~ Outdoorsman ~
The doorbell rang and Ned crutched his way from the sofa, past the granite-countered kitchen island, and into the hallway of his Aspen condo. Before he could get to the door, the bell rang again.
“Coming, coming.” Ned was not used to moving at the speed of a sloth. Four days ago, his ingrown, left big toenail was reduced in size by one-third. Red streaks now laced their way past his ankle, hot with infection.
Earlier in the day, Doc Sorensen stopped by with unsettling news. “Aside from removing more nail than usual, the infection worries me more. You need to be off your feet for at least a week or that blood poisoning is going to move up your leg. I want you lying down with your leg up—one week minimum—got it?”
Stay off his feet? Ned never stopped moving. His constitution was legendary. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he had a cold. He splinted his own leg after a climbing accident in the Karakoram (an orthopedist later said he’d never examined a better set tibia), and sewn half his ear back on with dental floss after flipping his raft and cracking his head on a first descent of the Zambezi River.
Ned made a living ignoring doctor’s orders but this was different.His feet were insured with Lloyd’s of London, and nothing was too good for him. After all, he was the moneymaking machine of the outdoor adventure world. Everyone wanted to be like Ned. Need a new route on a seamless pitch of dark granite? He would wear your company’s new climbing line. Kayak the North Sea in January? Ned would do it while he modeled your state of the art dry suit.
Leaning on his crutches, he opened the door.
“Hi Ned, sorry to drop in on you unannounced but I am in town for business and thought it would be good to talk face-to-face.”
“Sasha, good to see you.” Not really. He smiled at his ex-wife, wondering what she planned on extracting from him this time.
Ned hadn’t always felt like this. He had squired lots of women, but only one had smitten him: Sasha Neiman.
She had almost run him over on the slopes at Sun Valley while he was telemark skiing. Ned brushed snow off himself.
“Are you okay?” Sasha said as she popped her goggles off. Ned wasn’t hurt, but he leapt out of the way at the last minute to avoid having her ski tips disappear into his chest. “I guess I was a bit out of control,” Sasha admitted.
He wanted to say, “No shit, you were totally airborne where two runs converge.” Instead, Ned offered, “I’m still in one piece. I should pay more attention.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” she offered. “Let’s finish the run together and I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Ned agreed.
Despite all the accolades and accomplishments, a hole existed in Ned’s life; a human connection. His friendships consisted of jamming his feet into his climbing partner’s armpits to ward off frostbite, slamming frosty beers down with buddies at a remote way station, or rollicking under the sheets with some sinewy siren. Ned thought Sasha was the missing piece.
“Can I come in, it’s freezing out here,” Sasha said.
“Oh sure, sorry.”
“What happened to you, Ned?
“I’m felled by an ingrown toenail and infection of all things,” Ned said.
“I guess you are mortal,” Sasha said. “Before I forget, Savannah wanted me to give you this.” Sasha reached into her pocket and handed Ned a worn tennis ball.
Savannah was the joint custody product of their ex-marriage. Ned adored his daughter but his lifestyle didn’t make it easy to be a dad.
“Savannah’s in town with friends right now, but she wants to come over while she’s here to play ‘roll-y ball.’”
Ned and Savannah liked to sit on the floor and roll the ball down the hallway to each other. “Roll-y ball sounds fun but Daddy’s laid up. Ned set the ball on the sofa end table. “I’m supposed be in bed for a week. It’s killing me.”
“Go lay down and I’ll pull up a chair. Do you have a few minutes?”
Oh, oh. Ned wasn’t sure he liked where this was heading. He lay prone on the couch, an Eddie Bauer down quilt draped over him. “I’ve got plenty of time right now.”
“As you know, I still have our old condo on Black Diamond Street.” Sasha draped her down jacket over a dark leather chair. “There are renters in it now and gonna be doing some remodeling. I’m still in the planning phase: looking for tile, plumbing fixtures, countertops, and getting contractors lined up. Plus, I still sit on the board of the ski area so I have some work to do with them.”
Ned sensed there was more than business on this visit.
“Look Ned, I know the last few months have been tough.”
For the first time since the divorce, Sasha was softening.
“Ned, what happened to us? I’ve gone over it in my head and I can’t trace where the problems started.” She touched her temple, as if that might release a hidden answer.
“I think it goes all the way back to Kitzbuhl,” Ned said.
Ned wasn’t sure how much detail to include fearing it might unleash the Sasha Beast.
He had watched Sasha ski off a small rock face—a routine jump by her standards—and land with both legs hyperextended. Her anterior cruciate ligaments snapped louder than frost pockets in a maple tree on a subzero night. In seconds, he was beside her as she thrashed in the snow.
