McKinley rebuffing climber's ambition

Beth Bragg

Two days after a merry little high-altitude Christmas on Mount McKinley, Minnesota adventurer Lonnie Dupre took another snow day Tuesday as poor visibility stalled his second attempt in as many years to become the first person to make a solo January ascent of the North America's tallest peak.

Whiteout conditions kept Dupre inside a snow cave at the 9,600-foot level of the 20,320-foot mountain, the second time in three days he hunkered down while waiting for weather to improve enough for him to see where he's going.

Dupre is almost 2,000 feet closer to the summit than he was on Christmas day, when poor visibility prompted him to hole up for the holiday at 7,800 feet.

"He had a little Christmas tree, a spruce branch I plucked off one of the trees down here, and he made a little Santa Claus ornament out of a chocolate bar he had and made a star from the foil of the chocolate bar," said Stevie Anna Plummer of Anchorage, project coordinator for Dupre's climb.

Dupre, 50, is a polar adventurer from Grand Marais, Minn., whose accomplishments include circumnavigating Greenland via dog sled and kayak and mushing 3,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Churchill, Manitoba.

He was part of two-man teams for those expeditions, but he's doing Denali as a solo effort -- something few have ever attempted in the winter, a period the National Park Service defines as the three months between the Dec. 21 winter solstice and the March 21 spring equinox.

Last winter, Dupre enjoyed relatively good weather for the first several days of a January climb that lasted about three weeks. He made it to 17,200 feet before visibility became an issue and forced him to spend seven nights in a snow cave the size of a refrigerator. By the time he got a break in the weather, his body was so weak from spending so much time at high altitude that instead of resuming his ascent, he headed down the mountain.

Dupre's current effort began Thursday when Talkeetna Air Taxi flew him to the 7,200-foot base camp at Kahiltna Glacier. He has made slow but steady gains each day except for Sunday and Tuesday, Plummer said.

The plan for today is to head up to 11,200 feet -- provided visibility allows him to see at least 100 feet ahead, Plummer said.

Plummer said Dupre is carrying 222 pounds of gear and has enough fuel and food to last him through January.

He is not traveling with a tent -- he's digging trenches and snow caves instead -- and he is again traveling with a 14-foot aluminum ladder customized so he can wear it around his waist. The ladder's job is to keep Dupre out of crevasses.

Crevasses are just one of many hazards on Denali, which is particularly hostile in the winter. Daylight is scarce, snow is plentiful, the wind and cold can be deadly, and park rangers don't operate the base camp and aren't available to provide assistance.

Only 16 people have reached the top of McKinley in the winter, two of whom died on their descent. Only four climbers have made solo summits in the winter and only once has a summit been recorded in the dead of winter, meaning January. In 1998, Artur Testov and Vladimir Ananich of Russia summited on Jan. 16.

A January solo ascent has been driving Dupre ever since he climbed McKinley in the spring of 2009.

"He's said it's like this little bug, almost like an illness -- he can't get the idea out of his head," Plummer said. "He's just feel really drawn. There's something inside him that tells him this is what he needs to do. He feels compelled."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Anchorage Daily News