Once more, the weather gods have driven Minnesota adventurer Lonnie Dupre back from the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley. Dupre had hoped to this year become the first climber to solo the mountain in January, the cold heart of the Alaska winter. It was his third try; twice before the wind and cold had turned him back. He was optimistic this year as the weather cooperated on the long, uphill slog from the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip near 7,200 feet to where the 14,200-foot camp sits during the normal May to July climbing season.
All of that changed late last week. The thermometer dove and the winds came up. On his first attempt to go from 14,200 to high camp at 17,200 last week, he made it only to 15,200, where he cached gear before retreating. He made high camp on Friday, but found it impossible to dig in there. He spent a cold night with little shelter, his website reported.
"...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," it said. "When he called his base camp at 4 a.m. on January 27, it was -35 degrees F in the snow cave."
Considering a Monday forecast for winds of 60 to 70 mph in 20-degrees-below-zero cold, Dupre decided it best to retreat. Winds of that strength can blow a man clear off the summit ridge.
"It was virtually a life-or-death decision for Dupre," the website reported. "Even if he had made the summit (Sunday), 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 ... 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 than three days of food and eight days of fuel at any point'."
McKinley is the tallest peak in North America. Many now call it Denali, one of several original Alaska Native names.
Monday's wind and cold high on the mountain is forecast to be followed by several days of snow. Blowing snow at elevation on McKinley can make it very hard to see. And temperatures through the week are predicted to stay in the minus-20s to minus-30s with windchills of 51 to 78 degrees below zero. Dupre has been on the mountain 19 days in bitter cold. Hauling loads up to the 14,200-foot camp in temperatures down to 50-degrees-below zero takes a toll on any climber.
"Today, Dupre is making his way down the mountain, and will continue his descent back to the 7,200 base camp as weather permits," his website said. "Although disappointed that his third consecutive try at a solo summit in January was not successful, Dupre does not consider his expedition a failure.".
As his support team has noted, the decision to press on or turn back can, indeed, be a life or death matter. The first soloist to reach McKinley's summit in winter -- the Japanese adventurer and national hero Naomi Uemura -- never came back. He was last seen near 16,600 feet on his descent of the mountain in February 1984. His body has never been found, despite repeated searches.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com