Navigating the Fiscal Cliff

posted by dpm on 01/04/2013


Journal entry: Day 5

The team climbed well today but I sense some dissension among my crew. I've ordered them to work hard in an effort to make up for lost time but the constant hauling is slowing our pace considerably. I fear that our team is too large. In addition, I estimate that approximately half of our crew is not pulling their own weight. For now, a good night's sleep is in order.

Rich Magnate closes his journal and nestles into his 1000 thread count premium Schoeller sleeping bag. He finishes off his thermos of hot herbal tea, that was warmed for him just outside his double wall expedition tent, and wishes that the other team members would quiet down and let him get some shuteye. Just outside his tent, some of the crew are organizing gear and planning the next day's assault on the route. Fortunately, Rich carries a satellite-enabled Iphone that can pick up Pandora radio. He tunes in to the "sounds of the rainforest" channel, which blocks out the hiss of blowing snow, and drifts off to sleep.

Rich Magnate is the expedition leader of a 25-member American climbing team set on achieving one of the most difficult climbs ever attempted. Their chosen route, Fiscallisima Direct, ascends the Southeast face of the never-before-climbed Fiscal Cliff of Mt. Urgency, the highest mountain in the Skarakorum Range.

Though some members of the expedition would state otherwise, Rich's position as team leader was no coincidence. He was born into a wealthy, supportive family and blessed with intelligence but luck alone didn't get him to where he is now. Rich worked hard to develop his skills as a climber and a leader. He received perfect marks through primary school and the Academy of Alpinists where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. His high marks earned him immediate high ranking placement on climbing expeditions around the globe but it was his hard work ethic that made him stand out above others. After a decade of successful expeditions, he was chosen as team leader for the Fiscallisima Direct, his first role in charge.  

Magnate chose two of his closest friends to assist him in leadership. Hal Manchester and Burt Badsen are the 2nd highest paid members of the expedition. While Magnate oversees the entire operation, it's Hal and Burt that delegate responsibility to the other 22 team members.

Over the past 5 days, the team has made steady progress up the route. They are currently perched just shy of what base camp is reporting as the summit. Magnate emerges from his tent and prepares for the pitch above. A steep ribbon of ice disappears into spindrifts of snow that obscure his view of what lies ahead. He sets off without hesitation, swinging his ice axes and kicking steps until he reaches a flat area where the team can regroup. Manchester and Badsen follow quickly and set up anchors suitable for hauling all the gear necessary to sustain the 25 person team.

Manchester clips a jumar to the haul line and starts pulling up gear. He turns to Badsen and Magnate who are also hauling. "Man, why do we have to haul all the gear. I mean, I realize we're getting paid the most up here but it seems like the rest of the team should haul some too." A few more members of the team jug to the ledge and also start hauling. By the time most of the gear and team members are gathered on the ledge, Magnate has hauled up 37% of the equipment. Badsen and Manchester have tugged up 59% and the remaining load was carried up by the other team members.

Manchester keeps complaining as he hauls his final load. "I understand we're a team and our success is dependent on getting everyone to the top but I wish some of these other slackers would pay in a bit more."

"Dude, shut your mouth already," pipes up a team member. "We're all in this together and when it's all over, you're going to be lounging around drinking Coronas in the Caymans while I'm out on another expedition hauling loads. You get paid way, way more than the rest of us so zip your piehole and pull."

Manchester's piehole snaps shut and his final load appears beneath him. It's Pov Alexsy, a Polish immigrant that grew up in the Chicago ghetto. Pov is tethered to the rope and is struggling to climb even with the assistance of the haul line. His leg is splinted with tent poles and he grits his teeth to gain ground. Pov's right leg was shattered by rockfall the day before. It could have happened to anyone but if a statistician were to take a guess, it would have been Pov. He was born into poverty and bad luck and never given the chances that Magnate had gotten. He was smart and tough though. His unwavering work ethic earned him a place on the team after he promised to work 14 hour days for very little pay.  

Percentage of loads hauled by American team members of the Fiscal Cliff expedition. Fox News, reporting from base camp, reports slightly different numbers than what Magnate reports from the actual cliff. 

"Let me climb myself!" Pov shouts.

Manchester tugs on the line and screams back. "You're broken man! It was bad luck and could have happened to any one of us. That's why we're a team. We're all going to the top Pov!"

He turns to Magnate who's also still hauling. "This guy's spirit is what makes our team great. He's a hard worker that would haul all day if he could. I'm glad we're going to get this guy to the summit together."

