At 20,320 feet in height, Denali (also known as Mt. Mckinley) is the tallest mountain in all of North America and a popular destination for mountaineers training for Everest or hoping to bag the Seven Summit. The traditional climbing season begins in May and runs through June, but even then the peak has gained a reputation for having fickle weather and steep slopes prone to avalanches.
In the winter months it is a cold and desolate place that is subjected to some of the harshest conditions imaginable and as a result, it has only been climbed 16 times during that season. January is easily the worst month to be on the mountain and no one has ever completed a climb that early in the year. Polar explorer Lonnie Dupre is hoping to change that.
Dupre is currently in the small town of Talkeetna, Alaska where he is waiting for the weather to clear so that he can begin his expedition. Once conditions improve, he’ll be able to catch a flight aboard a sky taxi that will deliver him to his starting point at the base of the mountain. From there, he’ll have until the end of the month to attempt to complete his ultimate goal – a solo summit of Denali in the coldest, harshest month of the year.
Over the years, Dupre has shown an unusual tolerance for the cold places of our planet. Over a career that has spanned more than 25 years, he has traveled more than 15,000 miles through the arctic on foot, skis, kayak and by dogsled. His adventures have taken him to the North Pole –twice – and he has crossed the 3000-mile expanse of Canada’s Northwest Passage. Dupre has even completed a circumnavigation of Greenland, covering 6500 miles, without the use of a motorized vehicle of any kind. This will also be his third attempt to summit Denali in January.
Durpe’s approach to climbing the mountain is certainly an unorthodox one. He will attempt to travel as light as possible and won’t even be carrying a tent with him on the climb. Instead, he’ll build a series of snow caves up the mountain which will provide shelter from the frequent winter storms and serve as caches for the gear he’ll use on his summit bid. He’ll spend the first couple of weeks building these snow caves and shuttling gear to each of them, which will also allow him to acclimate to the altitude and cold ahead of the final push to the top. On his previous two attempts, this approach has proven to be a good one, although extremely bad weather put a premature end to those climbs.
In the winter, Denali is well known for having some of the coldest and windiest weather on the planet. It is not uncommon for temperatures to fall below -60 to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Back in 2003, a remote weather station even recorded a windchill of -118°F , the coldest ever recorded in North America. Add in high winds and plenty of snow, and you begin to understand the challenges the any climber faces on this mountain during the winter.
Lonnie has built in some extra days to his schedule, so his current delays in Talkeetna are not worrisome just yet. Once he does get out to the mountain, you’ll be able to follow his progress through his Facebook page. If the weather cooperates for once, we could possibly see history in the making on Denali this month.
By Kraig Becker
[Photo Credit: National Park Service]