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Q&A: Operation Denali

This May, Army Lt. Colonel Marc Hoffmeister and three other soldiers wounded in Iraq won't let their injuries stop them from tackling Mt. McKinley. We caught up with Hoffmeister just before the big climb to get the lowdown on Operation Denali.

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When a roadside bomb ripped through Lt. Colonel Marc Hoffmeister’s Humvee in Iraq in 2007, he lost more than the use of his left arm and hand: His dreams of conquering America’s highest mountain were shattered. But with only about half of his arm muscle and a titanium rod where his bone used to be, he resolved to summit McKinley, anyway—and to bring other wounded soldiers along with him.

Operation Denali was born. Hoffmeister recruited three other wounded warriors and two support climbers (including his wife Gayle) to join him in the year-long training process to climb Mt. McKinley. Now, less than two months from his Mountain Hardwear-sponsored climb, Hoffmeister and his team are preparing to crush the summit, their physical limitations, and their own self-doubt.‘s Morgan Keys spoke to Hoffmeister about his surprising inspiration, tricked-out gear, and the guilty pleasure he’s packing along for the trip.

BACKPACKER: When you returned injured from Iraq, what inspired you to tackle Mt. McKinley, especially in the face of added challenges from your wounds?

Marc Hoffmeister: Because my wife told me she was doing it with or without me. [laughs] That’s the honest truth. That was the initial slap in the face to get me moving beyond what my perceived limits were after being wounded. We moved up to Alaska in 2005 and [climbing McKinley] was one of those big goals. When I got wounded, that flew out the window—at least, in my mind I wasn’t even considering it. But my wife had a different idea, and I couldn’t fathom the concept of her climbing the mountain without me.

This isn’t your first rodeo—you had a passion for outdoor sports before your injuries, and you’ve led adventure racing teams. What’s the combined mountaineering experience level of your team?

I’ve done a little bit of glacial stuff before I got up here, in Rainier and some winter climbs in the fourteeners. (As for my teammates), I wasn’t looking for people who were experienced mountaineers—I was looking for people who had a void to fill, people who needed a goal, something to drive towards and get them out of the funk that will accompany you when you’re in the depth of recovery. These guys I picked, they had some outdoor experience, some passion for climbing.

I went through a couple of different forums. I pushed out some bulk e-mails [through the Army Wounded Warrior Program at Walter Reed] and started getting inundated with answers. It was incredible. I was getting all kinds of guys, one with no backcountry experience, never climbed anything, had no arms and saying, “I’ll climb.”

I had to draw the line somewhere in there. I also had a Special Forces guy who was a very trained and experienced mountaineer—[he] had climbed several of the big mountains. [But] I didn’t want to go that way, because he’s already tasted it.

Four of the six members of your team have mobility-inhibiting injuries, which seems like a liability on such a dangerous mountain. Do you guys have any tricked-out gear that will help get you reach the peak?

We’re working on some still but we’ve made some small modifications [to existing gear], some relatively simple things. Black Diamond just came out with their nForce Ascender, and the beauty of the mechanism is it’s a lot easier to manipulate one-handed or with one hand in a hook. So I’ll be using one of those and Jon, our arm amputee, will be too. Our leg amputee, Matt, has a modification to his leg prosthetic where essentially it’s just an attachable crampon.

We had some pretty interesting experiences in the mountaineering course. The retaining clip on [Jon’s] hook snapped. He was 500 feet up on a 5.9 climb and down comes his hook. So he’s made some modifications and built an arm that’s relatively specific to the climb. Hopefully we’ll get the mods done in time and they’ll be fully equipped and ready to rock.

What’s the hardest part about climbing now, post-injuries?

I feel pretty lucky because my arm has progressed to the point where I can do pretty much everything I need to do and my mind has adapted to where those concern areas are. In other words, if I take a fall, that arm will not move out. If I can’t get a pit zip done, it’s automatic—I point to Gayle and she does my pit zip, something as simple as that.

The most intimidating part is the cold up here, because most of us have a compromised circulatory system to some degree. It’ll be a team effort to make sure we’re all tracking each other’s mental state and our disposition in the cold.

Going through the process of training and climbing that is Operation Denali, have your eyes been opened to doing anything else you may have thought impossible?

I’ve never thought anything was impossible. But yes, absolutely. We’re even in tentative discussions of how we can make this opportunity available to other wounded warriors in the future. I think we’re maybe going to try to pull something out and maybe do Aconcagua in around 2011 in a similar process.

There’s a lot of incredible programs out there now [that] take a wounded soldier fishing, or take them on a bike ride—[veterans get to] do all of these really cool things. And they’re great, but they’re really temporal. The guy gets a weekend away from the stress at the hospital or his mind gets taken off of the pain he deals with everyday. But then the weekend’s gone. With this, it’s a year-long journey: It’s not necessarily about the summit, it’s about the process we’ve taken to get there.

Most climbers bring a guilty pleasure with them on a climb—a good book, a small cache of chocolate, something like that. What’s yours?

I’m bringing my wife. [laughs] That’s the only reason she’s coming, so I can stay warm. That’s not true…but there are benefits.

To read more about the climb, donate to their cause, or track their progress, check out Operation Denali here.

—Morgan Keys

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