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‘Alone at the Top’ is a breezy, enjoyable account of solo trip up Denali in the dead of winter

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: January 19, 2019
  • Published January 19, 2019

Alone at the Top: Climbing Denali in the Dead of Winter

By Lonnie Dupre with Pam Louwagie, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018, 200 pages. $17.95

For adventurers in the 21st century, the list of attainable “firsts” is growing short. The mountains have been climbed, the planet’s most physically unattainable points reached, and these days it’s often a game of minutia.

’Alone at the Top: Climbing Denali in the Dead of Winter, ’ by Lonnie Dupre with Pam Louwagie

Take Denali for instance. It was first successfully climbed in in 1913 by Walter Harper, Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens and Robert Tatum. A team led by Alfred Lindley bagged both summits on one climb in 1932. Dave Johnston, Art Davidson and Ray Genet made the first winter ascent in 1967. Japanese legend Naomi Uemura claimed the fist solo ascent in 1970 and came back in to achieve the first solo winter summiting in 1984, only to die on the way down. Vern Tejas made it up and down alone in winter in 1988. Then there are other firsts, like pioneering difficult routes, and Susan Butcher famously getting to the summit with a dog team.

You get the idea. This mountain has been thoroughly gone over. But as of the start of this decade, no one had yet climbed it solo in January, when the temperatures can reach their lowest and daylight is extremely limited. Uemura had summited in mid-February, Tejas in March.

For longtime Arctic explorer and adventurer Lonnie Dupre, claiming this accomplishment became an obsession, and in 2015 he pulled it off, but not without plenty of heartbreak along the way. “Alone at the Top,” cowritten with Minneapolis journalist Pam Louwagie, is his breezy and enjoyable account of how it came to be.

For Dupre, the beginning of the heartbreak was the end of his 20-year marriage. For two decades he’d tried to balance a family in Minnesota with his relentless need to explore Arctic regions. He crossed the Bering Sea, traveled the Northwest Passage by dogsled in winter, circumnavigated Greenland, reached the North Pole in summer and more. And by his own admission, he was a frequently absent father, which helped end his marriage. It’s not an uncommon affliction for adventurers, and the lesson for those aspiring to this life is, it’s probably best to avoid taking on family commitments.

For Dupre, middle-aged, single and restless as ever, the crisis could only be addressed through new accomplishments. He’d never climbed mountains before and hadn’t given doing so much thought. But he and three equally inexperienced middle-aged friends decided to climb Denali, just for the experience of it. Three of the four, including Dupre, reached the top in 2010 (altitude sickness sent the fourth back down short of the summit). His climbing partners were satisfied, but for Dupre it was just a teaser.

The following January, Dupre was back on the mountain alone. That he’d managed to organize this on such short notice is impressive in itself. That he was, for all intents, still a novice climber attempting this feat is a bit concerning. That he had the sense to turn around when things went wrong, though, is indicative that he both thinks things through and knows how to act on his feet.

The following two Januaries Dupre was back, and both times he again was stymied. These three climbs are summarized in one chapter. Dupre is aiming this book at the general public, not the hardcore climbing crowd, and he wisely keeps his stories brisk and discussions of his failures brief. Each setback presents lessons for the next attempt, and readers won’t be bored by exhaustive details.

After skipping a year, Dupre was dropped off at base camp in December 2014 for what would be his successful summit attempt. The early stages of the climb went well, and he deliberately slowed down some of the sections to conserve energy, thoroughly acclimatize and emphasize safety.

Still, it was a stressful and challenging situation, and Dupre, being human, made a critical error. He cached most of his food and supplies one evening and ascended to 11,200 feet to camp, with plans to retrieve his goods the next morning. He awoke to a whiteout, and even though he was a mere 600 feet from his cache, it was impossible to reach it without getting lost. He’d also forgotten to refill emergency rations in his pack. He had little food or fuel and was pinned down for several days.

This dilemma occupies the middle section of the book, and Dupre does a good job of conveying how incredibly boring it had to have been to be stuck in a tent for so long.

“I dug out my sewing kit and looked around. What can I repair?

“I sewed a couple of stitches on my hood to make it a bit tighter. That took ten minutes.

“I found a piece of parachute cord and made a better clothesline than the one I already had strung up in my tent to hang up wet clothes. That also took about ten minutes.

“I scraped off my cooking pot.

“I gave my teeth an extra flossing.”

And on it goes.

Just as things were getting dire, the weather broke and he was able to get back to his cache. Weakened by hunger and days of idleness, he contemplated turning back for the fourth time, but decided to push onward. It would pay off.

From there it was up past Windy Corner, across the West Buttress, over Denali Pass, and onward to the summit, which he reached on Jan. 11. For all that work, he spent a mere 10 minutes taking in the view, with nature providing him clear skies.

This is a fun book. Dupre keeps his story moving along swiftly, and his descriptions of being on the mountain are nicely evocative. Most of his readers will never find themselves on Denali even in summer during peak climbing season, much less all alone in winter. A handful of pictures help convey the scene (he doesn’t look too happy in one of his selfies). Most will read it for enjoyment. A few will finish it and ask themselves, “How can I top this?”

Go for it.