The Final Ascent of Hal Tripp

David Klein

Tripp planted his feet on the shoulder of Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World—Everest—close enough to God and Heaven that if he reached out he could slip his fingers through the frail membrane of earth's atmosphere. He wanted to shout to the heavens, to hear his voice, Hal Tripp's voice, thundering across bergschrunds, jostling ice falls, and goading avalanches; one great, yea-saying, spontaneous wallop of joy: triumphant but humble, personal yet universal, something to sum up the whole crazy warp and woof of life itself—but he couldn't think quite what to say, and if he shouted now he would wake the camp and spoil the moment. What the hell, he thought. Everest. What the hell.

Tripp had climbed six of the Seven Summits and was about to conquer his seventh. He had sailed the trade winds in The Hearth & Home—a hot air balloon named for his string of department stores—halfway around the world, before crashing into the Indian Ocean. He had spelunked a live volcano and hang-glided over Bora Bora. His exploits had brought him a fortune's worth of free press and done wonders for the store. Time magazine called him "a Huck Finn for the new millennium," and Outside magazine "an adrenaline junkie." Now he was about to embark on his greatest adventure yet, a mountain that many men attempt, but from which few return intact: marriage. Libby didn't know it, but if they bagged the summit, he was going to propose to her right there. Tear off a fistful of cloud for a veil. Boot would do the honors. Wallace Boot was Tripp's Executive Vice President and also an ordained Presbyterian minister. Tripp had brought him along just for that reason, despite his protestations that he wouldn't know a snowshoe from a Top-Sider.

Tripp looked down fifty feet to the camp, from the ridge where he'd come to welcome the day. The silence was broken by the stirring to life of the others from within their tents. Libby, who Tripp called the Stiletto Queen—though only in his private thoughts—was first out, ready to rock 'n' roll. She nearly jogged the slope to where Tripp was standing.

"This is it, Tripster." She was dressed in flaming yellow, like a flare.

"This is it," he replied.

She had a force field that could nuke a small city. In fact, in only eighteen months at Hearth & Home, she'd chainsawed two regional managers and a vice president. Rappelling ropes of muscle wound around her forearms, blowing up her biceps. But in her puffy down parka with its Eskimo hood, she seemed to Tripp to be harmless as hell, a perky koala with incandescent lime sunblock on her nose. He loved her then, more than ever, but knew what she would make of that: You have to cut me down to size before you can love me.

"You were hacking up a storm last night," he said. "Getting enough oxygen?"

"I could do this mountain in Nikes, Tripp. How are your brain cells?"

"My brain's okay, but my stomach. Butterflies."

Tripp felt around in the deepest pocket of his parka for the Ziploc baggie and let his fingers take in the dimensions of the wedding rings. Not yet, he thought. Not until you've reached the summit.

"Butterflies—you?" she said, and she laughed and slipped her arm around his.

"Listen," he said, "about last night."

"Yeah, about last night. I'm sorry about the fireworks, okay? But it's me planting that flag at the summit, Hal. I just have to."

He prayed for inspiration as he watched the others slowly collect themselves for the final push. Their chief guide, Gunther Robie, emerged from his tent, taking a hard glare at the sky. He'd spent the previous day trying to convince Tripp to turn back, warning of tempests brewing where only He Who Is At One with The Mountain could see them. A hillock of cumulus tumbled by. Tripp laughed.

Then came Boot, his Charley Brown cheeks all rouged from the cold, his eyes tearing. Faithful Boot, trying for the sake of his boss to keep his game face.

"Hal?" Libby repeated, a bit of hesitancy creeping into her tone. "Will you let me summit first? Will you give me this one?"

Gunther Robie outpaced Boot, scattering the knee-high drift as if it were confetti. Tripp hated Robie's thighs, which were heroically substantial—Tripp was endearingly known to Libby as Old Chicken Legs—and he especially hated how back at Base Camp she'd kept sneaking glances at them, and even more than that, he hated how she stomped back toward the tents now that Robie was approaching, as if it were dangerous for her and the Nazi Snow King to be in proximity when Tripp was around.

"This sunshine means nothing," Robie told Tripp. "We must turn back."

