Arctic explorer Dupre makes history with his solo summit
Featured in the July 2015 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.
Lonnie Dupre, at 53 years of age, made mountaineering history earlier this year when he summited Mt. McKinley—known by Alaskans as Denali—by himself in January.
It was an extraordinary feat to summit and successfully descend the mountain in the coldest, darkest month of the year. According to Denali National Park and Preserve statistics, only 16 people have summited Denali in the winter; four climbers died on the ascent and two died on the descent during those climbs. Of those 16 climbers, three people summited the mountain in the winter solo, but none of them in January. A team of two Russian climbers were the only ones to successfully summit Denali in January.
“Well, it’s the coldest, darkest time and no one’s done it so I thought that would be a good little challenge,” says Dupre.
There was nothing little about this challenge. It’s a perilous route in the summer, but in the winter, with all of the guides gone and the unforgiving weather, Dupre would have little to no support if he found himself in trouble on the mountain. Crossing Kahiltna Glacier on the West Buttress, which Dupre says is tiger-striped with hidden crevasses, is treacherous. Hypothermia, elevation sickness, crevasses, avalanches, being stranded in a storm and running out of supplies, along with driving winds that can sweep the most experienced climber off of the mountain are a few of the real dangers.
“Being in the middle of the Alaska Range, solo, not only do you have a sense of being alone, but you’re also surrounded by this amphitheater of rock and ice that is humbling,” Dupre says, “so, it’s a little overwhelming. When you first get there, it’s like, ‘How am I going to survive being in such a rugged, unforgiving terrain?’”
Dupre had summited Denali in the summer of 2010. But, that wasn’t enough for him.
He tried to summit Denali in January in 2011, 2012 and 2013, making it to 17,200 feet on two of those climbs and 15,000 feet on the other. Severe weather pushed him back down the mountain every time.
The cold and the darkness did not dissuade Dupre. He had been doing polar expeditions for 25 years prior to summiting Denali.
“I’ve run around the Arctic since I was in my early 20s,” he says. “I’ve done a couple of North Pole trips, circumnavigated Greenland, (he was the first)—just some of those things that I’ve learned over the years, going to the North Pole, around Greenland, the Northwest Passage in Canada, really was very good training for Denali.”
During his Arctic expeditions, Dupre spent a lot of time in temperatures well below minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit and often traveled during polar nights. The only thing that Denali added, he says, is the altitude. At 20,322 feet, that’s both Denali’s draw and its danger.
Preparing to Climb Denali
Dupre’s climb was five years in the making. There were months of fundraising. Dupre starts a strict diet and exercise routine at least six months before each climb.
“When he’s not working on building cabins in northern Minnesota, he’s pulling a tire strapped to his waist—as a heavy packed sled on Denali or North Pole would be—and hiking or climbing stairs with a heavy pack on for training,” says Stevie Plummer, Dupre’s right-hand woman who handles all of the logistics, fundraising, marketing and public relations for his expeditions. She also helps him blog daily from the mountain, uploading his podcast-type messages via satellite telephone or transcribing them on his web site.
Then, Dupre custom packs his own food. “I partially deep-fried bacon in safflower oil and then vacuum packed it,” he says. “It’s something you can eat at high altitudes. As you gain in altitude, you lose your appetite, but it’s very important that you keep eating so you need to take food that tastes good.”
To cross the Kahiltna Glacier and protect himself from falling into crevasses, Dupre made 4 inch by 8 foot long skis out of yellow birch from trees on his property in northern Minnesota.
“You can’t completely count on [the skis] so you have to probe all the time and I also carry a spruce pole attached to my hip, in case I break through a crevasse. Even with my skis on, the pole will help bridge that crevasse gap and hopefully keep me from breaking through and falling to the bottom,” he says.
