Although we will be closely following the efforts of climbers on both K2 and Nanga Parbat this winter, not all of the major climbing expeditions will be taking place in the Himalaya. Polar explorer and mountaineer Lonnie Dupre will be heading back to Alaska in a few weeks, where he’ll once again attempt a solo summit of Denali in January, something that has never been accomplished before.
This isn’t the first time Lonnie has attempted this climb. In fact, for three straight years we followed his efforts, during which he often flirted with the summit, only to have his efforts thwarted by poor weather. He skipped an attempt this past January to concentrate on other efforts, but is now planning to return more focused than ever.
According to ExWeb, Dupre will begin the expedition on December 15, when he is expected to fly to the Kahiltna Glacier at the foot of Denali, where he’ll prepare for the actual climb itself. As in the past, he won’t launch any efforts to go up the mountain until at least January 1, the start of the coldest, windiest, and darkest month of the year in Alaska. Whether or not he’ll be able to stick to that date remains to be seen. A weather window will need to open for Dupre that will grant him – and the bush pilot who flies him out to the glacier – access to the region.
And just what can Lonnie expect on Denali? Cold. Lots and lots of cold. Average temperatures in January are about -50ºF/-45ºC, with wind speeds often topping out at over 100 mph (160 km/h). On top of that, the mountain sees only about 6 hours of sunlight per day in January, making it a very inhospitable place.
As Lonnie is quick to point out on his website, just 16 climbers have ever summited Denali in winter, and of those, six died on the descent. Those successful summits are spread out over nine expeditions, four solo, five as a team. The mountain has only be climbed once in January, and that was by a team of three Russians. If successful, his would be the first solo-summit ever in January.
As in years past, Lonnie will approach the climb in a unique fashion. Just as if he were traveling in the Arctic, he’ll pull a sled behind himself with all the gear he needs for the journey. He’ll also dig a series of snow caves up the side of the mountain, stashing gear in those caves as he goes. This will not only help him acclimatize to the altitude, but will also build his camps for the eventual summit push. Those caves will serve as his shelter from the weather, keeping him out of the most inhospitable conditions. On one of his previous attempts on Denali, Dupre ended up spending nearly two weeks stranded in a snow cave as he waited out the bad weather.
At 6168 meters (20,237 ft), Denali – also known as Mt. McKinley – is the tallest peak in North America. It’s extreme northerly latitude gives it some of the coldest, and most unpredictable weather, imaginable. That same latitude also creates higher air pressure, making the altitude seem higher than it actually is. These are all challenges that climbers on Denali face each season, but they are augmented even further during the winter, when the weather is even more extreme.
Good luck to Lonnie on this latest attempt at a summit attempt of Denali in January. We’ll be following!