Tripp raised his face to the sky—it looked like an Italian fresco. There would be no storm, not on this run. No storm, no avalanche, no skeptical guide, no almost-fiancée—no act of God or man was going to keep Hal Tripp from his final summit.

"Gunther, you can see all the way to Denver."

"The way it is up here, in one minute Denver, the next you cannot see one foot in front of you."

"It's not like I haven't done some climbing in my time."

"Then you guide," Gunther said.

"The thing is, you guide, guide. For a hundred grand you should be seeing nothing but clear skies and sunshine."

Boot finally made it up the rise, heaving heavily.

Robie said, "They're your lives, Mr. Tripp. If anything happens, it's your karma."

He stalked off to browbeat a couple of Sherpa.

"Gunther doesn't look happy," Boot said.

"I don't like the way she gets when he's around," Tripp answered.

"Maybe we should turn back. The greater part of valor?"

"Like she thinks he doesn't have to climb the mountain, he just ascends."

"I'm an eighteen hole man myself," Boot explained wistfully. "A little rise on the green's about all the height I can handle."

"I know that, Wally."

"I coughed up blood last night. Is that unusual?"

Tripp didn't like the look of Boot, didn't like the way he sounded. But to send him down now would require a Sherpa, maybe two, and Gunther would use that as an excuse to scotch the whole summit.

"Hang in there, Wally."

Boot assented by nodding and exhaling: a rattling sound that segued into a plaintive whine, pitched at the level of a dog whistle. "Hal, we've been friends for many years. You're more to me than just…" He stopped to heave in a stray molecule of oxygen. "But you haven't been yourself for months. This marriage business …there's no failure in changing your mind. I still have the receipt for the rings."

Down below, Libby whispered something to Gunther Robie that made him laugh. Tripp thought laughter didn't agree with Robie, made him appear oafish. The air had changed, or the light—Tripp couldn't tell which. It was like looking at camp through the back end of a telescope. Robie stole a glance at the sky, frowning.

Tripp said, "The rope's been cut, Boot. No way back. No other way now but forward."

Boot, always one to know when not to press, turned back toward camp.

"But why her?" Tripp called after him. "Why her, Boot?"

Boot looked back at his boss from the waist-high drift, his torso expanding like an accordion with each labored breath. "If you were a golfer and your whole career came down to one final flag, would you play the second hole at Chapel Hill, which goes down smooth as a shot of Glenlivet, or would you play the seventeenth at St. Andrews, which I call 'The Widow Maker,' and which has driven the best golfers to alcoholism, suicide, and religion?"

"I'd play St. Andrews."

"Well, she's St. Andrews."

Tripp watched Boot join the others at breakfast. Everyone ate unhurriedly, with dreamy, cadenced gestures—as if it were already the Morning After and they were sated with success. They had set out two long bridge tables back-to-back, and the lead Sherpa, Chopel Dhundub, in a celebratory mood, had covered them with a checkered cloth. There was Quinn Downing, the boy Spielberg, who was filming a documentary of the climb in the style of Scorsese's The Last Waltz, and Hallie Ryerson, who had become Hearth & Home's official historian after practically nominating Tripp for sainthood in Vanity Fair, and who had waged a hard campaign to be taken along, despite the fact that she was not a climber.

Was Tripp responsible for Ryerson and Downing and Chopel Dhundub, as Robie had said he was? No, they'd all come of their own accord. Even Boot.

Tripp shivered uncontrollably, thought it must be his blood sugar, and crawled through the air to where they were eating scones and drinking green tea. Libby and Gunther Robie were having their own private conversation. Tripp laughed to himself: the Stiletto Queen and the Nazi Snow King—a match made in heaven. Quinn Downing had taken up his camera. Boot was downloading yesterday's sales into his laptop and frowning meaningfully, as if he were too absorbed in making Tripp money to worry about being gusted off the South Col into the great beyond. Hallie Ryerson cleared her throat with a few hacking coughs as Tripp came up to the table. Downing turned the camera on him.

"So, Hal," Downing said. "Libby tells us she's going to be the first to summit."