“What the hell happened? You okay?” Ned asked.
“They’re gone,” she moaned. “My knees—I think I blew ‘em out.”
“Both of them?” Ned was incredulous. He could understand one knee and a broken collarbone or dislocated shoulder, but two knees—that’s hard to do. He bent over and started unzipping the legs of her ski pants.
She shrieked, “What are you doing!?”
“Sash, I gotta check your legs.”
“All right, but be careful.”
Sure enough, any trace of the knee caps had disappeared in a mass of swollen flesh. Sasha’s knees looked like they were replaced by cantaloupes.
“What do you think?” Sasha asked.
In his best bedside manner Ned offered, “I think your knees are trashed. Look, Sash, I’ve got to get help. I’m going to have to leave you for a bit while I find the ski patrol. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The ski patrol strapped her into the litter and Ned looked at his wife. She was quiet with a sedated expression—the face of surrender. He’d observed that look on too many friends who had never made it out of the hills. Two blown out knees wouldn’t kill her but he was surprised by her docile reaction—no anger, frustration, or pouting.
Surgery and eight months of physical therapy had Sasha’s knees functioning again. Not everything else was.
Sasha shifted her chair closer to Ned. “Are you saying I lost my edge after Kitzbuhl?
Ned treaded carefully around his answer. “It kinda marked a shift, if you want to call it that.”
“Because I wanted to start a family?”
Ned thought of Skittles, their golden retriever, who now resided with Sasha and was not part of the joint custody agreement. “We had a family—me, you and Skittles.”
“C’mon, Ned. I was thirty-four. The clock was ticking.”
Why did that clock always sound like Big Ben to Ned? Twelve months later it chimed and Savannah Selway Thayer was born. Ned managed to be there for the birth, but missed her first and third birthdays. He did sing happy birthday via satellite phone. By Ned’s calculations, he missed 821 days out of the 1460 days Savannah was alive. “Maybe I wasn’t ready for kids yet.”
“Ned, you’re forty-two now. When, if ever, did you think you’d be ready for kids? How long do you think you can keep this up?
Ouch. This was a tender spot for Ned: his legacy. The aches lingered, his reflexes a millisecond slower. He relied on the “Ned Team” to keep him in top form: Bruno, his massage therapist, who pummeled every muscle and tendon in his body, Irene (dietician/cook), Karin (rolfer), Sami (yoga guru), Wanda (sport psychologist), and a host of others to fend off the youngsters creeping up on him, putting him to the test. “Don’t worry, the afterburners still can kick in when I need them.”
Sasha propped a leg up on sofa. “I don’t know Ned, I think you’re kidding yourself. I saw you on TV last year in the Aussie Foreplay and you looked tapped out.”
Sasha had a keen eye. In Australia, he polished off the marathon run across a mountain range, shredded a headwind on the bike ride across a bleak desert plain, and plowed a wake on the two-mile swim up a river. He almost ran out of gas in the last event, the five-mile sack race. Those Aussies and their sense of humor! His lead was so big his final pathetic hops to the finish line were not noticed by the press. Was this the beginning of the end? Was he going to wind up doing car commercials or hosting a low-rated cable TV program?
“And what about those youngsters nipping at your heels? How in the world will you keep up with Krupp? He’s an animal.”
Ned shared Sasha’s assessment of Krupp Condor, the legendary mountaineer from Bavaria. He made his hometown of Zugspitze-Strassen-Hossel a household word. Physically a monster, with semi-Neanderthal features, Krupp had no peer where power was required. He scaled all the toughest peaks without oxygen or climbing support and his rescue of three Japanese climbers during an ascent of Habu Dal’s west face made international news. Krupp’s English was good with enough German accent to catch the ear of the American market. “You know Sasha, it’s a mental game too. I may not be twenty-five anymore but I know all the tricks and have a lot more experience.”
“It’s not always about what’s between your ears, Ned, and you know it. To be a player, you need the best expeditions, but the trend-setters also have another ingredient: joie de vivre, charisma, a certain charm. You have it, but maybe people have Ned-fatigue and want a bright, shiny new star.” Sasha paused, went to the fridge, grabbed a sports drink, and sat down.
“Help yourself,” Ned said. “I’d get up and cook but this toe thing—”
“Ha, ha! You cook now? When did that start? Anyway, I know your Q Rating is down a notch and that chica, whatever her name is, and sprawled all over the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue, is on the rise.”
“You mean Heidi?”
“Yeah, that’s her name.”
