Photo: Marc Hoffmeister

Photograph by Matt Hage

By David Roberts

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It was April 2007. Serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq, Hoffmeister, then 37 years old, was riding in an Army Humvee. The troops were on patrol outside Al Hillah when an IED tore their vehicle to shreds. “I knew I was badly hurt,” Hoffmeister says today. “I was staring through a large hole in my left arm. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t hear.” Hoffmeister was evacuated to a hospital in Germany, then sent on a 29-hour “hell flight” home. Eight surgeries on his arm followed, and months of pain-racked convalescence. Then the depression set in. Though back in his hometown of Eagle River, Alaska, Hoffmeister felt completely at loose ends. “I was just on the couch, doing nothing,” he says.

Then in early 2008 his wife, Gayle, announced that she was going to climb Denali, with or without her husband. “I said, ‘Not without me, you aren’t!’” Hoffmeister recalls. In the weeks that followed, his sense of purpose returned. “I figured that if I’m sitting here dealing with this hardship, there must be others doing the same thing,” he says. “I wanted to find them and get over it together.”

On June 1, 2009, a team of five men and one woman flew in to the Kahiltna Glacier at the base of Denali. Besides Marc and Gayle Hoffmeister and a longtime able-bodied friend of Marc’s, Bob Haines, the party included three other Iraq veterans: Jon Kuniholm, an ex-Marine who’d lost an arm to an IED; Matt Nyman, an Army Ranger whose leg had to be amputated after his chopper was shot down; and David Shebib, an Army combat medic who’d suffered severe head and chest injuries after stepping on an IED.

To bolster their attempt, the climbers hired guides from the Alaska Mountaineering School. During their first days on the mountain, the team ironed out a few kinks: Kuniholm had to figure out how to handle the rope with his prosthetic hand; he and Nyman didn’t want to share a tent because two amputees were too slow in the mornings; Hoffmeister had to remember to self-arrest with his good arm, not his bad one.

The West Buttress route is the most popular on Denali, but it is still dangerous, and only about half the climbers attempting it succeed. On the 11th day of their expedition, the vets watched grimly as their guides tried unsuccessfully to revive two fallen climbers. By day 15, the group was poised for the summit. Kuniholm and Nyman had already been felled by altitude sickness, so it was up to the Hoffmeisters, Haines, and Shebib to forge onward. As they crested Denali Pass, at 18,200 feet, Marc noticed that Gayle was acting hypothermic. She was sluggish and off balance and had a spot of frostbite on her face. The climbers huddled with their guides. The decision was clear. Retreat.

“That was the toughest part of the climb for all of us,” Hoffmeister says. “Gayle was determined to go on. I said, ‘Look, I spent a year getting my hand back, I’m not going to spend a year helping you get your toes back.’”

The next day, Hoffmeister, Shebib, and Haines set out once more. The group regained Denali Pass, crossed the expanse of the Football Field, then reached the summit ridge where they clipped into fixed lines. Just as the summit came into sight, weather began to close in.

Soon the team was smothered in a whiteout. Visibility was so bad that the climbers could not distinguish between the ridgeline and thin air. But they soldiered on.

On the summit, the three men cheered and embraced. Then they performed a ceremony that was doubtless a Denali first. While his teammates hoisted an American flag that flapped in the bitter wind, David Shebib raised his hand while Hoffmeister formally reenlisted him in the Army. As of this writing, Shebib is in an active brigade in Germany, awaiting transfer to Iraq.

Hoffmeister’s not far behind him. “I’m going back to Iraq next year,” he says. The depression into which he had plunged lay in the past. “Denali pulled me out of it.”

Originally published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition of
National Geographic Adventure