The Ascent Begins
Dupre flew to the base camp at about 7,200 feet and started his climb on December 18, 2014, carrying 195 pounds of supplies, including a sled, a backpack, crampons, two ice axes, a mountaineering stove and enough food and fuel for 34 days on the mountain. With only five to seven hours of usable daylight, he calculated every minute of it, using a headlamp while he packed up for the day and set up camp for the night. He pulled a sled on skis all the way up to 11,000 feet. From there, the terrain turns really steep, so he pulled his sled with crampons and left his skis behind. He climbed to 14,000 feet with crampons, pulling the sled. From 14,000 feet, the terrain is so steep that he left the sled and climbed with just his crampons, two ice axes, and a backpack up to 17,000 feet. That backpack had 50 pounds of supplies that needed to last him a week. If he stayed any longer without summiting, he would have had to come back down.
But, the calculus for enough food and fuel is as unforgiving as the mountain itself. There was something that Dupre wasn’t expecting. A storm pinned him at 11,200 feet for five days around New Year’s Eve.
“I was ascending the Kahiltna Glacier from 10,000 to 11,000 feet,” he says, “and it’s pretty steep right there so I deposited most of my gear in a cache at 10,000 feet, and then I proceeded up to 11,000 and set up camp there.”
At 11,200 feet, a storm came. Horizontal driving snow trapped him in his snow cave for five days. He had only one and a half day’s supply of food and about three days’ supply of fuel with him. His cache was just a 10 minute ski ride away and he couldn’t get to it.
“I realized that I didn’t have enough supplies with me for an extended storm. You wouldn’t think about that because, the cache was right below me, and in nice weather you could just see it. But, when it’s snowing horizontally at 50 miles per hour, you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”
He had started to get hypothermic on such little food. Had he been stuck there for another 36 hours, he would have likely died. It was at that point Dupre realized he might not survive.
“I was starting to think about how to say my ‘good-byes,’” Dupre said.
In a message he recorded with his satellite phone on New Year’s Eve, 2014, Dupre said being trapped at 11,200 feet was a “trying time.” He described digging his tent out of wet snow about twice a day.
Then, he got lucky. The storm lifted just enough so he could find his cache 600 feet away.
Life on the mountain, while solitary, is busy. Dupre spent his days doing things like taking snow out of his boots, melting snow into drinking water, making sure his tent was secure and making sure his snow cave was comfortable.
“There’s no end to the stuff that keeps you busy keeping yourself as comfortable as possible when you’re up in that environment,” he says.
On January 11, 2015, summit day finally arrived. It was 12 hours of solid climbing. It was the biggest day of Dupre’s expedition and he knew the weather had to be cooperative. On Denali in January, he says, temperatures could be minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and winds can blow in excess of 80 miles per hour at the higher elevations.
“When you’re leaving on that day, you’re taking all that stuff into account,” says Dupre, “and then you also realize ‘I could die up there if I get caught above my camp at the 17,000 to 19,000-foot range.’”
Dupre reached the summit at 2:04 p.m. Alaska Time on January 11, 2015.
“I tried to be in the now and just absorb what I was witnessing in front of me,” he says. “All these huge peaks that I went by on my way up were now just little bitty bumps in the road down below.”
But, another challenge lay ahead of him and he already started strategizing his descent.
“I was thinking I better be careful going down because that’s when most people die,” he said. “Most climbing accidents, most fatalities, happen on the descent, mainly because you can’t see your footholds very well and you have no hand holds.”
Worried about the weather keeping him above the safety of his camp at 17,000 feet, Dupre carefully started his descent after only 10 minutes at the summit.
“It’s a good thing I did because an hour and a half later, it was blowing 40 knots on the summit,” he says. “That was measured by a pilot who flew over and caught my headlamp on the way down and managed to take a picture.”
What mixture of emotions runs through the mind of an arctic climber alone on a mountain for 24 days?
“It ranges from ‘I want my mama’ to ‘Things are going great, it was a beautiful sunset,’ to ‘Crap, I’m running out of food,’” says Dupre. “It just runs the gamut.”
Dupre and Plummer talked every day by satellite telephone. Plummer says she always said “good-bye” and treated every satellite call as if it would be their last.
