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Does ungodly cold await Minnesota man headed for McKinley's summit again?

Craig Medred
Photo by Dmitri von Klein/MONOVITA

Will the third try at the summit of Mount McKinley in winter finally prove the charm for Minnesota adventurerer Lonnie Dupre? National Park Service officials says he's headed back for the 20,320-foot summit of the continent yet again. He hopes to be on the lower slopes of North America's tallest peak before the end of the year.

Then begins a long, cold, sometimes windy, and always lonely trudge toward a summit that has proven deadly for others. Dupre knows the danger. He made it as high as 17,200 feet on the mountain two years ago.

That point above the McKinley Headwall is the general location of the traditional "high camp'' from which summit bids are launched.

Dupre, however, never got a shot at the summit in 2011. High winds pinned him down in bitter cold for six days as the high altitude began to tear down his body. When the winds finally eased, he decided it best to retreat and live to try another day. Unfortunately, a 2012 attempt went even worse. Earlier this year, Dupre's march up the Kahiltna Glacier took him only to 14,200 feet, a generally flat spot below the Headwall, before strong winds and deep snows stopped him.

Fierce winds 

This time Dupre spent a week pinned down before deciding the climb was a no-go. He reported he nearly died on the descent.

Winds he estimated at 80 mph knocked him off his feet below fabled Windy Corner as he started down Squirrel Hill. It is a bad place to fall. Fifty-one-year-old French climber Pascal Frison tried to stop a heavy sled that started sliding away from him there in 2010 and was pulled over a cliff. He plummeted more than 1,000 feet to his death in the heavily crevassed Peters Glacier far below.

Dupre said he was able to arrest his fall with an ice ax. But he later told the Duluth News Tribune that the winds were so bad he ended up down climbing much of the slope to the easier terrain of Motorcycle Hill using two ice axes and his crampons to keep from getting blown off the mountain.

And yet he is coming back.

"For as long as I can remember, I have loved snow and ice,'' he proclaimed on his new website earlier this year. "As a result, I have spent most of my life exploring the Arctic region. These journeys have brought such joy and beauty to my life that I have dedicated myself to helping preserve these wonderful frozen places."

He has clearly picked the right location for frozen places. Alaska is ending 2012 with a brutal cold snap. The thermometer hit minus-40 in Fairbanks only three days into the month of December. "On average,'' the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported at that time, "Fairbanks has 11 days each winter when the temperature hits 40-below or colder."

This year, however, is looking colder than average.

Preparing in Colorado 

Fairbanks has already experienced three days below minus-40, and it isn't even the coldest part of winter yet. Data from The Alaska Climate Research Center in the Interior city show average temperatures tracking somewhere between the "normal'' and "record low'' since about mid-October.

Dupre, who has been doing altitude training in Colorado in preparation for McKinley, told a Summit Daily reporter that he would prefer clear, cold weather. “I managed to get to 15,500 feet last year, but it was really an effort,” he told reporter Janice Kurbjun.

“This year, we're thinking (the weather) is going to be more stable. ... We're feeling really positive.” 

Last winter saw the center of Alaska wracked by storm after storm sweeping north out of the Gulf of Alaska laden with moisture. Before the winter ended, record snowfalls had come down across the state. Anchorage, the state's largest city, was hit with more than 11 feet -- enough to put the rim on a regulation basketball goal well out of sight.

And the storms that dumped on Anchorage kept pushing well north into the Alaska Range, making travel difficult for Dupre on the slopes of McKinley.

But then again, travel on the slopes of North America's highest mountain is always difficult in winter. Only 16 people have made the summit between the shortest day of the year and spring solstice, and only three tough-as-nails Russians have made it to the top in the dead of winter. Most of the successful climbs have been completed in February and March, and it's no picnic then, either.

44 years since first winter ascent

The first successful winter ascent wasn't made until 1967. Frenchman Batkin, one of a team of eight, died on the way up. Three people made it to the top on March 7 -- Alaskans Dave Johnston, Art Davidson and the late Ray Genet. They were promptly hit by a storm and forced to make an emergency bivouac at 18,200 feet. The others in their climbing party gave them up for dead, but they survived and climbed back down the mountain.

Davidson later wrote a book that is now a climbing classic: "Minus 148 degrees: First Winter Ascent of Mount McKinley.''

The title was taken from a windchill temperatures chart. Minus 148 was where the chart bottomed out. Johnston, Davidson and Genet might well have endured temperatures colder than that, which explains why McKinley isn't very popular this time of year. More than 1,000 climbers a year now swarm it's slopes during the normal May-to-July climbing season, but the Park Service is expecting only Dupre and a lone Japanese climber between now and April.

The Japanese, like the Russians, have a long history with McKinley in winter. For more than a decade after Johnston, Davidson and Genet made the top, there were no serious summit attempts until Japanese national hero Naomi Uemera made a bold, solo bid. In February 1984, he became the first climber to summit the mountain alone in winter. He promptly disappeared. Last spotted near 17,000 feet by a Talkeetna-based glacier pilot, Uemera was never seen again, and no sign of him has ever been found on the mountain despite repeated searches.

The first successful, solo ascent of the mountain in winter didn't come until 1988 when Alaska guide Vern Tejas made himself famous by getting to the top and back alive. The 1980s were the heyday of winter climbing on McKinley. Ten climbers in all made the summit in the winters of that decade; eight survived. In the three decades since, only six people have gone to the top in winter.

Dupre is still hoping to make it seven.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com