On Wednesday, a small mountain of gear sat pushed into a corner of the Talkeetna Air Taxi offices. The supplies will sustain Dupre for over a month. Each item could mean the difference between life and death.
The gear included a daily food supply precisely measured into Ziploc bags, with freeze-dried bacon mixed with dried cranberries; crunchy rye crackers; protein power drink mixes; Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut candy bars; a customized ladder to safely cross crevasses; an anorak with wolverine ruff and polar bibs warm enough to withstand the temperatures he’s likely to encounter on the upper reaches of the mountain in January; a compact assortment of satellite phones; ice axes; and 250 bamboo poles to mark his route in the snow.
Dupre has been there before.
In his January of 2011 attempt, he made it to 17,000 feet before a storm bearing 100 mph winds forced him into a snow trench. He remained in a snow trench 3 by 3 by 6 feet long for a week, passing days by mending holes in his jacket, melting water for snow and sleeping. All the while, he knew he was in sight of the summit.
Finally, exhaustion, muscle atrophy and dwindling supplies forced him to retreat.
“My margin of safety was as thin as I would allow it,” he says.
Almost as soon as he’d descended and enjoyed his “three-hour” shower and green salad, he decided to try again.
He begins this year’s climb with a few new milestones: Since his last attempt ended on Jan. 25, the explorer has turned 50 and become a grandfather.
Dupre has been traveling the “cold, windy and dark” places of the earth for the past 25 years, a career as a modern-day polar explorer first kindled by a youthful trip to Alaska.
As a young man growing up in the backwoods of northern Minnesota, Dupre developed a fascination with the far north. After a summer of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, he spent a cold season living off the land in the Brooks Range and found himself hooked on punishing Arctic winters.
That was the 1980s. Since then, he’s circumnavigated the whole of Greenland by dogsled and kayak, mushed the Bering Sea between Siberia and Nome, become the first to traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage by dog team and skied from Canada to the North Pole -- twice enduring temperatures of 56 below along the way. He’s written two books (the newest, “Life on Ice,” will be released during his time on the mountain), appeared on National Geographic and Discovery Channel shows and documentaries and won international awards.
In that time, Dupre's had a few close calls. Once he spent a week stranded on a drifting ice floe before helicopters could pick him up. And his maiden foray into the Alaskan wilderness, in the Brooks Range, ended with him walking 35 miles “near death” to the village of Allakaket where a local elder gave him run of the village elementary school kitchen. He opened a cabinet, spotted a large bag of shredded coconut and ate it in gulps.
Still, he says, Denali is a different beast.
Only 16 people have ever summited Denali in winter, including one team of three Russian climbers who summited in January. But no solo climber has done it.
Above 17,000 feet, where air contains half the oxygen found at sea level, a rescue is unlikely. The unforgiving nature of the climb is one reason he’s going solo.
“I wouldn’t want to risk anybody else’s life on the project,” Dupre said.
January sees less precipitation and fewer storms than other winter months, which Dupre calls good for climbing and travel. The darkness gives him just a five-to-six hour window each day to travel. But with the right food, clothing, gear and plan, he says, it’s “like grabbing your briefcase and going to work.”
He’s looking forward to the quality of light that winter brings to the mountain, and the rarity of the view.
“The only thing that derails me, as most expeditions up on Denali, is weather,” Dupre said. “And of course you have no control of that.”
But it’s a love for -- or even an obsession with -- the unknown, he says, that sends explorers to some of the loneliest, most beautiful places on earth.
You can keep up with Lonnie at his website, lonniedupre.com.