“Working with someone [who] you know makes solid decisions is a big stress relief,” says Plummer. “I know that you cannot control a lot of factors while on an expedition like this, but Dupre’s experience in climates such as this [spans more than] 25 years. He enjoys doing things like Denali and the North Pole enough to make sure that he returns safe enough to continue to do so.”
Plummer was on a climbing trip near Mexico when she received Dupre’s signal from his spot beacon that he had reached the summit. She had lost contact with Dupre when one of his phones wasn’t working at 17,200 feet. Dupre wasn’t getting any weather information for his climb from 14,200 feet to the summit and back, where he retrieved his other satellite phone.
“[It was] a pretty incredible feat having no resources other than your years of weather reading in arctic regions and your gut telling you to continue,” says Plummer.
When she received his summit signal, she drove halfway across Texas and boarded a plane bound for Alaska.
“I was there only 12 hours after I received the signal,” says Plummer. “Everything was kind of a blur of media, excitement and still a ton of worry as descending is the most dangerous part of the climb.”
Back on Denali, Dupre was going through scenarios in his mind on his descent.
“I tried to be really focused on my footing on my descent because I didn’t want to trip and fall,” he says. “[I] just always have a scenario of when you’ve fallen, how you should use your ice ax.”
Hugs, High Fives and Salad
“Paul Roderick with Talkeetna Air Taxi flew our photographer and friend John Whittier around the summit to see if they could spot Dupre on the descent,” Plummer said. “They were able to catch his headlamp, snapped a few photographs and returned due to the extreme winds that were picking up around the summit. I saw him on our initial flight into base camp upon his arrival, but [we] were unable to land due to heavy winds.”
The following day, they went back to pick Dupre up from the mountain. It was a joyous reunion.
“[Stevie] ran out from the plane and we did a high five and gave a hug because it was a long, long time coming,” says Dupre. “I think I said something like, ‘I’m glad that’s over with.’”
“It was [a mixture] of tears, laughter and warm hugs with everyone there at base camp who had been such a huge part all along,” says Plummer. “It was a great feeling. I remember Dupre saying something about how happy he was, followed pretty closely by ‘Hey, did you bring that salad?’”
All that time alone on a mountain with no human contact and living in a snow cave wore heavy on Dupre.
“He is a people person, so to be stuck in a snow cave or a tent for a month in solitude is one of the biggest challenges I believe he faces with an expedition like Denali. All of his other trips were team based. He’s initially pretty excited to see people again,” says Plummer.
So, how did he cope with having human contact again?
“I went up to the snack bar at the Roadhouse [in Talkeetna] and ate for three days,” says Dupre. “I ate pastries and visited with people for three days.”
What do I do now?
Both Dupre and Plummer say that they suffer some depression when they’ve reached a goal for which they’ve planned so long and so hard.
“You’re kind of lost a little bit,” says Dupre, “and then pretty soon, your adventurous exploration juices start flowing again and you come up with another project that’s motivating to you and you’re off again.”
And while Dupre says he doesn’t plan a new project while he is still working on the one at hand, he is pragmatic about curing his depression after an expedition. He recognizes the symptoms and he knows how to cure them.
“I basically go home and relax, not try to do too much, do a little reading, visit with [family and] friends,” he says.
Dupre is back home in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and he says it took him a couple of months after his Denali summit to assimilate back into normal life.
With his company, One World Endeavors, Dupre does expeditions in the coldest regions of the world to bring attention to the issues surrounding climate change or culture. Denali was more of a personal challenge for him. His next expedition is called Vertical Nepal.
“We’re going to go to Nepal and do some humanitarian work,” Dupre says, “and then potentially do some climbing there in a year.”
And, he says, he won’t climb Denali again. “There’s no reason to do anything twice,” he says. “Life is short and the world is big.”
After summiting Denali and risking death on so many treacherous expeditions, perhaps Dupre knows this more intimately than most people.