This has become a long, bone-numbing, wearying and dangerous month for Lonnie Dupre, who is attempting to become the first person to solo-climb Alaska's Mt. McKinley, North America's tallest peak, in January.
Dupre spent the seven of the last eight days holed up in a narrow snow cave at 17,200 feet -- McKinley (commonly referred to as Denali, or the "High One") stands at 20,320 feet -- as 50-mph winds raged across the frozen landscape and temperatures reached 40 below.
On Tuesday afternoon, according to expedition manager Tom Surprenant, the climber took advantage of a brief favorable weather window -- a storm cleared and winds had subsided to 25 mph -- and descended to a larger cave that serves as a makeshift camp at 14,200 feet.
"It'd be suicide for him to continue without first coming down to regroup," Surprenant said, adding that Dupre was weakened and will rest for a day or two, rejuvenate his lungs and pick up a dry sleeping bag before attempting what is hoped will be a two-day push to the summit.
Surprenant, who is headquartered in Talkeetna, Alaska, said during a phone interview that Dupre had been experiencing headaches and was in danger of developing mountain sickness and hypothermia because of prolonged exposure to high altitude and frigid temperatures.
In his latest audio report, posted Monday on his website via satellite phone, Dupre said he was growing weary because the air was so thin, and that he was having trouble keeping warm.
"I'm waiting for a window. I can't climb up, and I can't climb down," said the renowned polar explorer from Grand Marais, Minnesota. "I still have a good attitude and I'm fairly optimistic, but there's no let up in this wind."
Denali is dangerous even in the summer because of unpredictable weather and vast crevasse fields. The danger level increases exponentially once winter sets in. Only nine expeditions have reached the summit during the winter; six deaths occurred during those trips.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, only two climbers have stood atop Denali in January: Russians Artur Testof and Vladimir Ananich, who scaled the peak as a team in 1998.
Dupre began his journey Jan. 7 from the Kahiltna Glacier, at 7,200 feet, with enough supplies to last 38 days. He has hauled a sled with an extension that serves as a ladder for crossing crevasses. He has a backpack but no tent; he has dug caves or trenches in which to sleep and escape the elements. He uses a satellite phone to communicate with Surprenant, who said the phone's battery is almost dead.
Another problem with winter climbs on big mountains is that wind and storms can alter the the landscape, so for Dupre, descending to the lower camp on a West Buttress route he marked with bamboo wands could prove extremely dangerous.
Dupre, however, is no stranger to adversity or the frozen high-polar universe, through which he has traveled about 15,000 miles, including a kayaking expedition around Greenland and a dog-sled journey across the North Pole.
Surprenant, however, said the Denali expedition, whether he's successful or not, will go down as one of the hardest things he has ever done.
"To sit in a cave that's minus-5 degrees for seven days and not being able to get out and move around ... it takes a special person both mentally and physically to be able to do that," Surprenant said.
Dupre has only six days to reach the summit before the end of January, but if he makes it a day or two later, Suprenant added, "will not diminish his accomplishment one bit."
It could also be argued that that if Dupre merely survives, at this point, it'll be a remarkable accomplishment.
-- Pete Thomas
-- Images of Lonnie Dupre and one of his snow caves are courtesy of the climber
-- Editor's note: A version of this post appears on the GrindTv.com outdoors blog
-- Twitter: @Pete_Thomas