"I completely agree," says Magnate as his load emerges from the fog below him. It's another person tethered to the line, relying heavily on the system to get him to the top. "What the hell!" screams Magnate. "You're not even trying to climb you lazy sack!"

Chaz Broman flops onto the ledge with a smile. "Bro, bro, bro...chill out! You're harshing my mellow man." He tries to take a drag from his joint. "Damn bro, the thin air up here is making it hard to keep my reefer lit!"

Chaz Broman takes a break from being hauled up the cliff to rip a toke from his custom PS3 pipe. Wearing just a T-shirt, Chaz is ill-prepared to succeed on the Fiscal Cliff expedition. But what are you gonna do? Can't just let him die, you know what I mean?

Magnate is furious. "Dude, not only did you not even climb yourself up here, you made me haul you! On top of that, you didn't haul a single load of gear. What the hell is wrong with you!"

"Nothing's wrong with me man. I've been trying to help haul but I can't."

"Why the hell not?"

"Bro, there's no more jumars!"

Magnate looks around and surveys the scene. All 25 team members are present but he can only count 20 jumars.

Broman chimes in again, "See man, I've been trying to get a jumar but there isn't one and since you guys just keep draggin' me up I thought I might as well smoke a J. Aw crap man, my Obamaphone just died. Can I have yours?"

Magnate smacks his forehead and turns to Pov who looks heartbroken. "You don't have a jumar either?"

"I wish I did," says Pov. "But when I broke my leg, I lost it."

"Oh Christ, I'm calling base camp." Magnate fires up the Sat phone and gets his old friend Con on the line. Con Gressum and Rich Magnate have been in cahoots since way back at the Academy. It took more than a few closed-door meetings to get them both at the base of the Fiscal Cliff and it would take a few more to get them off it.

Con picks up the phone. "What's going on up there! You guys haven't moved for 5 hours. We need you moving up, up, up. I swear, it looks like you're about to move backwards and we can't have that. We simply can't."

"I realize that Con. Listen to me for a second alright. I'm working my ass off up here. I just hauled 37% of the load to this ledge. Hal and Burt are working their asses off too. Then I find out that I just hauled up this worthless d-bag Chaz Broman who doesn't even deserve to be up here. We don't have enough jumars to keep everyone working so those of us that do have them have to work extra hard to pull up the dead weight like Broman and poor Pov who's doing his best."

"I realize you're in a tough situation but you guys really need to pick up the pace and start making rapid upward progress. I've got some bad news for you..."

Magnate pauses, fearing the worst. "You mean the Chinese?"

"Yeah, the Chinese. They've got a 200 person team gaining on your high point just to the East of your route. I've been watching them and it's ridiculous. They have one guy in charge and the rest of them just do what he says. He gives them a bowl of rice in the morning and that's it. They barely get paid and they are hauling ass. Super productive bunch they are. I haven't seen a single one of them get distracted by Facebook. They don't even have Facebook Mag! It's ridiculous."

"Jesus, they're faster than I thought." Magnate furrows his brow and stares into the fog. "Any other teams out there?"

"There's a French team that started up but didn't get far. Apparently the team leader was having to haul 75% of the load and so he split and went to climb for the Belgian Team. Don't sweat the French."

"OK, that's promising at least. Here's what I need from you. I need five more jumars and I need the rest of my team to start using theirs more. I am hauled out man. I'm giving everything I'm willing to give. You're not getting another drop of my sweat."

Percentage of Team Members without jumars. At 2008 meters above sea level the team lost 2 jumars at the notorious Hillary (Clinton) Step. Con estimates that just adding 2 more jumars to the team and getting the percentage back to just 5% would work wonders. 

Con replies on the Sat phone,  "That's the problem Rich. We're out of jumars and we're having a lot of trouble creating more. We're way over budget already so we can't just buy more. We've spent all our money. Actually we've spent more than we had. Not sure what we're going to do about that... On another note, some Mexican guy just wandered into basecamp. He was looking for a jumar cause he wants to climb too. We told him that all the jumars were up there with you. We tried to stop him but he was fast. He's on his way up. Said he'd haul whatever for next to nothing. Is that going to help?"

"No that's not going to help! We're just going to end up hauling the guy that gives his jumar to the Mexican guy! Look man, just take some money out of the team members paychecks and make some new jumars or something. I'm already hauling 37% of the load and I expect to be paid for that."

"Understood," says Con. "But you're also receiving 43% of the expedition budget so if we're going to find money anywhere, it's going to have to come out of your salary."