Heidi McCarrins was another tough tripwire. Ned saw the trend: women edging in on a men’s club. An attractive and ferocious competitor with crossover appeal to both men and women, she made her name in water sports. Surfing, kayaking, and windsailing were her specialties. The thong bikini hadn’t hurt her exposure either. Two big splashes pushed her to a new level. The hundred-mile ride of a tsunami wave in the Tasmanian Sea was incredible. More amazing was her sudden appearance on the U.S. Women’s Olympic ice hockey team. Her bone-crushing check on the Canadian captain got replayed on TV’s across the world. Shit, where did she learn how to skate, anyway?
“And we can’t forget Reid, either.” Sasha had left her boots at the door and rubbed her SmartWool-clad feet together. “He’s always a wild card. He’s a bit younger than you, but he doesn’t have the wear and tear because he does fewer trips.”
Reid Robinson emerged periodically from a Kaczinski-like cabin in Montana and pulled off audacious trips to obscure parts of the world. It might be a hot air balloon trip across South America or the first sand-ski across the Sahara. He’d then retreat to his warren, reappearing across the globe eight months later. Reid was the J.D. Salinger of his sport. There were occasional sightings of him buying groceries or working at his friend’s ranch—Lloyd Carver, the Zoom Power Bar magnate. With Lloyd’s backing, Reid had no need for other sponsors. The public gobbled up Reid’s anti-corporate, renegade approach to the business. Outside Magazine deified the guy in its article, “The Last Man Standing: Reid Robinson at the Summit.”
“So where are you going with this, Sash? Ned said.
“I want you to be a bigger part of Savannah’s life. I don’t want to exclude you. And I want her to have a live dad, not a dead one. I’m afraid you’re going to come home from a trip in a box—if they manage to find your body.”
“Sash, we’ve gone over this a hundred times. Don’t you think you’re worrying too much?”
Sasha got up and moved over to the stairwell wall near a collection of photos. “Really? How many of your friends—good friends—are dead? This is The Wall of the Dead.”
No point arguing the numbers. Global adventurers with AARP cards were a rare breed. At least half a dozen friends had died on trips with Ned and a few on other people’s trips. The first was the hardest. His college roommate, Steve, was swept over a precipice by an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies. He did a quick tally: Ben (snakebite in India), Sue (infection in Borneo), Mike (collision with snowboarder on Mount Blanc), Sirgay (disappeared at 27,000 feet in a Himalayan whiteout), Claude (impaled on sweeper, kayaking in the Hindu Kush), and Ryan (hit by bus in Addis Ababa).
“I made a good living—we made a good living.” Ned was awash in money and business offers after his appearance on the cover of Newsweek. Sasha managed his business and had a real knack for it too. Ned wasn’t hawking power tools or neon-colored electrolyte drinks. She lined up high-profile trips with first ascents and descents. He didn’t do trips with egomaniacs, muscle heads or the pay-per-climb crowd either. Top-notch sponsors provided the firepower, and didn’t push him to attend outdoor gear conventions and do promotional videos. Ned and Sasha bought a ranch in Sun Valley. Life was bountiful and the responsibilities minimal. He worked damn hard, liked what he did, and provided for his family. Couldn’t she understand? “I feel like we’re rehashing the same arguments we used to have.”
Ned had called this the mogul phase of their marriage. Counseling came first, trailed by anger, lawyers, separation and divorce—all within the tidy span of ten months. One thing he always admired about Sasha: once she pointed the car in the direction she wanted to go, the engine was gunned. Or maybe it was a bulldozer flattening him.
Ned hated fussing about money the most. He never got into this business for the money; it was the sense of freedom, the smell of pine trees, and the sun-drenched warmth of a rock face. The intoxicating blend of mind and body pushed to the maximum, fighting fierce challenges from the best athletes in the world. The mad rush of adrenaline.
The money made it easier to do bigger, more ambitious trips, eat at better restaurants, and drive more powerful cars. As long as there was enough cash, he didn’t care how much there was, and he didn’t want to bog down in the details. Nobody was surprised when Sasha did. Her meticulous nature made every negotiation over bank accounts, financial statements, and real estate holdings a numerical form of torture.
“I know you’re not happy about me getting half of everything,” Sasha said. “Don’t forget I worked my ass off for six years.”
It was pointless to add that she might be running a ski lift right now if the business wasn’t Ned Thayer, Inc.
Ned noticed Sasha getting worked up. She stood and took the empty plastic sports drink container over to the counter.
“Where’s your recycling?”
“Under the counter to your left.”
Sasha dropped the bottle in the bin. “There’s one more thing. I want to invite you for Savannah’s birthday at the end of March. I’d like it to be special.”
