1.26.2011

Climber's history-making Denali quest turns life-threatening


Time is running out and conditions have turned life-threatening for Lonnie Dupre, who is attempting to become the first person to solo-climb Alaska's Mt. Denali, North America's tallest peak, during the brutally harsh month of January.

Dupre spent the past seven days holed up in a narrow snow cave at 17,200 feet -- Denali stands at 20,320 feet -- as 50-mph winds raged across the frozen landscape and temperatures reached 40 below.

On Tuesday afternoon, according to expedition manager Tom Surprenant, the climber took advantage of a brief favorable weather window -- a storm cleared and winds had subsided to 25 mph -- and descended to a larger cave that serves as a makeshift camp at 14,200 feet. Surprenant, who is headquartered in Talkeetna, Alaska, said during a phone interview that Dupre had been experiencing headaches and was in danger of developing mountain sickness and hypothermia because of prolonged exposure to high altitude and frigid temperatures.

In his latest audio report, posted Monday on his website via satellite phone, Dupre said he was growing weary because the air was so thin, and that he was having trouble keeping warm.

I can't climb up, and I can't climb down," said the renowned polar explorer from Grand Marais, Minnesota. Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley, is dangerous even in the summer because of unpredictable weather and vast crevasse fields. The danger level increases exponentially once winter sets in. Only nine expeditions have reached the summit during the winter; six deaths occurred during those trips.

Only four people have made solo-ascents during the winter but none accomplished this in January. One of them -- Japan's Naomi Uemura -- disappeared after planting a flag at the summit. Winds can exceed 100 mph and temperatures can plummet to 50 below.

Dupre began his journey Jan. 7 from the Kahiltna Glacier, at 7,200 feet, with enough supplies to last 38 days. Dupre, however, is no stranger to adversity or the frozen high-polar universe, through which he has traveled about 15,000 miles, including a kayaking expedition around Greenland and a dog-sled journey across the North Pole.

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