Solo Summiting the Highest Peak in North America

Lonnie Dupre
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Lonnie Dupre huddled alone in a self-made snow cave at 11,200 feet on the Western Buttress of Denali for nearly a week. One hundred mile-per-hour hour winds and snow battered his trench and howled like a freight train. It was early January and the sun appeared for only six hours a day. Temperatures reached a bone-chilling 60 degrees below Fahrenheit. Dupre remained in his sleeping bag upwards of 19 hours a day to conserve energy. He knew that when the storm passed, he needed to be ready for his next move toward the summit.

“There’s nothing worse than having to stay put, especially when you have 18 hours of darkness every evening,” said 53-year Dupre in an audio recording while on the mountain. “It makes for very long nights.”

This was not uncharted territory for the Grand Marais-based Arctic explorer. Indeed, three times previously he attempted to climb North America’s highest peak, most recently in 2013 when weather forced him to turn back just hours from the summit.

“I hate quitting,” he told me. “I’m like a dog on a bone—I want to finish and have a clean slate to start a new project from.”

Dupre returned to Alaska in late 2014 to take another crack at the 20,321-foot ice-laden massif. In addition to the time of year he chose to tackle the mountain, the fact that he’d be doing it all by himself made his expedition particularly unique.

Along with him, he brought eight-foot long homemade skis built with yellow birch from his homeland in northeastern Minnesota. These allowed him to safely pass over fissures and crevasses underfoot. Behind him he towed a 165-pound sled with equipment and necessary provisions. When he reached the higher elevations and steeper terrain, he loaded it all on his back and climbed upwards.

Lonnie Dupre

After being stuck at 11,200 feet, the weather eventually cleared and he was able to again make progress towards the summit, methodically taxiing supplies up the mountain and then returning to where he started. Carrying 175 bamboo wands, he marked his route as he ascended and descended, noting gut-wrenching crevasses and harrowing drop-offs.

In the late afternoon of January 11, he dug his crampons into the icy rock and took his final steps to the summit, making him the first solo climber to summit Denali in January.

While Minnesota might not be the first place you’d expect a world-class mountaineer to hail from, Dupre says his upbringing uniquely prepared him for these types of expeditions.

Raised on a small sweetcorn farm in Hugo, his sense of adventure and awe of the natural world developed at an early age.

“My folks allowed me to explore and run wild, and my grandfather took me ice fishing,” he told me.

His first expedition in 1991-1992 brought him to the Arctic where he successfully traveled 3,000 miles, crossing the Northwest Passage by dog team. Later that decade, he completed a 6,500-mile circumnavigation of Greenland, traveling by kayak and dog team. He has also twice led expeditions to the North Pole.

In the midst of his globetrotting Arctic adventures, he founded One World Endeavors. Through his organization, he is working to address climate change of which he has seen firsthand in the frozen places he treads. In addition to his expeditions, he regularly gives presentations and works to serve as a support to legislators and environmental organizations who share many of the same goals. At its core, One World Endeavors is working to get people out in the great outdoors in hopes of inspiring a commitment to keep our planet healthy and vibrant.

As for Dupre’s reasons for plotting all of his expeditions and environmental advocacy work from a home base in northern Minnesota, he puts it simply, saying: “It’s still the true wilderness to our north. I could ski to the North Pole from my cabin and only cross two major roads in Canada to get there.”

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