Ned peered at the calendar on the wall. It was a Ned Thayer First Ascents calendar with some damn fine shots of Ned, either shirtless while dangling off a rock wall, or covered head to toe in Gore Tex with rime ice clinging to his face. “Sure I can do it. Its four months away. Sounds like fun.”
“Great, I’ll get back to you with the details. Maybe we can talk again tomorrow after my meeting.”
“It’s just me and my toe—I’m not going anywhere. I hope you don’t mind if I don’t see you out.”
Ned had barely processed Sasha’s visit when the cell phone rang. Randy, Ned’s agent, was on the line. “Hey, it’s my daily check in.” Randy’s keyboard clattered in the background. “North Face is concerned about your toe and wants to know your availability for next fall’s catalogue. There’s a bigger problem, though. They want to be cutting edge, and they’re looking to go younger, fresher.” Randy paused to let that sink in. “I got the feeling they think you’re dimming. They are a hair away from signing Heidi to replace you. Maybe you can come up with a kick-ass adventure that will wow the world. Hey, I got a call I gotta take. See ya.”
Ned settled back on the bed. Now what? It pissed him off North Face was ready to depreciate him like a rusting piece of machinery—after fourteen years!—right out of their sponsorship. He was not immune to introspection although those moments often came while he was in motion. Or after sex with some hard-bodied climbing hottie. Ned cracked open a bottle of herbal-infused tea parked on the end table, and took a few swigs. In his mind, he knew Sasha was right; he couldn’t keep going at this pace. At some point, he was going to embarrass himself,
Ned gave himself two or three more years before he’d lose the edge. The mind was keen, but the body had a lot of miles on it. The gnawing question crept in: How much money did he need? He was wealthy beyond any ski bum’s dreams, well-connected from Wall Street to the big walls of Yosemite, and had friends on every continent.
Ned hobbled to the kitchen, so hungry he ripped the box for a burrito with his mouth. As he watched the burrito spin inside the microwave, his mind drifted, and Ned wondered how it would all end for him. A simple epitaph etched on a granite tombstone: Ned Thayer, Outdoorsman. It had a nice ring to it. The words from his friend Bjorn, the Norwegian dog sled champion who had crossed Greenland in a month-long whiteout, came back to him, “Think about death, give up on life.” He wasn’t exactly sure what Bjorn meant but it had to do with hanging up the old climbing harness. Bjorn wasn’t around to clarify either; only his lead dog had survived the trek across Greenland.
The phone rang again. Can’t get a minute’s peace around here. Ned stared at the unfamiliar number on the phone’s display. “Hello?”
“Ned, is dis Ned Tayer?”
“Yes, this is Ned.”
“Hello, Ned, this is Petr. Petr Saminovich. Vee meet in de Himalayas two years ago. Do you remember? I never drink so much chang in my life!”
“What a killer night, from what I remember of it. It’s awesome to hear from you.” Wow, Petr Saminovich. This guy was the best all around climber in the world. Ice. Rock. The whole package—he did it all.
“I’ve got a wild idea,” Petr gushed.
“Have you been drinking more chang?”
“No, no, I sober—at least right now. Ha ha! Listen to dis. I vanted to do somting very deefferent. Den it come to me: the Cirque of the Unclimbables on Baffin Island. Vee could do it—you and me! Or vee die trying. Ha, ha! I got it all set up, everyting is go. You say yes and show up. Leave de rest to me. If vee pull dis off, vee two world famous guys. But it has to happen end of March when I have climbing permit. I also am booked rest of year. If you can’t do it, I try Krupp Condor. Krupp is a machine! But he’s German and vee Russians have de grudge. So I peek you first! Vat do you say?”
The Cirque of the Unclimbables—in March no less. Getting to base camp would be a survival test. Gale force winds with a chill cutting like a stiletto and whiteouts making bathroom stops a life or death enterprise. Five thousand feet of vertical granite on every face, each colder than a morgue slab. It was bold, stupid, suicidal, and totally intriguing. No doubt anyone who nailed the last great mountaineering challenge would be mentioned in the same breath with Sir Edmund Hillary. Petr was the right guy to pull it off. He was rock-solid and thorough in his trip planning and calculation of risk. Petr could bring his mother back alive from this trip. If Petr believed he’d pull it off, it was as good as done. The very idea of Krupp Condor replacing him on this climb sent a shudder down to Ned’s big toe. He’d show North Face and the other doubters!
“Good, very, very good,” said Petr. “I knew I count on you. I geev call back in a few days, we work out details.”
