Polar Explorer Makes First Solo January Summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley

For his fourth attempt, the veteran polar explorer made special skis from a tree in his backyard, used a tent, refined his diet, and waited out the weather for three days at 17,200 feet to achieve the summit.

At 2:04 p.m. January 11, 53-year-old polar adventurer Lonnie Dupre reached the 20,237-foot summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley via the West Buttress route, finally succeeding after four attempts in the past five years and becoming the first person ever to summit the peak solo in January. McKinley, or Denali, is the highest peak in North America.

Dupre sent a SPOT message from the summit of Mount McKinley to his support team in Minnesota at 2:08 Alaska Standard Time on Sunday: “All OK. Doing well.” A few hours later, he sent a second message saying he was back at his high camp at 17,200 feet.

McKinley, whose weather and altitude cause problems even during summertime—only one in three summit attempts were successful in 2014—is downright dangerous in winter. Winds can reach up to 100 mph, temperatures can drop to -60 Fahrenheit, and on Dupre’s summit day, the sun rose at 10:28 a.m. and set at 3:53 p.m., a total of less than five-and-a-half hours of daylight.

McKinley, first climbed in 1913, didn’t see its first winter ascent until February 1967, when Dave Johnston, Art Davidson, and Ray Genet summited, then spent six days pinned in a snow cave during a storm at 18,000 feet. Davidson’s book about the climb, Minus 148 Degrees, took its name from the lowest temperature the men experienced at their bivy, and the book became a mountaineering classic.

Since 1967, only 13 other people have summited Denali in winter, and six have died trying. Of those 13, only three—a team of Russian climbers—have topped out in January.

Dupre, who has focused on Arctic exploration for the past 25 years and has circumnavigated Greenland’s 6,500-mile coastline by dogsled and kayak, downplayed his efforts to interviewers, saying it was “just something to do.”

Dupre’s first winter attempt on McKinley was in 2011, when he raced up to 17,200 feet, and then waited out seven days of bad weather in a snow cave before turning back. In 2012, he made it to 14,200 and was thwarted by a week of bad weather again. In 2013, he waited two days in a snow cave at 17,200 feet again and watched the temperature drop to -35, and turned around.

This year, he took a tent so he would have the option of camping above 14,000 feet instead of having to dig snow caves. He took an extra sleeping bag, a down suit, and changed his diet to include more protein, and more food he liked so he wouldn’t have to force it down when he lost his appetite at high altitude. With no one to rescue him if he fell in a crevasse, Dupre built his own eight-foot-long skis out of a yellow birch tree he cut from his property in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and hung a 13-foot-long spruce pole from his climbing harness, parallel to the ground, to catch him if he popped through a hidden crevasse.

“I try not to get miserable,” he said in a pre-climb interview with Anchorage’s KTVA News. “I dress and eat properly and have really good equipment. It’s a combination of those things: Taking care of yourself, having the right equipment, and not overdoing it.”

A pilot dropped Dupre on the Kahiltna Glacier on December 18 with 34 days worth of supplies. He packed all 165 pounds of it onto a five-foot sled and started up, slowly but surely ferrying loads up and moving camps until December 27, when he got stuck at 11,200 feet for five days. On January 4, he reached 14,200 feet, the typical “14 Camp” for West Buttress climbers, and spent three days waiting on weather and hauling gear up to 17 Camp at 17,200 feet. On January 10, he moved up to 17 Camp, and on January 11, he summited and returned to 17 Camp. As of January 12, he was back at his camp at 11,200 feet.