"What! But I earned that salary! I earned where I am today. You can't take more away from me. That's my money that I earned!"

Rich Magnate slams the phone down and turns to the team. "Alright, here's the deal. You guys are all going to pitch in to speed up our progress. I'm going to continue to haul my 37% which I feel is more than generous. You guys are going to start to haul more but your salaries are going to stay the same."

The team erupts in angered shouts then quiets as one team member speaks up. "Look man, we've tolerated the fact that you get paid so much more than us because you've been hauling Pov and Broman. But you're not going to cut into our paychecks. I can barely feed my family back home. The fact is, there are 22 of us up here and 3 of you. We'd be happy to throw your ass off the mountain and replace you with a new leader. We can do that. You have to keep us happy or we'll strip you of your power. We're Americans. So we're basically telling you that the money will be coming out of your paycheck. You'll have plenty left over. You're taking home 43% of the expedition budget. What's it to you if you earn a bit less?"

"Because then we'll end up like the Chinese or the French! Capitalism and democracy are what makes our team great. My pursuit of wealth is what led our team to the top in the first place. If we stop rewarding hard work our team will fail! This is outrageous!"

The Sat phone rings and Magnate answers it, seeing it as the lesser of two evils he's dealing with. It's Con on the line.

"More bad news Mag. We all wish we had plenty of time to discuss this stuff and work out a great plan but I just got word that making a decision is far more urgent than we thought. There's a storm on the way and if we don't address this in the next few hours, the fate of the whole team is sealed."

Magnate finally notices that it's gotten darker. "Be straight with me. How bad is it?"

"Well, no one can really give me a straight answer about what will actually happen with this storm. There's a ton of speculation but all we can agree on is that it's going to be bad. We're going to make a decision in the next hour about how to proceed. But for now, you better boogie on up."

Magnate turns to his team and assesses the situation. He, Hal, and Burt are still strong. The rest of the team is barely keeping it together. Pov is still broken and Broman is still stoned. Nothing's changed up on the mountain but it's time to rally. Magnate racks up and heads into the storm.

They climb into the night, each team member contributing their share to the effort except Pov and Broman who get dragged along for completely different reasons. Magnate briefly considers cutting the rope on Broman but realizes how inhumane that would be. Not to mention that the other team members would pitch him off the cliff in a heartbeat if he even mentioned the idea. Almost 50% of the team members are getting hauled a bit, in one way or another, and they have the power to overtake him. In the case of Pov, he's tough to haul but everyone is willing to pitch in and help him. He's a good man and no injured man should be left behind. The entire team agrees on that, but Rich can't help but think that if Pov had helped haul a little back when he did have a jumar, before he broke his leg, they wouldn't be stuck in this predicament.  

Lost in thought, Magnate loses track of time and everyone is nearly delirious. After another pitch of snow and ice, the team reaches a large flat area in white out conditions. Manchester breaks the silence, "Are we at the top?"

A voice replies through the blowing snow and wind, "I don't know!" It's Magnate, struggling for the Sat phone. He dials up and gets Con on the line. "Con, did you guys make a decision? Are we at the top yet? Can. We. Go. Down!"

The Sat phone crackles and spits static back, ".....Magnate!....Yeah, a couple of the guys thought we were making the storm up. But we pushed through anyway and we've made a decision. What's happening up there? Is there a storm or was it all BS?"

"What?!" Magnate screams through the storm.

"Sounds bad up there. Probably has something to do with climate change but we definitely don't have time to address that right now. Here's the deal Mag. We decided you have to haul a bit more. But just you! Hal and Burt and the rest of the crew are fine. No increase in hauling for them."


"Yeah, we did some stuff and decided we're going to spend less but nothing really specific. We're going to try to get you some more jumars up there too but not sure where those are going to come from yet. Make sure to tell Broman that nothing will change for him for at least another year! He can continue to smoke weed and play Angry Birds on his Obamaphone. Just keep pulling him up! You guys are doing great!"

"What!?...I can't hear you through this wind and snow."

"What wind and snow? You're not listening Mag, it's all clear down here at base camp. Don't worry about us. We got this. I told you man, everything is taken care of. JUST KEEP CLIMBING!"

Rich Magnate and his team may or may not have completed the first ascent of the Fiscal Cliff on January 1, 2012. It's currently unclear if they are still climbing or if they have dropped off the backside and perished. Word from base camp is that no one is satisfied but some things happened and it's all good now. "We bought some time with money we don't have," said Con with a smile. "Get it?" he added.