Ned flashed to his dicey climbs. You could always turn back like many of the others did, but the magic was in trying to find that fine line. But trying didn’t mean dying—Ned enjoyed life too much to do stupid stuff. Had he cheated death before? Certainly. The difference between bad luck and bad judgment was a blur or a blink of an eye. Like railroad tracks running to the horizon, he didn’t want to find where those two lines converged. This was going to work; everything pointed to the time being right.
The little matter of a conflict with Savannah’s birthday party needed sorting out. Ned could make a blazing fire out of yak dung within minutes or fashion a raft out of goat bladders, but tough social situations always proved to be a conundrum. Breaking the news to Sasha about another missed birthday was rougher than any climb with Petr. This was gonna take just the right personal touch. Ned raked over options on tone, delivery, wording, and then the right words came together. Like a rock face’s secrets revealing themselves, inviting Ned to ascend.
Ned grabbed the tennis ball from the end table. He was going to need a grip of steel to conquer The Cirque and he squeezed it so many times, beads of sweat seeped out of every pore on his head. Images of Savannah struggling to get off the ski lift last year, hitting a piñata on her birthday, and chasing Skittles filled his head. After a half hour of stringing long-ignored memories, along with a burning in his forearms and hands, he realized he’d made the right decision.
Sasha arrived with Savannah the next day. Savannah’s pink snow suit matched the glow in her cheeks. She ran to Ned and landed on him reclining on the sofa.
Ned tickled her. “I didn’t know you were so fast.”
“I’m bigger now,” Savannah said.
“So I see.”
Sasha dropped Savannah’s backpack on the floor. “I’ve got to run out for a while so I’m going to leave you two alone.”
“Hold on a sec.” Ned crutched to an upright position. “I need to talk with you.”
Sasha’s eyebrows shot up like little antennas. “About?”
“Savannah, could you do mommy and daddy a favor?” Ned handed her his iPad from the end table. “Take this in the bedroom and play those cartoons you like so much. Mommy and daddy have to talk for a bit.”
Sasha stood, arms crossed, ready for trench warfare. “Well?”
“It’s about Savannah’s birthday.” No matter how many times Ned practiced in his mind the best way to say things, he never was sure how it was going to spew out.
“You’re bailing, right?” Sasha’s face looked like a thunderstorm sweeping in.
“Well, kind of—“
“Jesus, Ned. You’re either in or out. Which is it?”
Sasha put her hand on her forehead, wandered into the kitchen. Taking a deep breath, she drew her hand over her face with such force it looked like it would rub off. “This better be good.”
“I’m going with Petr Saminovich to The Cirque of the Unclimbables.” Ned crutched into the kitchen and faced Sasha. “We’re gonna summit all of them. It will be awesome.” Ned pictured he and Petr drinking slushy champagne back in camp while their feet thawed.
“What about Savannah’s birthday?
“You better sit down.”
Sasha parked herself on a breakfast bar stool.
“I’m retiring after The Cirque. Going out on top.” He was giddy with the certainty of his decision. A light-headedness, like oxygen deprivation at altitude, swept over him. “I want to be a bigger part of Savannah’s life.”
Sasha cocked her head and stared at him for a second, “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Yup.” He walked over to the Wall of the Dead and started taking down the photos of his departed friends.
“What are you doing?”
“Moving on. You were right—much as I hate to admit it. I’m aging out. I can take it down a notch and still have fun. Only I’m gonna do it with Savannah.”
“Can I get it in writing?” She said.
“Sasha.” Ned wavered. “Everything about our divorce has been in writing, packed with legalese. I hate that shit. This is going to be a handshake.” He stuck his hand out.
Sasha paused before shaking it. “Okay, I’m going to take off. I’ll pick Savannah up in about two hours. She gathered her pocketbook near the door. “Please don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind when I come back.”
“Savannah! Ned yelled. Wanna play roll-y ball?”
She shot out of the bedroom, tossed the ipad on the sofa, and sat at one end of the hallway, legs splayed out in front of her.
“I thought you had to have your leg up?” Sasha said.
“A little roll-y ball won’t kill me.”
They sat at each end of the hallway, the ball rocketing back and forth between them. Ned watched Savannah’s lightning reflexes—for a four-year-old!—and saw his future. He’ll load up the van with skis, bikes, climbing gear, kayaks, and Bun-Bun, Savannah’s favorite stuffed animal. They’ll shoot the wildest rivers, ski the deepest powder, trek the tallest mountains—together! Ned is all in! She’ll be on the cover of Outside by the time she’s 15. Move over Heidi McCarrins. Savannah Selway Thayer is right behind you.
Originally from the suburbs of New Jersey, Ken Post worked for the Forest Service in Alaska for 40 years. He writes short stories during the long, dark winters. His fiction has previously appeared in Cirque, Red Fez, and Poor Yorick.