The elusive summit

May 11, 2012

‘Fear regret, not failure’, is a Nordic expression that has often sustained American explorer and 2004 Rolex Laureate Lonnie Dupre, who abandoned his second attempt to become the first person to scale North America’s highest peak Denali, alone, in January this year.

The final seven days of Dupre’s 16-day expedition were spent holed up in a snow cave, two days short of the 6,193-metre Alaskan summit, also known as Mount McKinley.

As with 2011, Dupre cut short the climb amid extreme conditions – low visibility and 156 km/h winds; only his pickaxe and crampons stopped him from blowing away. In part, however, the expedition’s goals were realized. Stashed inside his kit were rock samples for scientists at the University of Arizona who are seeking to understand how climate change affects microbial life in extreme environments.

Denali’s summit remains elusive, at least for now. Becoming stuck at high camp with limited fuel and rations was not an option to the adventurer, whose survival throughout his 25-year career is in part attributable to his ability to know when to turn back.

“Safety comes from knowledge and thorough planning,” says Dupre. “One thing explorers used to be able to do was ‘read the weather’ – and knowledge of climate is what keeps you alive. We no longer have stable weather on this planet, which will make it difficult for future expeditions, winter or not. Perhaps the conclusion to draw is that Denali is no longer meant to be climbed in winter.”

A novel experience

Dupre’s expeditions are documented in a graphic memoir published in 2011 between his first and second attempts to scale Denali. Life on Ice recalls 25 years of polar exploration, including the world’s first circumnavigation of Greenland. It also gives an account of the ‘One World Expedition’, the summer excursion to the North Pole, which focused attention on the Arctic’s vanishing ice cap. In 2004, Dupre was named one of five Laureates in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and was able to use his prize to fund part of the expedition.

“Looking back, it was probably my most successful expedition in terms of raising public awareness about climate change,” says Dupre. “The award gave One World a huge media jumpstart and provided a third of our budget. We estimated we reached 68 million people through television, radio and print media.”

It was when he fell and broke his leg – ironically at his home in Minnesota between expeditions – that Dupre turned to the stacks of hand-written journals that he had kept since embarking on his first adventure, a snowshoe expedition in Alaska in 1985.

“Stuck in that wheelchair, I took the opportunity to write up my career. The process took 10 years. Each expedition was a story in itself. Early on, I’d got into the habit of recording my thoughts at the end of the day. Some evenings, I was so exhausted that it might be no more than a bullet point, something to trigger a memory – ice covering a puddle, hinting at winter’s approach; the discovery of a new ‘delicacy’, noodles made from seal intestine; the sight of a tusked narwhal surfacing against an overcast sky.”

Deeper passages reveal Dupre’s frustration at the world’s slowness to unite to create a healthy planet, moments of despair at having failed to detect the source of an illness that claimed the lives of several loyal husky sled dogs, and the terror of being pitted against a wild polar bear. The creature he had gone to the Arctic to protect was ultimately slain in an act of self-defence.

“It was immediately shocking and I was instantly reminded of how thin lives are,” Dupre says. “There were other instances when I felt we also cheated death. We were never as vulnerable as when we were at sea in our kayaks circumnavigating Greenland. But I will always consider myself fortunate – to have been born into a good part of the world that presented so many opportunities.”

The next chapter

For Dupre, the months ahead will be spent around Minnesota, where in his spare time he designs and builds small, efficient homes for young families in need of affordable housing. Occasionally they admit surprise when they learn of their builder’s alter ego. In between, there will be book tours, lectures and plans for another expedition, possibly husky-powered.

“I need to be careful about what I do next. I turned 50 recently and it occurred to me that whatever I do, it’s five years of my life. I would never discourage anyone young from becoming an explorer. There are fjords and jungles waiting to be discovered and we can’t only tune into the needs of the environment when times are good. I want to use adventure to capture the world’s imagination, to highlight climate change. I’m not about to slow down. Perhaps Life on Ice should have been prefaced ‘my first’ 25 years of Arctic exploration!”

The book can be purchased autographed from LonnieDupre.com, otherwise it is available on Amazon.
By Sue Neilen

Learn more about Lonnie Dupre

“One thing explorers used to be able to do was 'read the weather' – and knowledge of climate is what keeps you alive. We no longer have stable weather on this planet, which will make it difficult for future expeditions.”

Lonnie Dupre

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