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Wounded Warriors Set Out to Conquer North America’s Highest Peak

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 1, 2009 – Today marks the start of a monumental challenge for four wounded veterans, their two mentors and one guide, as they move from the base of North America’s highest peak in Alaska’s Denali National Park to the mountain’s base camp at an elevation of 6,850 feet.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Clockwise from top left: Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister, Army Spc. David Shebib, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Nyman and retired Marine Capt. Jonathan Kuniholm are climbing Denali National Park's Mount McKinley in Alaska. Courtesy photos.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, challenges anyone so bold as to try to conquer its peak, some 20,320 feet into the Alaskan sky.

Bob Haines, a firefighter and retired Army sergeant first class, said that regardless of training, Denali demands a lot of anyone. The team has been training since a 12-day glacier climb a year ago.

“The biggest challenge is the extreme weather conditions, cold, and altitude-related illnesses that can occur,” said Haines, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., with his wife, Pam, son, Cody, and three dogs. “High altitude mountaineering is unique in a sense that every day is harder than the last. Your workload increases, and it gets harder and harder to function as you go higher.”

This will be especially true for the wounded veterans who will face not only the usually difficulties, but some others as well.

“Many of the climbers have steel parts, rods, screws and plates [in their bodies]. If not protected, they can sort of freeze from the inside out,” Haines said. “Day-to-day tasks like putting your boots on can be more difficult if you only have one hand, [and] hurricane-force winds can be punishing on scar tissue.

“Cold affects blood flow, [so] if you have extremity injuries, your blood flow is already at a deficit, so that can exacerbate pre-existing conditions,” he added.

Haines, who will serve, by his definition, as the designated pack mule – “You call and I haul” – said he felt as if he was leaving a game in the first quarter when he retired from the military in 2005. This climb is one way he can stay connected to his brothers and sisters who are still taking the fight to the enemy, he said.

But as honored as he is to be a part of the climb, he’s also realistic about it.

“I happened to read a quote this last year while reaching Denali from past trip reports. It goes something like this: ‘You don’t climb a mountain like Denali; you sneak up on it while it has its head turned,’” he said. “Hopefully, we can be sneaky enough and get up and down before ‘The High One’ knows we’re there.”

As the team battles the steep elevation to the high camp at about 17,200 feet, with bone-chilling temperatures that can reach minus 75 degrees Fahrenheit and minus 118 degrees F with the wind factored in, another key player will be right there with them.

Gayle E. Hoffmeister, a mentor on the trip, is married to one of the climbers, Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister. The Social Security Administration employee said the climb holds personal importance for her.

“This last year was also a journey for Marc and myself as a couple,” she said. “After he was wounded, we had to redefine who we were going to be as a couple, [and] a big part of who we are is about the physical activities we do together and the adventures we have participated in as a couple.”

She decided she wasn’t going to let her husband’s injury slow them down. They’d just find ways around it. For instance, he can’t work the shifters and brakes on the left side of his bike, so they switched all the controls to the right side.

“Climbing a mountain is just like navigating the challenges in life,” she said. “From a distance, it can look overwhelming, scarring and sometimes dangerous.

“You can’t see a clear route,” she continued, “but as you take the steps and start to approach it, it starts to look different and negotiable, and you soon find yourself moving forward.”

Denali’s status as the tallest mountain in North America presents one of the biggest challenges this group will have to overcome, both mentally and physically, Hoffmeister said.

Tied to a rope and alone with their thoughts, climbers have a lot of time to come to terms with things, she said. It’s a great time to reflect, cry, get angry and overcome.

As for the physical aspect, part of that is making sure everyone is taking care of themselves and carrying spare prosthetics in case they’re needed. It also means they may have to move at a slower pace to mitigate individual risks.

While that role will be shared among the team members, it also will be part of Kirby Senden’s responsibility.

Senden is the team’s lead guide. He’ll do the cooking, melt snow for drinking water, tell jokes and help to establish camps. Most importantly however, he’ll look out for the team’s overall health and safety.

The climb will demand patience and strong minds as it tests the climbers’ character as much as their physical stamina.

“It is important for me to participate, because this climb will be a unique experience for all of us,” Senden said. “Climbing Denali is always a unique experience; however, the people and their character makes or breaks a trip.

“This group has an unbelievable amount of pride, determination and motivation like I have never seen before,” he added. “Knowing what these folks have been through already, they should not only rise to the occasion but, I feel like they will exceed beyond any limitations.”

Regardless of whether the group reaches only the 14,000-foot mark or makes it to the summit, Senden said, it will be an awesome achievement.

“They are breaking ground with their physical challenges,” he said. “They are a real inspiration, and I can’t wait to melt some snow in their honor.”

The team will begin climbing the west buttress of the mountain today as they fly to the base camp, an elevation of 6,850 feet. Once there, they’ll spend the second day organizing, acclimating and reviewing glacier travel and crevasse rescue.

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Operation Denali - Man vs. Mountain

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