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Punishing weather halts Grand Marais climber

Lonnie Dupre of Grand Marais took this self-portrait at about 10,000 feet on Mount McKinley on Jan. 11. Severe cold and wind has forced Dupre to remain at his current location, 17,200 feet, for the past six days in his quest for an unprecedented solo January climb of McKinley.

Grand Marais climber Lonnie Dupre has decided to postpone an attempt to reach the summit of Alaska's Mount McKinley and will instead drop back to a lower camp if weather conditions allow it.

Dupre has been pinned down for six days at 17,200 feet in his bid to become the first solo climber to summit the 20,320-foot peak in January. A low-pressure system with winds of 100 mph has prevented him from leaving the cramped snow trench he dug when he arrived at the spot last week.

In his audio update Monday afternoon, Dupre said if he gets a break in the weather today or Wednesday, he plans to go back down to his camp at 14,200 feet. He wants to regroup and decide whether to make an attempt at the summit later.

His snow trench measures just 3 feet by 3 feet by 6½ feet, he said.

"I'm trying to locate new places to go to the bathroom in here," he said.

The temperature inside the snow trench was 5 below zero on Monday afternoon. Dupre said he is having trouble keeping his feet warm.

He said sleeping for six nights at 17,200 feet may be causing him some "brain drain," which is part of the reason he wants to return to 14,200 feet, where there is more oxygen in the air.

At 17,200 feet, there is just 54 percent of the oxygen as at sea level, according to expedition manager Tom Suprenant, based in Talkeetna, Alaska. Staying at that altitude increases the chances of acute mountain sickness.

The storm isn't the only force Dupre has had to deal with. Saturday evening, his survival trench was rocked by an earthquake of 5.4 magnitude, Suprenant said.

"He thought he was going to be buried alive," said Suprenant, also of Grand Marais, who communicates with Dupre by satellite phone once a day.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that a 5.4-magnitude earthquake occurred at 5:50 p.m. Alaska time Saturday evening at Kantishna, Alaska, about 30 miles from Dupre's location. The quake did no damage to Dupre's snow shelter but may have changed the landscape elsewhere on the mountain, North America's highest peak. That may affect Dupre's return trip.

"There could be crevasses where there weren't crevasses before," Suprenant said. "Or there could have been avalanches."

Dupre has 10 days of food remaining at his current location. He brought several days of food with him to 17,200 feet. Once there, he dug out a five-day supply of food he had cached at that elevation during his first climb of Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, in June 2010. He also found a gallon of stove fuel in that cache.

"That's the lifesaver from the fuel standpoint," Suprenant said.

Severe cold and wind

Conditions are harsh. Dupre has told Suprenant that overnight temperatures are 45 below zero and daily highs about 20 below.

Dupre estimated the winds at 80 mph. A veteran pilot, Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air, checks with the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks, Alaska, daily and told Suprenant the winds high on Mount McKinley are reaching 100 miles per hour.

The wind erodes the loose snow between the hard snowblocks that form the roof of Dupre's snow trench, Suprenant said.

"Every morning, he's covered in an inch of spindrift (powder snow)," Suprenant said.

He's only been out of the trench once in six days.

"Those conditions, as harsh and extreme as they are, are relatively normal and not unexpected on Denali, not only for winter but for any season," said Eric Larsen, who has climbed Denali and also accompanied Dupre to the North Pole.

Larsen, of Boulder, Colo., thinks condensation may be a worsening problem for Dupre.

"I think the big problem he has is being able to dry out," Larsen said. "That comes from not having a tent and being able to run the stove. I think that's a limiting factor in staying up there for an extended time to wait out the storm. Ice builds up in your clothes and sleeping bag. You can't run the stove enough to dry all those things out."

The snow trench does not allow enough room for Dupre to sit up. He lies in his sleeping bag and cooks over a small campstove. He left a second sleeping bag along with much of his gear at 14,200 feet, below the West Buttress, Suprenant said.

"He's constantly trying to stay warm," Suprenant said.

The current storm is expected to continue for two more days, Suprenant said at mid-morning Monday.

Monday was Day 18 of Dupre's climb, which began Jan. 7 at 7,200 feet elevation.

Communication reduced

to minimum

Dupre's satellite-phone battery power is waning, so he and Suprenant communicate just once a day. Those phone calls are the only way Dupre can get the latest weather forecasts for the upper reaches of the mountain.

"We have probably three days left for (phone) communication," Suprenant said. "Once we lose communication, it's just going to be his instinct on when to move. We do have a SPOT (satellite-oriented) beacon with programmable buttons. One is 'OK.' Another is 'summit.' Another is 'descent.' So, I'd at least know he's alive."

Dupre, carpenter by trade, has been in challenging situations many times in his extensive Arctic travels. He has circumnavigated Greenland by kayak and dogsled, sometimes suspending himself upside down from a vertically propped dogsled to relieve his back pain. Twice he has skied and pulled a sled from northern Canada to the North Pole.

Living for an extended period at high elevation takes a toll on a climber, Suprenant said.

"You get lethargic," he said. "You lose your appetite. You have to force yourself to eat. You can get in trouble that way. And the mental state -- you have to be a strong person to be there for six days."

Dupre is an affable, positive person.

"Lonnie is a glass-half-full optimist," Suprenant said. "But I sense some anxiousness in his voice. I think after six days, you do a lot of thinking."

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