Summit County a training ground for winter Denali quest
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Nine days out from a third attempt at a winter ascent of Denali in Alaska, Lonnie Dupre is about ready to leave his training spot in Summit County and head north to the land of dark days and tall, steep mountains.
Dupre will be attempting what only nine expeditions totaling 16 people have ever done: Reach the summit of Mount McKinley, also called Denali, in winter. According to Dupre, who has earned the attention of the likes of National Geographic throughout the years of this quest, those expeditions resulted in six deaths. Just one team of three Russian climbers has ever made the summit in the dead of winter – January.
January is the darkest, coldest time in Alaska. And with the full moon not coming back until late January, Dupre won’t even have the pale moonlight to help.
It’s also the time when Dupre plans to spend at least 30 days – if not up to 45 in the case of inclimate weather – on the back of the 20,320-foot Denali, wooing the mountain into allowing him to summit solo in those cold, dark days. If he succeeds on this third try, he’ll be among four other solo winter summits, though none of those was in January.
Before Dupre heads to Alaska, he’ll stop off once again on his circuitous route from his home base in Minnesota to Alaska by way of Summit County. He plans to spend the holidays with family in Oregon and arrive in Talkeetna, Alaska, on Dec. 27. He’ll begin the climb on Dec. 28 or 29, weather-dependent.
Summit has become Dupre’s training grounds because of the ease of accessing altitude and rough terrain. Training consists mostly of long hikes high in the mountains (this time, on Loveland Pass, which “gets you up there in a hurry”) and sleeping at elevation at a 10th Mountain Division hut.
“It’s not just easy access, it also gives you a bunch of things to pick from to keep things interesting,” Dupre said. “It’s not only your Fourteeners, but your mountain huts, which are wonderful. We also still need to, as we’re preparing for the expedition, be able to do the natural office-type things that need to be done so close to the start of the expedition.”
Dupre communicates with the outside world via satellite phone, which can export photos and video as well as voice and text messages from remote parts of the world. He’s hoping to piece together footage from his three Denali attempts along with clips from other Arctic or near-Arctic adventures such as circumnavigating Greenland via kayak and dogsledding to the North Pole to create “Cold Love,” a documentary that will educate on climate change and share Dupre’s passion for the snow and ice.
“My heart goes out to folks who own and invest in ski resorts. What’s coming down the pike in terms of climate change, we’ve only seen a little bit of it so far,” Dupre said. “(Carbon dioxide) is a greenhouse gas that lasts 100 years in the atmosphere. The temperatures are going to keep ramping up and it’s going to keep changing the climate. Our culture and way of life, our love of sports … is going to be lost. … The only thing we can do is do our part in reducing climate change.”
“We can adapt somewhat. The things we cannot adapt are ski resorts, animals,” he said, adding, “This is a personal challenge for me and also a way to talk to people about our need and love for snow and ice and why it’s important for the planet, because snow and ice is basically the thermostat that regulates our planet and keeps it cool. I love snow and ice and I’m here to promote having that around for a long time.”
When anything above 68 degrees gives you a headache, it sort of makes sense to want to brave temperatures that can drop to -60 degrees Fahrenheit and winds that are so powerful that using a tent is impossible. A seven-hour climb is, instead, followed by at least two hours of constructing a snow cave in the dark, which is then followed melt snow into drinkable water and eating freeze-dried nourishment.
Dupre will live so close to the edge of death, he says to spend one night above the snow is death.
Equipment is important, too.
“How important is our equipment? You lose your shovel and you lose your life. A stove breaks down, you have 2.5 days to live before you die of dehydration,” he said.
Dupre seeks efficient, lightweight materials, but we’re still talking about a 200-pound pack. Dupre first carries it on a sled as he traverses the lowlands on long skis that protect him from falling in crevasses. At 11,000 feet, he switches to crampons while dragging the sled, and at roughly 14,000 feet, he will sling his pack onto his back to ascend the remaining 6,320 feet.
As you consider living, eating and sleeping in consistently sub-zero temperatures for a month or more, not having a hot meal for that same time period and cringe at the thought, consider this: This is one of Dupre’s shortest cold-weather expeditions.
Kayaking around Greenland involved several six- to eight-month legs, for example.
As such, Dupre said working his way up Denali is, in some ways, easier.
“I can see my objective. I can see the summit,” he said. “The mental game is the key game. I know where I’m at. I can see my objective. I know my terrain. I know approximately how long it will take.”
But exploring in the ice is far from unfamiliar to Dupre, who has spent the last 25 years running around the Arctic Circle.
“I was born and raised on a farm in Minnesota,” Dupre said. “We had really cold winters, and many days well below zero. Growing up on a farm, we played outside all the time. We explored all the surrounding areas. In winter, when the lakes and creeks froze over, it gave us twice as much space to explore.”
Dupre has been denied a Denali summit in January twice so far, in both cases, high winds keeping his climb at bay.
The mountain isn’t a highly technical one, but its proximity to the Arctic Circle and Bering Sea means the mountain sees extreme weather. If the jet stream drops onto the upper reaches of the mountain, winds can exceed 100 mph.
“It wasn’t too bad the first year until 17,000 feet. You can only stay at 17,000 so long before your body starts atrophying,” Dupre said.
“When you’re up at 17,000 feet waiting for a week, just being in that low-oxygen environment tends to weaken you considerably,” Dupre said in a National Geographic interview. “You get atrophied and it becomes even after five days very difficult to climb further up after that, so it’s best to come back down.”
In 2012, low-pressure system after low-pressure system pounded Alaska, dumping 35 feet of snow on Cordova alone.
“I managed to get to 15,500 feet last year, but it was really an effort,” Dupre said. “This year, we’re thinking (the weather) is going to be more stable. … We’re feeling really positive.”
In each try, Dupre holed up and waited as long as he could for a break in weather. All he needs is 13 hours of stability to ascend from 17,000 feet to the 20,320-foot summit.
“If you climb fast and light, you can do it in 12 or 13 hours,” Dupre said.
What two failed attempts does is help Dupre fine-tune his gear. Boots that can handle many layers of insulation. Two ice axes. Good crampons. Rations of one pound to nearly two pounds of freeze-dried material. Clothing that has been tested and proven to perform in extreme weather conditions.
“Every time you go up and down a specific route, you’re more aware of your challenges and you have an opportunity to fine-tune your equipment,” Dupre said.
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