Cold drives climber Dupre down McKinley

Beth Bragg
Arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre
Photo courtesy Lonnie Dupre

 Mount McKinley 3, Lonnie Dupre 0.

A day that dawned with the possibility of a rare wintertime summit of Mount McKinley instead became the day a Minnesota adventurer abandoned his attempt to reach the top of North America’s tallest peak for the third straight year.

 After spending Saturday at 17,200 feet trying to stay warm in a snowcave where the temperature hit minus-35, Lonnie Dupre on Sunday told his support crew he feared continued exposure to such cold could be deadly. He began his descent early Sunday morning, according to a press release from project coordinator Stevie Anna Plummer.

 “When he called his base camp at 4 a.m. on (Sunday), it was -35 degrees F in the snowcave,’’ Plummer wrote.

 Sunday marked Dupre’s 19th day on McKinley, the majestic 20,320-foot Alaska Range peak. 

 He spent Thursday climbing from 14,200 feet to 17,200 feet, a 12-hour journey that involved breaking loose fixed lines that had frozen to the mountainside at the bottom of the Headwall and hiking the West Buttress ridge in the dark. 

Once Dupre, 51, reached 17,200 feet, he spent about three hours building a snowcave, a job made difficult by hard snow, Plummer reported.

A day of planned rest on Saturday instead became a second round of work on the snowcave and a nonstop but futile effort to stave off the cold. Plummer said Dupre anticipated even colder weather soon — she said 50 mph winds are forecast for Monday.

Dupre’s previous two efforts to conquer Denali in the dead of winter ended primarily because of whiteout conditions and powerful, battering winds. Also a factor was diminishing strength and energy as he tried to outwait the weather. 

Last year, Dupre spent seven days holed up at 14,200 feet before turning back; in 2011 he spent seven days in a snowcave at 17,200 feet before giving up.

 Only 16 people have successfully climbed McKinley in the winter, a period the National Park Service says starts with the Dec. 21 winter solstice and ends with the March 21 spring equinox. 

Only two people — the Russian team of Artur Testov and Vladimir Ananich in 1998 — have bagged a McKinley summit in the dead of winter, which is considered December or January, when daylight is largely a rumor, temperatures can be other-worldly and winds can approach triple digits. 

No one has done it solo in the dead of winter.


Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335


Here’s the full press release from Plummer:

Arctic Explorer Dupre Abandons Attempt to Solo Summit Denali

After 19 days on North America’s tallest mountain, Arctic explorer and climber Lonnie Dupre has abandoned his third attempt to become the first person to summit Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) alone in the month of January. Several factors forced Minnesota-native Dupre to make the decision to begin descending the Alaska mountain on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013.

As he did during his first attempt to successfully summit Denali in 2011, Dupre reached high camp at 17,200. He had hoped that after a 12-hour climb from the14,200 camp, he could make the final push to the summit today. However, extremely hard snow made it impossible to build a safe snow cave at 17,200, and instead of getting much needed rest, he spent the entire night trying to keep the cave — and himself — warm. When he called his base camp at 4 a.m. on January 27, it was -35 degrees F in the snow cave.

It was virtually a life-or-death decision for Dupre. Even if he had made the summit today, which would have meant a 12-hour or more travel day between 17,200 and the summit and back, he knew he would not have had the energy or means to survive back at the 17,200 camp. Monday’s predicted 50 mph winds and cold temperatures would translate into a windchill of -50 degrees F.  Combined with an unfavorable long-term forecast and dwindling food and fuel supplies, Dupre knew his chance of survival would be minimal. “These storms on Denali can last a long time,” said Dupre, “and a climber should never be caught with less then three days of food and eight days of fuel at any point.”

Today, Dupre is making his way down the mountain, and will continue his descent back to the 7,200 base camp as weather permits. Although disappointed that his third consecutive try at a solo summit in January was not  successful, Dupre does not consider his expedition a failure. During the expedition, he conducted research and gathered microbe samples for the Biosphere 2 project run by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.The data will give a better understanding of how climate change affects the production of living matter in extreme environments.

In conjunction with this Denali expedition, his climb will contribute footage to the documentary film Cold Love, which is about the world’s need — and people’s need — for snow and ice. Snow and ice are important in our polar regions because they help reflect the sun’s energy back into space. Basically, the planet’s polar regions act as a thermostat to keep our planet cool.

Further, the climb also brought attention to his book, Life on Ice: 25 Years of Arctic Exploration, and profits from the sale of the book will be donated to The Nature Conservancy’s campaign “Plant a Billion Trees.” Each Life on Ice sale will enable the planting of 11 trees. Dupre’s announcement to start his descent coincided with the January 27 announcement that Dupre’s memoir, Life on Ice, published by Keen Editions, has been nominated for a 2013 Minnesota Book Award.

Dupre, a resident of Grand Marais, Minnesota, has 25 years of polar expedition experience, and is best known as the first to circumnavigate Greenland via non-motorized means and two expeditions to the North Pole.






Beth Bragg