Wounded Warriors Summit Mount McKinley
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 24, 2009 When four of the seven-member Team Denali, which included four wounded veterans, reached the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park, what should have been celebratory whoops and hollers was instead a quiet, tempered satisfaction, the team’s leaders said.
Though the weather was perfect when Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister and Army Spc. Dave Shebib approached the highest point in North America, they enjoyed it without three of their team members.
"The summit was almost anti-climactic to be honest," Hoffmeister said. "It was great, but it was bittersweet that we could only have half the team [reach the summit]."
Marine Capt. Jon Kuniholm, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Nyman, and Gayle Hoffmeister, Hoffmeister’s wife and one of the team’s two mentors, all had cause to return to lower altitudes during the ascent.
Kuniholm, who lost his right arm while serving in Iraq, had reached about 14,000 feet when he started showing early signs of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Based on a doctor’s advice, he was taken back down the mountain.
Nyman, who lost his right leg below the knee while serving in Iraq, made it to 16,000 feet with no problem, Hoffmeister said. But when the team set up camp at 17,200 feet, his oxygen saturation plummeted. “It dropped to 50, which is dangerously low,” Hoffmeister said. “We ended up putting him on oxygen.”
When Nyman didn’t recover overnight, he was taken back down to 14,200 feet, where he remained on oxygen for about four days.
Gayle advanced with the remaining team members as far as Denali Pass at about 18,000 feet -- some 2,300 feet shy of Mount McKinley’s summit -- when Hoffmeister realized his wife was showing signs of mild hypothermia. She had a patch of frostbite spreading across her cheek, and she wasn’t responding normally, he said.
They returned to the camp at 17,000 feet to get her warm again.
“She had four toes that were potentially frostbitten, so we went through a re-warming process that day and night,” Hoffmeister said. “And policy is if you re-warm a frostbite injury, you go down. You don’t go up.”
None of the situations that kept the two veterans from ascending to the summit with the rest of the team had anything to do with their previous injuries, he noted.
“It was just altitude stuff,” Hoffmeister said. “Just like I said before we even climbed: you don’t know what your predisposition to altitude is until you’re on [the mountain.] And frostbite, that’s just a product of weather.”
Hoffmeister and Shebib, along with their guide, Kirby Senden, and second mentor Bob Haines, continued, and they reached the summit June 16. The weather was perfect until just before they reached the summit, which Hoffmeister described as awesome.
“We got up on Summit Ridge and had clear skies and could see forever,” he said. “Then of course, 15, 20 minutes before we hit the summit, a squall rolled in and we … could see absolutely nothing.”
Minus three of their teammates to witness the momentous occasion, they quickly did what they set out to do. They conducted Shebib‘s re-enlistment before heading back down to 17,000 feet.
Though he’s pleased with the overall results, Hoffmeister said, it would have been a personal high for him if the whole team had made it to the summit.
“The entire trip was a high,” he said. “Not having John or Matt make it, and the frustration of Gayle not being able to make it, really dampened a lot of that, but I guess it took the entire team to get to the summit.”
Kuniholm was pleased with his climb, as well.
“This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do, and I’m still processing the fact that it remains, for me, unfinished business,” he said. “I was elated to have passed what I thought would be the most technically challenging part for me, the fixed ropes [used to ascend from 14,000 feet to 16,000 feet].”
While the fixed lines may have caused him some unwarranted angst, he said, it ultimately was the tasks that he used to consider easy that were difficult on the mountain.
“Getting dressed in the morning in a tent with another amputee … was [difficult],” Kuniholm said. “Going through the necessary drills of shedding and donning layers of clothing and my pack on short breaks -- these were big challenges, and I hadn’t given them a thought before the climb.
“And the challenge for the team became sitting there while I got it done,” he continued, “because doing it for me doesn’t help me learn to do it faster.”
Kuniholm said he thought the biggest challenge for the group as a whole was dealing with everyone’s individual limitations, physical and otherwise. But they did a pretty good job of keeping things on an even keel despite those differences, he said.
Even given the challenges and frustrations, the team members were positive when asked if they’d ever tackle something like this again.
“Absolutely, although I’m not sure when another opportunity like this will present itself,” Kuniholm said. “Marc Hoffmeister worked very hard to make this happen, with the help of our sponsors, [Military Order of the Purple Heart], Mountain Hard Wear, and many others.
“In all honesty, that was probably the part of all of this that is least likely to happen again -- not the physical part,” he added.
Hoffmeister’s enthusiasm about another climb was nothing short of unbridled.
“Hell, yes!” he said. “I’d do it tomorrow. I mean, let me go!”
Hoffmeister has an offer to climb Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, in November. In February, he will attempt to climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.