Climb Denali in January's cold and dark, alone? That's the plan

Lonnie Dupre of Grand Marais knows full well what he's getting into. In the next few weeks, he hopes to become the first person on Earth to reach the summit of Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley) on a solo expedition in January.

Lonnie Dupre
Lonnie Dupre on the summit at midnight in June 2010

Lonnie Dupre of Grand Marais knows full well what he's getting into. In the next few weeks, he hopes to become the first person on Earth to reach the summit of Alaska's Denali (Mount McKinley) on a solo expedition in January.

The mountain is so cold, its winds so ferocious and the daylight so skimpy in January, that the odds of success are small. Only nine expeditions totaling 16 people have reached the summit of Denali in winter. Six people have died on winter attempts.

Only one team has reached the mountain's 20,320-foot summit in January. Two Russians in a three-person party reached the peak on Jan. 16, 1998.

Dupre, 49, is not short on cold-weather expedition experience. He has twice skied to the North Pole from northern Canada. He has circumnavigated Greenland by kayak and dogsled. This past June, he and two other Grand Marais men reached the summit of Denali in his only major climbing expedition.

But Dupre puts his January attempt on Denali in a different category among his expeditions.


"It'll be the most difficult I've ever done," he said in a telephone interview in late November. "I'm not too worried about the temperature or the lack of light. I've worked with that. But there are about three technical cruxes in the climb I'm trying to get my head around."

Those cruxes are likely to be pitches of 45 to 55 degrees, windswept to pure blue ice, Dupre said. Winds have the potential to reach 100 mph when the jet stream settles over the mountain. Climbers who die on Denali in the winter typically do so because they are unable to self-arrest after slipping off an icy ridge, Dupre said.


Denali National Park ranger Coley Gentzel of the Talkeetna Ranger Station has twice climbed Denali, but never in winter.

"If I had to sum up the whole experience, any time you climb Denali, there's a fair amount of suffering," he said. "In wintertime, that would pretty much be it -- lots and lots of hard work, just constantly having to do something, whether shoveling or cooking, breaking trail. You're usually digging, in some cases for survival."

Part-time Grand Marais resident and polar adventurer Eric Larsen believes Dupre's solo climb will be arduous and not without great risk. Larsen accompanied Dupre on a summer trek to the North Pole in 2006, and he most recently reached the summit of Mount Everest in October.

"There are a million things that can go wrong climbing Denali in the spring/summer climbing season -- altitude sickness, high winds, white-outs, falling into a crevasse, avalanches, cold, injury and much more," Larsen said. "Multiply those variables by more cold, less daylight, climbing alone and a distinct lack of infrastructure (other climbers, fixed ropes, marked route), and you have a formula for a pretty difficult adventure."

Larsen said he would not attempt a solo climb on Denali in January.


"I would put that on my list of difficult and dangerous things to avoid," he said.

Gentzel said different park rangers might view Dupre's attempt differently.

"It's sort of a personal thing," he said. "The response would vary based on the ranger you're talking to. Personally, I try not to discourage anyone. There's a lot of incredible feats that come from people who might be considered inexperienced."


Although Dupre has vast winter travel experience, including 15,000 miles of dogsled expeditions, he has little mountaineering experience. He used last summer's Denali experience to gather information about a possible winter attempt. This fall, he made the decision to go in January.

"I think it's the next step for me in terms of a challenge," he said. "I wanted to try to find a significant trip that was not as lengthy as a (two-month) North Pole trip. I thought maybe I could do something in a month-long time frame."

To deal with the threat of falling into a crevasse early in the climb, Dupre will be harnessed to a 14-foot ladder. He will be wearing a pack, and a 150-pound sled will be tethered to the back of the ladder. If he breaks through into a crevasse, the ladder is designed to bridge the gap so he can climb to safety.

Because winds can be severe, Dupre plans to dig snow caves rather than using a tent during his climb. That's what the Russian team did in reaching Denali's summit in 1998.


"We climbed it like mice," Russian climber Vladimir Ananich told the Mountain Zone website after summiting the peak with Artur Testov. "We'd hole up in a snow cave for two, three, five days, then poke our noses out to look around. If it was too windy, we'd duck back in; if bearable, we'd scurry up a little higher. And that's how we got up that hill!"

Dupre has corresponded with Testov in preparing for his climb and also has sought the advice of legendary Alaskan climber and climbing guide Vernon Tejas.

"He's been very supportive," Dupre said.

Not that some people haven't tried to dissuade him from this latest expedition.

"I've gotten a few e-mails that I probably shouldn't be doing this," Dupre said.

And his response?

"Well, I can always turn my skis around," he said.



Dupre spent the fall training for his ascent. He has worked out with weights, dragged heavy tires around, hiked with a 60-pound pack and trained in a hyperbaric tent to acclimatize to an altitude of 21,000 feet. He traveled to Washington and Colorado to train in the mountains with more experienced climbers.

Dupre plans to fly to Alaska in a few days, and fly from Talkeetna to the mountain in late December. He hopes to reach the peak by Jan. 31.

He will carry a small high-definition video camera and a computer to send dispatches from Denali. He also will carry a SPOT beacon that will mark his location on the mountain and will confirm if he reaches the summit.

His experience on other expeditions tells him the early part of the expedition will be critical.

"Usually in these really hard trips, if you can make it through the first 14 days of the trip, you're probably going to make it, at least physically and mentally," he said. "You have to get through that 14-day mark."

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