For the fourth time, to diminishing fanfare, Lonnie Dupre is trying to do what has never been done: Reach the summit of Mount McKinley, alone, in the supremely inhospitable month of January.
Three previous attempts -- which started in December of 2010, 2011 and 2012 -- ended with the adventurer retreating from the mountain after being pinned down for days in snow trenches, nearly suffocated by blizzards and half-frozen by temperatures of 35 below.
During Dupre's ?expedition in 2010-11, when he was stuck for a week in a refrigerator-sized snow cave, "we thought he was going to die up there," said Kris Fister, a Denali National Park spokeswoman.
Still, Dupre keeps coming back for more.
Only 16 winter successes
This week, the 53-year-old career adventurer from northern Minnesota, known for long trips in frozen climes, is between 14,000 and 17,000 feet on the mountain, shuttling gear between camps and waiting for a window of flawless weather that will allow him to stand on top of North America's tallest peak.
Only 16 people have completed winter ascents of the 20,237-foot peak, according to park officials. Winter ascents are defined as occurring between the Dec. 21 winter solstice and the March 21 vernal equinox.
A Russian pair reached the summit in January 1998, and climbers have made it alone in months with marginally more daylight.
But no one has summited solo in January, the cold heart of an Alaska winter.
Climbing Denali this time of year means conditions Talkeetna mountaineer and guide Willi Prittie describes as a "sufferfest": Cold like a lunar midnight, meager daylight, scouring wind and unpredictable blizzards.
"For me Denali in winter is the closest I could ever come to climbing on another planet," said Andy Kirkpatrick, a British mountaineer who will make his own attempt on the peak in February.
Six have perished
In winter, when the National Park Service warns Denali mountaineers it has no way to rescue them if things go wrong, the mountain's dangers are magnified.
Six people have died attempting to reach the top in winter, including one of Dupre's inspirations, legendary Japanese climber Naomi Uemura. Uemura reached the top in February 1984 but vanished during the descent.
Some wonder if Dupre is pushing his luck with a fourth try, and they wonder whether he feels mounting pressure to summit in order to sustain his 25-year career as a professional adventurer, funded by sponsors interested in high-profile, historic feats.
The question is a familiar one in the world of mountaineering: At what point does the need to press on to the summit -- for reasons both personal and financial -- yield to good judgment?
But climbers in the Denali mountaineering community say Dupre seems to be as insulated as anyone from those pressures and cite the fact he has turned back within striking distance of the summit because of dangerous storms, twice from 17,500 feet and once from 15,400 feet.
"You gotta respect him for having that much common sense," said Dave Johnston, a Talkeetna climber who was on the first expedition to summit Denali in winter, in 1967. "Sometimes you have to be braver to chicken out than to keep going."
A scheduled satellite interview with Dupre from his camp at 14,500 feet was canceled Tuesday due to bad reception.
But in December, he explained his reasons in decidedly understated terms:
"For something to do," he told a reporter from KTVA Channel 11 News. "It's better than staying home to watch TV."
His longtime expedition manager, Stevie Anna Plummer, puts it differently.
"He's hardheaded," she said.
Dupre's fourth try at Denali lacks the fanfare that surrounded earlier expeditions.
In December 2011, for his second attempt, Dupre traveled to Alaska with a team including Plummer and a photographer, who worked out of a rented Talkeetna house capturing every aspect of Dupre's preparation and trip.
This year, the 53-year-old is running a stripped-down expedition with no support staff in state, though Plummer is relaying Dupre's communications from afar.
Dupre's fourth Denali expedition hasn't received the national media coverage, from sources such as Outside Magazine's website, the first few did.
Plummer said she didn't know the exact details of how much the expedition cost or how Dupre is paying for it, but said some of his supplies and gear had been used previously.
In the past, Dupre has found sponsors such as Rolex, which awarded him a $100,000 grant in 2004, to finance his expeditions.
For this trip, some of Dupre's sponsors include local businesses from his hometown of Grand Marais, Minnesota, including a hardware store and a pub.
Gun Flint Tavern owner Jeff Gecas, a sponsor who said he gave about $1,250, admires Dupre's unwillingness give up.
"He doesn't like to be defeated," he said.
Dogs died in earlier expedition
Dupre has made a career of Arctic travel, including trips across the Bering Strait, circumnavigating Greenland by dog sled and kayak, and to the North Pole, including travel by sled in minus-56-degree temperatures. The most notorious entry on his resume is the 1991-92 Northwest Passage Expedition, when he traveled 3,000 miles by dog sled from Prudhoe Bay to Churchill, Manitoba, in winter with musher Malcolm Vance. Fifteen dogs died along the way after the group hit storms and ran out of food, and the expedition lost sponsors and drew the ire of the Humane Society. Dupre too, was shaken by the experience.
"We'll be having nightmares about this for the rest of our lives," Dupre told a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter at the time.
Alaska climbers say they initially had reservations about Dupre's plan to solo in January because he had a light mountaineering resume, despite plenty of cold-weather remote travel experience.
He has earned the respect of Talkeetna resident Willi Prittie, the chief guide and Alaska program manager for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International.
"What impressed me the most was getting that close, knowing the conditions weren't right and turning around and coming back," he said.
Professional mountaineers, whether they're guiding paying customers or aiming to give sponsors enough exposure for their dollars, feel pressure to get to the top, Prittie said.
"There's always a lot of commercial pressure," Prittie said. "Especially when you're trying to be a professional athlete."
Follow Dupre's McKinley expedition here.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing