Polar Explorer Attempting January Denali Summit Again

Polar explorer Lonnie Dupre is attempting a Denali summit in JanuaryThere are two things you can say with certainty about polar explorer Lonnie Dupre. The man is certainly persistent in his pursuits and he has an undeniable affinity for the cold places of our planet. For the third straight year, Dupre has ventured to Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley) in Alaska to attempt a solo summit of the mountain in January – the coldest, darkest and harshest time of year on that unforgiving peak.

With a height of 20,320 feet, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America and a difficult climb under the best of conditions. Only 16 climbers have ever managed to reach its summit during the winter and none were able to accomplish that feat in January when temperatures routinely fall below -60°F and high winds pummel the mountain’s upper slopes. As if those conditions weren’t difficult enough, blizzards can rage for days, depositing heavy snow across the mountain and creating potentially deadly avalanches as well. In short, it is pretty much one of the most inhospitable places on the planet at the moment.

Dupre, who has visited the North Pole on two separate occasions and navigated the length of the Northwest Passage by dogsled, is clearly unphased by these challenges. As in years past, he is climbing with just the bare essential gear and supplies in an attempt to move as fast as possible. He hasn’t even bothered to bring a tent on the expedition choosing instead to dig a series of snow caves that he can use for shelter at various altitudes.Thus far the weather has been less than cooperative once again this season and Dupre spent the better part of the month waiting in the small town of Talkeetna for the skies to clear. Eventually conditions improved just enough for him to catch a flight out to the Kahiltna Glacier. From there, he was able to organize his gear and start the two-day trek to Base Camp, but so far he hasn’t been able to climb any higher than 8800 feet. A heavy storm has fallen across the region and according to Dupre’s support team at home, more than 7 feet of snow has fallen on his position in the past few days. That has made it impossible for him to climb any higher, as visibility as been reduced to almost nothing.

For now, our intrepid climber sits and waits for conditions to improve to see if he can actually make a serious attempt at the summit. In 2011 he was able to get as high as 17,200 feet and last year he reached 15,400 feet before being forced to turn back. Perhaps this time he is getting the bad weather out of the way early and it will clear up later in the month. Temperatures haven’t been nearly as bad as they were on his previous attempts either, so that is a promising sign for possible success should the snow ever stop falling.

Dupre is documenting his climb with the hopes of making a film about his adventure. But rather than wait for that film to be released down the line, you can follow his progress on his website now.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]


20130108.lonniedupre.interview from Lonnie Dupre on Vimeo.

Only in Alaska: Flight-seeing Mt. McKinley

Yesterday we wrote about the tallest mountain in the world: Mt. McKinley (better known as “Denali”). Now, how to view this mighty peak? If you want to see the summit, you have two options: One, you could climb the mountain. But if the training and heights and gear and time are a bit too much for you, then consider a second option: a flight tour.

In both Denali Park (the village just outside the national park that houses all the visitor services) and the small town of Talkeetna, which serves as the base for all climbers making summit attempts, flight tour operators abound. You’ll have several options to choose from when deciding on a tour. Some will not only buzz the summit, but also land on one of the mountain’s many glaciers. If you want to get really adventurous, you could try a helicopter tour; many of these also include glacier landings.

On my recent tour of Alaska, I signed up for a basic summit viewing flight tour through Denali Air. The ten-seater propeller Piper was much, much smaller than any plane I’ve ever been on, and the turbulence on take-off and landing was palpable. We all wore headsets with microphones, and, once we hit 12,000 feet, oxygen masks. The unpressurized cabin also required heat, and the pilot cranked it up (the temperature outside was around 25F below zero).

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The pilot flew us within a mile or two of the summit, though we felt like we were only a few hundred feet away. Besides pointing out the West Buttress and the Wickersham Wall, he also showed us the 14,000ft base camp – a minuscule smattering of several dozen tents.

A flight tour of Denali doesn’t come cheap, but it’s hard to put a price on circling the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. You can expect to pay several hundred dollars for a two-hour tour, and even more for options like a glacier landing. It doesn’t matter whether you fly out of the park or Talkeetna; the summit looks the same no matter which direction you fly in from. Pop a Dramamine if you suffer from motion sickness, and don’t forget your camera!

My trip through Alaska was sponsored by Princess Cruises, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are all my own.

Only in Alaska: The tallest mountain in the world

Can you name the tallest mountain in the world? Did Mt. Everest just pop into your head? If so, you’re close – but not totally correct.

Mt. Everest, at 29,029ft, is the highest mountain in the world. But Everest’s base is way up on the Tibetan Plateau at 17,000 feet. So although this mountain reaches an elevation higher than any other on the planet, its base-to-summit height is actually closer to 12,000 feet.

If we measure from base to summit, Alaska’s Mt. McKinley (known locally by its native name Denali, or “the high one”), is the tallest mountain in the world. (Caveat: the folks in Hawaii might take issue with this, as Mauna Kea stretches over six miles, though only 13,796 feet of those are above water.)

But Denali’s base sits near 2,000 feet, giving this mountain a rise of 18,000 feet. In fact, Denali has an entire wall that stretches longer than many mountains at 13,652 feet. Wickersham Wall, as its called, is one continuous drop – and yes, people have skied it. Crazy people. Another fun fact about Denali is that it actually has two summits. The South Summit is the taller of the two, and naturally the one most climbed. The North Summit is no shorty at 19,470 feet, but is often ignored by those collecting peaks. When it comes to conquering mountains, elevation definitely matters.When it comes to seeing the tallest mountain in the world, North Americans are in luck. The peak can be viewed from afar in Anchorage, Alaska, the biggest city in the state. The best accessible views, however, are out of Talkeetna, a small town about a two-hour drive from Anchorage. This tiny town also serves as the base for the climbers who come to make summit attempts on Denali, so you can chat up those folks with crazy sunglasses tan lines about their experiences.

Coming up next: flight-seeing Mt. McKinley.

Adventure travel Alaska style: Glacier flying

If you’ve ever wanted to see Alaska’s beauty, but had no interest in hunting or fishing or if you think a cruise just isn’t thrilling enough, maybe you should consider a little glacier flying.

Having grown up in Alaska, I’ve always told my visiting friends that the airplane was the only way to unlock the most spectacular sights in the state. Sure, you can drive less than fifty miles from Anchorage to view the Portage glacier from a distance, but a helicopter or airplane tour is something you’ll never forget.

To get an idea what glacier flying is all about, just take a quick ride with Jerry Kallam, a pilot out of Palmer who’s about to take off from the Knik glacier. Strap into his Piper Super Cub by hitting play below. He’ll give you just enough time to fasten your seatbelt before starting the engine:

If simply landing on a glacier isn’t exciting enough, Matthew Keller of Blue Ice Aviation will fly you out for some glacier biking. Matthew claims it’s like mountain biking in Moab, Utah, even though the mountain you’re crossing is actually a glacier. He’ll provide the bikes and the experience includes much of the same views that Jerry captured above.

The other option might be a bit more tame and family friendly. Take the Alaska Railroad up to Talkeetna, where you’ll have an assortment of air taxis willing to land you and a few friends on a glacier, with some even offering a dog sled trip.

My wife and I did this years ago with Era Helicopters, and they even provided a crab lunch right next to the glacier. Think of it as adventure travel without the ice picks and crampons.

For those of you committed to a cruise up the inside passage, you can still get a bit of fresh air as well. Era and Temsco Helicopters both fly glacier tours out of Juneau and Skagway that are often offered through the cruise lines.

Afterward, you can rest assured that you’ve gone above and beyond what the average Alaska tourist or resident has experienced. To really see 99% of Alaska, you’ll absolutely need to leave the roads behind.

Kent Wien writes The Cockpit Chronicles for Gadling. If flying between glaciers isn’t for you, then come along with Kent as he takes you behind the scenes of airline travel, as seen from the pointy-end.