"The climbing order is set," Tripp groused.

"I have no problem putting her up front, Mr. Tripp," Gunther Robie said.

Boot looked up from his laptop a moment, then quickly down.

A sheet of snow had descended—soft, gentle, and hushed, like Christmas ribbons.

The second guide, Scottie Preston, added, "It is her first summit."

Tripp looked around the table—he had outfitted the entire expedition, including the Starbucks, the microwave, the satellite phones and laptops, the scones—thinking how little money buys in the long run. Certainly not loyalty.

"Well," he said, pretending not to be playing for the camera. "This is my last summit. Of any kind. The last of Hal Tripp's exploits."

Now everyone was listening. Everyone except Gunther Robie, who unceremoniously left the table to harangue the Sherpas.

"When I bought Hearth & Home," Tripp continued, "it was nearly bankrupt. And so was I, emotionally, spiritually. Well, now we've got ten stores, and I've been on the cover of every magazine from Time to American Retailer. I've also been able to give back, through my foundation, A Hearth & Home For All, which, I don't mind bragging, has made some serious headway into world hunger, global warming, and the reintegration of the ocelot into its natural habitat. But now I'm turning forty. So what's the next chapter in the Adventures of Hal Tripp? I'm buying a tower in Manhattan, on 55th and Fifth. It's going to replace Denver as our flagship. A beachhead to the future."

Boot shut the laptop—Tripp had insisted on total secrecy until the deal was done with the Chinese.

Libby said, casually, "And now you're letting the little people in on—Wally, you knew?"

Boot could not get the laptop cover to lock.

"So who's heading up the New York team?" Libby asked.

Tripp longed to tell Downing to turn off the damn camera, but that would be to admit publicly that something had gone wrong.

"If not me," Libby continued, "then who? Oh. I get it. Faithful Boot: treehouse Sergeant-at-Arms and president of the No Girls Allowed club. Fucking Boot." She was standing, holding on to the table for support, straining for oxygen.

The others had quickly scattered, except for Downing who had assumed a hunter's stillness—a necessary skill of the documentarian whose subject has finally forgotten the camera.

Tripp felt confused. Libby was a balls-out girl in every respect. But hadn't he always made a point of telling her that? But Boot had the years-in, plus the network, the relationships. She had no respect for years-in, no regard for the human factor. And if he had given her a heads-up about New York, he'd also have to blow his secret about the whole marriage thing. He wondered if he shouldn't propose right now. That might take the sting off New York. On the other hand, he sensed that if he were to pop the question, she'd plant a crampon through his heart.

*

Two hours later, Tripp noticed that he was climbing alone. Squinting down in the darkening, snow-splattered air, he saw two parkas hunched over someone splayed out on a drift. Robie pushed toward him through thigh-high drifts.

"It's Boot," he said. "We must get him down. Now." In his eyes Tripp read: You killed him.

Tripp looked up toward the summit. He thought: behind that scrum there's either a killer storm or sunshine with a vengeance. He grinned, thinking how many times he'd been told, "it can't be done," and how his life was a testimonial to "it can." On the other hand, there was Wally, good Wally, who had endured so much for Tripp, for friendship.

"I'll take him down," Tripp told Robie.

Then he saw an unmistakable streak of yellow moving steadily up the mountain. Robie saw it too and spat out, "Shit."

Minutes later, Tripp outpaced her and shouted into the squalling wind. "What are you doing?"

"Fuck off, Tripp," she shouted back. "I didn't come here not to summit."

"Boot is dying," Tripp said.

"Then save him." She kept climbing.

Down below, the others, surrounding the prone Boot, were shouting and waving. Gunther Robie materialized again out of the furious snow. "It's the mountain," he shouted over the wind. "It's Chomolungma. You shamed her with your microwave. I'll guide your girlfriend's fucking suicide mission. You take Boot down to Middle Camp. I have one of the radios, you take the other."

Tripp begrudgingly took the radio and felt for the wedding rings. He put himself in Libby's path one last time.

"Hal, I'm going to fucking flatten you." She reached out a blocky, Gore-Tex mitten and touched it to his. "This is my first summit. You know I can't give it up."

