The Comeback Kid and His Son

The classic California entrepreneur, the stacks of cash, the adventure travel. You’ve probably heard a story like it: brassy self-made success. But what happens when our hero’s lungs fill with blood and open-heart surgery drives him to lose it all?

Joe Ski didn’t realize the Federal agents were storming through his office. He was rolling calls fast and hard, a shaggy-haired sales guy working to pull down the big numbers. He was having a great day. A killer day. Then an agent in a blue windbreaker grabbed his phone and ordered him out of the cubicle. That’s when Joe realized his company was going under.

It wasn’t the first failure. Joe ran with three other guys in the Carlsbad startup scene. They kicked off some businesses and bought their way into others. The guys would try and show each other up while they each looked for The Big One, a haul that’d push them all into early retirement. The gang worked hard and played hard, trying to outdo each other in everything from deal size to drinks to the cost of their cars and wristwatches. Joe’s life was thrilling. It was demanding. He found himself with increasingly less time for his wife, his daughter, and his son, a plucky little ten-year-old with four eyes and adult ambitions.

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The Big One came soon after the FBI raid. Joe and his three buds worked their way into a management buyout of an explosive data center infrastructure company. Joe found himself making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, plus bonuses, plus equity. He set an aggressive goal for himself: he’d clear a million dollars every year. He was the sales guy. He could do it.

Then his heart went out.

The pain was sudden, unexpected, a harsh, fast, crippling blow in the midst of a sprint to the top. Joe’s wife, Kym, is the conscientious planner of the two. She made Joe schedule a series of medical tests. He did. And then he cancelled them. The pain had gone and the money was coming. Joe didn’t know that his mitral valve was failing, that a cleft kept seventy percent of blood from moving correctly through his heart. When Kym finally prevailed, the doctor saw early results, and, aghast, refused to let Joe run on a treadmill for his stress test. The risks were too severe. Running could kill him.

Shaken, Joe phoned his guide, Kurt. They had planned a family vacation to Tanzania. Joey, Joe’s scrawny young son, had discovered a love of hiking when he joined Joe and one of his compadres on an ascent of Mt Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevadas. The pair made an improbable summit of the massive peak. They bonded. So the father and son decided to plan a trip to Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They hired Kurt, a weathered mountain man with several Everest summits under his belt, to be their guide. Kurt tried to convince Joe to move forward with his Tanzania trip. Travel had been booked, lodging secured, local guides put in place and most of the time clients “reasons” for cancelling were more about nerves than real problems. Joe ultimately decided to cancel the expedition. Within days, Kurt lost a hiker he was guiding up Mt Whitney to a heart attack. Kurt started to like Joe’s choice.

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Joe’s condition was worsening. He had blood in his lungs. He was getting frail. His team of doctors arranged a rare referral to the Cleveland Clinic to try and repair the damage in his heart. If the valve could be repaired, Joe might fully heal. If it had to be replaced, his life would change drastically. Joe would have to stop hiking. Eliminate stress. Go on blood thinners. Surviving a replacement surgery would be a death sentence for his high-powered life.

Joey didn’t know the details. All he knew was that the trip had been cancelled and his dad was facing surgery that would stop his heart. It was a stressful summer. The kid didn’t know it, but the worst was still coming.

Joe survived the operation. A top surgeon and the miracle of robotics meant the valve could be repaired, not replaced. He started the path to recovery. Made it back to work. And that’s where the bombshell was waiting. Like many people who faced death, Joe had found increased faith during his ordeal. He started to re-evaluate. So when his business partners came to him with a deal to host a European porn company’s websites, a deal worth over $50 Million, Joe said no. His partners were confused. Why would he turn down that kind of cash?

Joe called Kurt. Booked a flight for his family. They were going to Tanzania.

Joe’s heart had been cut up and his tight group of friends was broken. The trip was supposed to be a long fresh breath. It was about family. So Joe set out to spend some time with his wife and kids and take his son and daughter up a mountain. The family needed to get away.

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They finally got to “Killy,” only to get pummeled by the ascent. Joey struggled first. He fought the pain hard, but when he puked and fell to his knees, Joe realized the climb might be over. “We really learned each other through hiking,” he’d say later. Joe helped his kid son to his feet, helped him breathe, helped him cry until the stress wore off. Then Joe started to fall back himself. Everyone was numb. The summit was hidden.

Until it wasn’t. Their African guides started a joyful chant, the sun rose, and the summit appeared, just a few hundred feet off. “It was…it was like a movie,” remembers Joe. They had made it. Joe read a letter to both his kids, reminding them how far they’d come, telling them how to persevere. Tears were shed. Father and son fought to breathe in the thin air.

Joe was forced to abandon the company he had helped build. The end was not happy. A close confidant knifed him in the back. A hundred thousand dollars was taken off the top of his severance. When the money was stolen, Joe became furious. He drove home, speeding down the freeway, ready to punch through a wall. Then he got the chance to think. Reflect. The world didn’t turn on a hundred grand. But he knew he had hiked with his friends for the last time.

In a few months, Joe and Joey and Kurt are flying to South America to take on Aconcagua, and continue the dream of conquering the highest peak on every continent. Money’s tighter now. Joe’s getting older. But Joey’s turned into a strong, confident teenager. He’s an athlete ambasdor for a boot company. A real athlete. He even started a charity to help poor children in the countries he visits. The kid’s come from behind, growing from a skinny little nipper into kind of a badass.

His dad couldn’t be more proud.


Watch our cigar conversation with Joe on YouTube