make some tracks. Hopper, the Keynote Speaker at the 2015 Alaska Snow Safety Safety Summit held in November, shared the story of … Continue reading

Prepared and Calm

While organizing gear for a fishing trek to the Russian River two men belonging to the car parked next to us came rushing up in a panic. The older man had blood spurting from his wrist and a fish hook buried deep in the flesh. My adult son, who has little formal medical training beyond … Continue reading

Burning Wild

   Alaska has been tinder dry this spring. Back in April, with the already warm days and the lake breaking up early, I had a premonition of what was coming. I published articles in Alaska Coast Magazine and Make A Scene in hopes of preventing at least the Man-Made fires. Nothing I can do about … Continue reading


Michael Herdina grew up in Anchorage and has spent more than 50 years skiing and exploring the mountains alone. He’s well aware of the advice that you should travel with a partner but admits, that rarely happens. MichaelHerdinaweb

For close to 20-years I was his most frequent partner but since I fell skiing and hurt my hip four years ago, I haven’t been able to go as often. He has a few friends he skis with but most days he prefers to travel alone at his own pace. “I don’t like to wait for people,” he said. “Or maybe you could say, I just don’t play well with others,” he chuckles at his joke.

For more than a decade he’s spent time each winter exploring the terrain around Wolf Creek Ski Area in Colorado. There is a lot of backcountry skiing at this small, family resort and Herdina has grown familiar, and reluctantly admits, a little careless.

Recently he’s had a couple of close calls where he realized a partner could have been a great benefit.

One day he skied into an area that turned out to be a range of steep cliffs with a series of waterfalls. He tried to stop when he realized where he was, but he was moving too fast and caught his ski on a rock that launched him headfirst down the hill. He landed on a broken off tree stump that jabbed him painfully in the back.

“I felt that stump poking me in the back and realized, I could have been impaled and died.”

I remember one skiing adventure with him when we met up with a group of other skiers about our age and ability. Because I generally only ski with Herdina, I was thrilled with the idea of skiing with other people, especially women. I happily followed the group, but when we arrived at the lift, Herdina was nowhere to be seen.

I spent the next four hours trying to find him. When we finally reconnected he said he just likes picking his own line and took a wrong turn that separated him from the group.

Whether it happens by design or accident, being alone in the wilderness takes special considerations.

Joe Royer, a 40-year veteran helicopter ski guide based in Lamoille, Nevada, understands the reasons and challenges of traveling alone.

“Many of us who work in the mountains do not have the luxury of having a fulltime ski partner,” Royer stated in a presentation at the 2014 International Snow Science Workshop, in Banff Canada.  “Simply you either go alone or you don’t go.”

But, he advised, following careful protocols and always sticking with your plan can mitigate a lot of risk.

“There are things you have to take when you’re alone,” said Royer. “Like some means of communication in case you do get in trouble and need help. But ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what you want in your pack. What you might ultimately need.”

Other advice Royer shared included: communicate your plan with someone you trust and then follow it. And don’t explore new places during high hazard times.

That made me think of my friend Herdina.

He recently called me to tell me he’d learned another valuable lesson about skiing alone and knew he needed to scale back his risk tolerance.

Wolf Creek had received over five feet of snow in a storm and Herdina was alone and happily plowing through the trees in waist deep powder when he caught a ski on a branch. It popped his ski off and sent him crashing headfirst into a tree-well. Snow filled his nose and mouth and he found himself trapped and struggling to breathe and fight off the rising panic.

“My ski was literally pointed straight at the sky and wedged against the tree. I was folded in half and hung there stuck. I kept struggling to flip myself around.” Only a few hundred feet from the lift, he thought about calling for help but figured either people wouldn’t hear him or might think he was joking around. And he admitted, he was embarrassed by his predicament. He was prepared to accept he’d gotten himself into this predicament and would figure a way to get himself out. It took more than 20 minutes of wiggling, wrestling and resting before he was able to reach his binding and pop out of his ski. Lucky for him, the incident left no scars and only another reminder that a partner could be a good asset.

I remember an incident at Alyeska Ski Resort when two young boys were boarding together during a snowstorm. The boys got separated and one fell into a tree-well similar to Herdina’s situation, only he wasn’t able to get himself out. His friend tried to find him but was unsuccessful and in the end, instead of just a lingering memory to warn of the potential danger, the story ended in tragedy.

Herdina said the joy of spending time in the mountains outweighs the risks of going alone for him. But he does admit he pays extra attention when packing his gear. “I wear a survival whistle around my neck and carry emergency gear and communication. I’m also more aware and cautious in extreme weather conditions and when exploring new terrain.”

Whether you plan to travel alone or just find yourself in that situation, it pays to go prepared. At the minimum carry some type of communication device, make sure you stay alert and aware, and tell someone who knows the general area where you will be and when you expect to return.

Game Project

vertical posterFor the last two months I have devoted a lot of my time to developing a game app for your phone, tablet, computer that will appeal to teens (so pretty much anyone) and teach mountain safety survival skills. Avalanche! has been an amazing project and will be presented on October 3rd at the International Snow Science Workshop in Banf Canada.  I’m hopeful that this game will provide part of the solution to sustaining avalanche forecast and education centers in the US and Alaska.

I am preparing a KickStarter project to launch prior to the ISSW so that after I make my presentation, people can go immediately to sign up and help support the project. If you’d like to stay informed and learn more about this exciting new venture, please sign up to follow my blog and you will be automatically notified with updates. Thanks for your interest and support! To learn more check out: Game App ManualR1

Deadly Mistake!


The plant in this photograph is actually Water Hemlock which is highly poisonous to humans. It contains a toxin called cicutoxin which causes central nervous system stimulation effects including seizures following ingestion. Be sure you are absolutely positive of the identification of a plant before ever harvesting or using.

I recently had an article published in Alaska Coast Magazine on the power of Alaska’s Plants. I was horrified when I got a call from the plant specialist I had interviewed, Shelley Plumb, that one of the photos in the article had been mislabeled and the mistake could be deadly. I accidentally submitted a photo of Water Hemlock with the information for Yarrow. I have submitted a correction to Alaska Coast which they are working to make on the website now. They will also be printing a correction in the October issue of the magazine.

I feel terrible about this mistake and please ask everyone to be ABSOLUTELY positive about the identity of a plant before ever using it for anything.

Shelley shared a story about two young boys at the Alaska State Fair that had been playing with a poisonous plant that ultimately resulted in the death of one of the children. She warned that really knowing and understanding plants definitely can be a life or death matter.


This is a yarrow plant. This plant is edible and a natural blood coagulator, so if you’re bleeding to death it can save your life. • For infection, this cooling plant slows inflammation. It’s also a blood purifier and reduces fever. Make a tea or crush to make a poultice.






The Amazing Power Of Plants

Have you ever wondered about the wild plants growing in your yard? When my children were young teenagers we moved to Valdez, Alaska where our family had won a piece of land in the state lottery. We spent the summer clearing our property and preparing to build a home. During the process, we learned a … Continue reading

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