Before Tripp could answer, Robie was in his face, "Boot."

There was only one way to complete this last adventure: he'd get Boot to safety, turn back, and somehow hit the summit the same time as Libby. Tripp knew it was a crazy idea, the last gasp from a brain in the dying throes of hypoxia, but he had to believe.

Libby removed her mitten from his. "Plaster yourself to the radio, okay? I'll want to hear your voice," she told him.

"I'll beat you to the top," Tripp said.

She laughed, and that made him feel better.

Tripp hustled down to Boot, and when he took a moment to look back, Libby had been swallowed up by snow that was pummeling the mountain.

Boot could walk, but just barely, and he was so out of it he'd wander off the mountain if not for Tripp and Scottie Preston. They had to fight through battering winds, and the air was so thick with sleet that they kept losing sight of each other, even though they were never more than three feet apart. Boot had to stop and rest every five minutes. Then he collapsed. His lips were moving; Tripp brought his ear so close he could feel his breath. "…hazard pay," Boot wheezed. But when Tripp turned to him to say, "Of course," he could see that his friend was trying to laugh.

*

In a white, snow-blinded dream, Tripp imagined it was the last step before the summit and he was letting Libby pass him on the way to the top. Then he joined her and placed the flag in her hand. Finally, on that last bit of earth before heaven, with Buddhist prayer flags rippling in the wind, he kneeled, Boot between them in his minister's robes, the bright blue sky speeding past.

"You could do this mountain in Nikes," Tripp told her. "And run Hearth & Home in your sleep. I have always known that. But I've never loved anyone before, and it scared me halfway to hell."

Boot blessed them and their vows were celebrated with a clamoring of bells and shouting, and he went snow-blind again, and when his vision cleared, he saw that he had stumbled into Middle Camp, just below the storm. A team of Finns had stalled there on their way to the summit. They rushed out and surrounded Tripp, shouting in Finnish, and the next thing Tripp knew he was in a tent, trying to sit up and failing, asking "Where's Boot?" over and over. He rose unsteadily. There was a lot of time to make up if he was to meet Libby at the summit. He drew a bead on the tent flap and lunged, but the next thing he knew, he was flailing at the ceiling.

They brought him a carafe of steaming green tea. He had never failed at anything in his life. Therefore, he was not coming off the mountain unless he was married to Libby. He figured that if he could get walking, momentum would take over. "The radio," he rasped. He would call first to make sure she was okay, to let her know to wait for him. Someone put a radio in his hand.

There was nothing on the line but static. "Libby?" Tripp said.

"It's very bad up there," they explained." "We're trying to make a connection."

Tripp put the radio on his lap and batted frantically at his parka with his frostbitten hands. "The rings…the rings." They looked at him uncomprehendingly. "Pocket."

Someone reached into his parka and came up with the baggie. Tripp forced his fingers around the wedding rings. Libby's voice shouted through the static. Someone put the radio back in his hand.

"Libby?" he said, trying to sound his old self.

"Hal? Is that you? It's amazing. You can see the whole world from…" The static kept coming over in waves. "I'm above the storm, but the others, Quinn, Ryerson…don't know if they made…Hal, the bluest skies for-fucking-ever."

Tripp held the rings in his palm and tried to conjure their sensation: the roundness, the coolness, the sharp peak of diamond. But his hand was dead.

"Is Gunther there with you?" he shouted.

"Everything from up here. Makes you believe in…"

"I want to marry you. I think we should get married, Lib."

"Hal? I can't make out what you're…"

The connection went dead. Tripp waited for it to come to life again. For just a moment, before collecting himself for the climb, he lay on his side on the cot, the radio cradled at his chest.


About the Author

David Klein's short fiction has appeared in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, New York Stories, Art Mag, Glasschord Magazine, American Jewish-Times Outlook, and Mouse Tales Press. An essay on Academy Award winning composer Ennio Morricone appeared in Film Comment. His plays have been produced off-Broadway at the Quaigh Theatre, and by the Changing Scene Theatre in Denver. Other plays have been presented as readings by the Generous Company, the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, and Bucks County Repertory Theatre Company.