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Lonnie Dupre: Reaching for the top

Mount McKinley in Alaska towers 20,320 feet above sea level, the highest peak in North America. Nobody has ever climbed the huge rock in a solo effort in the month of January. Nobody.

Then along came 49 year-old Lonnie Dupre, born on a farm in Minnesota, a decedent on his mother's side from Jacques Cartier, the French explorer and founder of Quebec. As a kid, Dupre wandered the woods of Minnesota and wondered how far north went. Then shortly after high school, he got in an old beat up pickup and headed for Alaska to find out for himself. For a time, he made a living as a commercial fisherman and carpenter, but always he was exploring. He spent over 25 years exploring the Arctic -- by dog team, kayak, snowshoes, skis and on foot.

Dupre has organized or participated in six major Arctic expeditions. One journey was the first to reach the North Pole by canoe in the summer through shifting sea ice to tell the world what could be seen on the issue of global warming. His photos, articles, books and lectures on his expeditions have been translated into Danish, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese and Spanish and have been followed around the world. When Dupre isn't freezing his whiskers in the Arctic, he has made his home in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

So it was natural that Lonnie Dupre would decide to attempt to climb Mount McKinley alone in January, the most treacherous month of the year. He started his climb on January 7th at 7,200 feet and ascended 10,000 feet to 17,200 feet, then was pinned down by winds of up to 100 mph. He spent hours of heavy digging creating snow trenches in caves rather than sleeping in a tent because the winds would have ripped the tent away. He said, "You either dig or you die." He stayed in his little trench and cave for five days and six nights. Then, just to keep his vibrations humming during that time, there was a 5.4 magnitude earthquake about 30 miles away. He suffered two frostbitten, blistered fingers, lost 15 pounds (he stands only 5' 4" tall) and his sleeping bag that only weighed seven pounds at the start, weighed 15 pounds at the end of those days because of perspiration that condensed and froze as he slept.

When the winds settled down, Dupre had a painful decision to make. The weather forecast called for only a short break before more brutal winds swept the mountainside. From 17,200 feet the remaining 3,000 feet to the peak and back to 17,200 feet takes a 12-hour day during the summer. Much of the climb would be in darkness. Six climbers had died on that mountain during winter climbs. The uphill climb is most exhausting with limited oxygen and, by that time, nearly depleted supplies. Finally, after struggling with his options, Dupre decided to come down after 22 days of struggle without reaching the top. Even the descent was treacherous. Now he's nearly 50 years old and doesn't think he'll get another chance.

So the question is whether Dupre is a failure. Did they call Amelia Earhart a failure when she disappeared in 1937 attempting to be the first woman to fly solo around the world? The view from down here at the bottom of the mountain is that Earhart and Dupre would have been failures if they hadn't tried. From the comfort and safety of ground level, it's easy to ask what the point of flying around the world or climbing a mountain is anyway, other than, as earlier climbers have said, "Because it's there." Are these efforts genuine exploration or just stunts with no greater objective than glory and publicity? That's the sort of question people have been asking ever since Christopher Columbus, Richard Byrd, Robert Peary, Carl Ben Eielson, Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn have made their marks. Theodore Roosevelt had an opinion on that subject:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Who am I to argue with Theodore Roosevelt? I say, hats off to Lonnie Dupre for a brave effort.