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Lonnie Dupre Returns to Denali to Attempt the First Solo Ascent in January

Take a moment and imagine you’re alone. Really alone. There’s not another person around for miles, and you’re huddled in a snow trench on the side of Denali (Mount McKinley) in the middle of January. The wind outside howls at 100 mph and the temperature plummets to -50 degrees Fahrenheit when the sun goes down.

Sound like fun? Lonnie Dupre thinks so.

While the rest of us will be cuddled up by the fireplace or out celebrating with friends on New Year’s Eve, Lonnie will be alone on the flanks of Denali, making his third attempt at becoming the first solo climber to reach the summit of the 20,320-foot peak in January.

Lonnie Dupre

On each of his last 2 attempts, Lonnie was forced to turn back due to bad weather.

In January 2011, he spent 7 days in a snow cave while he battled ferocious winds and bone-chilling temperatures. Returning in January 2012 for another try (which we reported on here), Lonnie was greeted with even worse weather that trapped him at 15,400 feet for several days and nights.

And, just what do you do when you’re holed up in a snow trench for days on end? Listen to public radio of course. Lonnie brings along a small transistor radio that picks up local stations out of Anchorage. “It’s actually really nice because you get a little bit of news around the world so you still feel connected,” Lonnie said.

In addition to listening to the radio, Lonnie spends his downtime monitoring the weather, writing in his journal, repairing equipment and making sure everything is organized and ready for when he climbs higher up the mountain.


Lonnie's route up Denali. (National Park Service photo; edited to show route)

Lonnie is optimistic that this attempt on Denali will be different than the last ones.

“I’m feeling a lot more positive this year than I was last year,” Lonnie said. “Last year the weather was atrocious before I left, after I left and even when I got back.”

Speaking on the phone from Homer, Alaska, Lonnie said he has been enjoying sunny, windless days for nearly 6 weeks. If that weather continues into January, he doesn’t see any reason why he won’t complete his journey to the top of Denali and back.

Lonnie has since flown from Alaska to Colorado in order to acclimate to high altitudes by training on several 14,000-foot peaks. He will return to Alaska after the Christmas holiday, and if the weather cooperates, he will fly out of Talkeetna, Alaska, to begin his trip on December 29th.

Lonnie’s plan for summiting Denali is much the same as it was last time. He will be flown onto the Kahiltna Glacier and travel on skis along the West Buttress route, establishing several camps along the way as he climbs to 14,000 feet. The route steepens from there so he will cache the skis and travel on foot with 14-point crampons on his boots. Lonnie will make his high camp at 17,200 feet, putting him within striking distance of the summit. From there he will need a solid stretch of weather to make the final push to the top.

Predicting the weather on Denali in January is challenging. Storms roll in quickly and with extraordinary force. Before Lonnie can leave his camp at 17,200 feet for a summit bid, he needs to be pretty darn sure of the weather. Helping him with weather predictions will be a team of 2 meteorologists in Boulder, Colorado, and his support crew in Alaska that will be gathering first-hand information by monitoring local conditions and talking to area pilots.

“I need a forecast that looks like it’s promising for the next 18 hours to give me enough time to get up and get down,” Lonnie said. In actuality, 18 hours is the bare minimum. Lonnie would love to have a longer stretch of stable weather so he can return from the summit and move camp down to 14,000 feet where he’ll retrieve supplies he cached on the way up.

Lonnie is very frank about the consequences of getting stuck high on the mountain. “I’m going to have limited supplies at 17,200 so it’s not going to do me any good if I get up to the summit then get back down to 17,200 and starve to death because I’m stuck in a snowstorm there.”


Lonnie Dupre hauls his gear sled attached to a ladder near Windy Corner on Denali in Jan. 2012. (Lonnie Dupre photo)

While many aspects of this Denali climb mirror the 2 previous attempts, Lonnie has made changes to his equipment to make travel easier and faster. “Every time you go on an expedition, regardless of how successful or how well your equipment worked, there are always modifications that you can make,” Lonnie said.

On his first 2 attempts, Lonnie secured an aluminum ladder between himself and the gear sled that he pulled up the mountain. The idea is that if he falls into a crevasse, the ladder and the weight of the gear sled at the other end will prevent him from plunging too far in. This year, Lonnie is using 2 aircraft aluminum poles rather than a ladder, which saves about 3.5 pounds.

Lonnie will once again camp exclusively in snow caves and trenches rather than bringing a tent. However, this time he will carry a lightweight tarp to stretch over the top of his snow trenches instead of taking the time and effort to construct roofs out of snow blocks. This will save valuable energy and about 45 minutes of time when he builds a snow trench to sleep in after a long, hard day of travel.

Speaking of long, hard days of travel, Lonnie will begin the trip with a total gear and food weight of about 200 to 225 lbs. Most of that will be pulled behind him in a sled, except for emergency equipment, like an extra stove, a communication device, his ice axes and crampons, which will be carried within reach in his backpack.

How do you train for heavy labor like that? Lonnie recommends doing something that’s close to the activity you’ll be undertaking on the trail. That means spending the summer months dragging a tire attached to a waist belt up steep roads. “It’s a good way to strengthen your legs,” Lonnie said. “In 45 minutes to an hour you can get a pretty major workout dragging those things around.”

All the effort that goes into Lonnie’s journeys to cold places has a greater purpose than simply for the adventure. Lonnie is working hard to raise awareness about climate change and the dramatic effect it is having on cold regions around the globe. When he returns from Denali, he will get to work on a documentary film called Cold Love. The film will combine footage from his adventures to the North Pole, Greenland and Denali, while also including interviews with scientist and explorers about the effects of climate change.

“It’s a way to inspire people about remembering the importance of snow and ice in our lives,” Lonnie said. “Not just for the planet as a whole, but also as our enjoyment for playing in it, whether it’s ice fishing or skiing or skating on frozen lakes or making snowballs and snowmen. All those kinds of things we experienced when we were kids and learned to love as adults.”

Lonnie and his crew are trying to get Cold Love funded through a Kickstarter campaign and hope to begin production in the spring. Visit his website to follow his progress on Denali and learn more about the Cold Love project.

Posted on at 9:00 AM

Tagged: Climbing, Denali, Lonnie Dupre, alaska and mountaineering

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I love what he's doing and have done some New Years climbs of my own with only marginal "success". Great gear, physical preparation, skill, luck and summits are obviously all great things - but sometimes for a true athlete and real adventurer I'd argue that success ought to be measured by the regularity that you find yourself pushed to the limits of your abilities and that getting completely denied by nature is just as awesome as the number of summits you attain. Good luck Lonnie, keep safe, enjoy the fight and remember that the joy is in the journey!

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Just read his bio and I guess it makes sense - we're both rural MN boys!

Polar IceMan

Looking forward to seeing the movie, pictures, and following the climb. I agree with Zachman that success is measured in different ways. I had the opportunity to race to the 1996 Magnetic North Pole, I did the Polar Challenge in 2010 a 360 mile race in the Arctic. Our team came in last place, but finished this amazing race. Even losers can be winners. Here is a plug for REI, I only wore one pair of REI wool socks and my feet stayed toasty warm inside Weber Arctic boots.

Polar IceMan

I met Lonnie in Minneapolis at a coming home party for his friend, Eric Larsen, who did the Save The Poles Expedition in 2010. I had just completed the 2010 Polar Challenge a 360 mile endurance race in the Arctic. Our team came in last place, but I still considered us winners. Like Zachman said, it is the journey. Looking forward to following Lonnie on his adventures.

Ann B Staff Member

Great piece, Joe.


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