IN THE LAST DECADE OF THE LAST CENTURY, the videographer, writer and bon vivant Michael Strassman spied a line on a certain Minaret in the High Sierra, a slab-to-knife-edge buttress so obvious in its stegosaurus-like sweep from snowfield to summit that he double-checked the usual sources to ensure that his efforts would result in a first ascent. A month later, we were angling up the immense talus fan above Iceberg Lake. It was a cobalt, windless morning, the arid chill redolent of autumn, the ground already hardened by an early frost. Mike’s dog, Nucko, a scrappy straw-colored retriever mix, strayed from our path, absorbed and oblivious, to mince through blocks shorn from the cliffs overhead.
I was hiking faster than Mike, and I stopped on a bench a hundred or so yards from snowline to take in the late-summer expanse of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. In the aftermath of a big winter, sheets of snow calved into the shimmer of Iceberg Lake. The swollen waters of Cecile Lake seemed barely contained by a dusky spur of the Volcanic Ridge. To the far south, the peaks of the Silver Divide rose hazy and snow-tipped. I was scanning the soft swell of the San Joaquin Ridge when Mike came into view, bereft of his usual duck-footed lilt, scowling and cursing and wagging his head as he waded through the purgatory of talus. He was one of the Sierra’s most prolific first ascensionists at the time, also renowned as the filmmaker, director and editor of the well-known video, Moving Over Stone. But now Mike limped up to the bench, wincing whenever he weighted his left leg. “Dude. I totally hit the wall back there,” he said. The low-angle, stair-stepped terrain had pruned his swagger. He was inconsolable. His knee had crapped out.
Mike cocked his head toward the stegosaur and exhaled through pursed lips, his yellow ball cap raked at a jaunty angle. I’d heard variations of this forlorn phrase uttered at the base of peaks; hell, I’d heard them issue from my own lips, the foreshadowing of “Let’s bail.” I asked him what he wanted to do. He seemed mesmerized by a slab low on the buttress, a panel of which now shone golden in the sun. “That is dakine stone,” he said. He looked at me and deadpanned, “Keep going. Check it out….”
I suggested the possibility of a less ambitious objective. He must have been thinking the same.
“You know, I was just looking at this little pinnacle to the right,” he said. “That line looks fucking ‘whoa.’” He rasped out this last word, letting it ride his breath until it trickled to a stop. He stared at what I sensed was about to become the abandoned objective, and I imagined him climbing it in his mind’s eye, which is what climbers do, and telling himself that it wasn’t going anywhere, which is also what climbers do. I felt the tautness of the day slacken several notches. He panned his gaze to the right.
“OK. I like that. I think that’s our best option for glory today.” Mike was talking about our new objective. He pulled down his sweatpants, plopped down on a slab, bare ass on rock, to examine the injury. “You know? Usually I’m hassling someone else,” he said as he winched a bandage around his left knee. I hadn’t been hassling him, of course, but I let him continue. “It’s usually me telling others they’re going too slow.” He tied off the end of the bandage, stood up and said he felt better.
Mike’s pinnacle was, in actuality, one of the Minarets, diminutive but sheer, among the last to have been climbed in the Ritter Range: Dyer. Mike ordered Nucko “home,” back to a broad pool formed by Iceberg Lake’s outlet, where we’d dumped our big packs. The dog hesitated. “Nuck!” Mike said, pointing his finger toward Iceberg Lake, and the dog turned tail and started downslope. We cramponed up an apron of corn snow, climbed a short, smooth headwall and came to rest in a broad notch.
“It’s lunchtiiiiiiime,” Mike cried in a falsetto, cracked open his pack and exhumed a turkey on rye.
Soon enough we’d climbed the single technical pitch on Dyer’s fissured and fine-grained northwest face, embroidered with chalky veins and splashed with bright-green lichen crust. And then we were perched on the gendarme- like summit, with the great jagged bulwark of the Minarets scything to the south, and the stolid dark hulks of Ritter and Banner anchoring the range to the north. We added our names to the other few in the register and rapped to the snow. Mike broke into a ballad, perhaps the Steeleye Span tune about the saucy sailor, frolicsome…easy, good tempered and free. He was looking forward to patting his dog, changing into his shearling slippers, and swilling the sweet, spiked concoction he called “Go-Go Juice.”
When we returned to camp, Nucko was gone. We whistled; we called; we implored. Mike propped a ground pad against a block of volcanic breccia and rested his cheek against the stone. “Awww, Nuck.” He was too lame to hike out that night, but I ran to Ediza Lake and lucked into a couple of backpackers who’d glimpsed the dog padding toward the John Muir Trail. Mike and I slumped out of the backcountry the next morning. At Shadow Lake, he threw off his pack, sat next to a gnarled lodgepole pine to pluck a stone out of his boot. He shook his head.
“Well, Brad,” he said, “so ends another Sierra trip. And you know? It’s interesting, because this one…. What did I say? Do we want to go for the majesty or the glory? I was glory, all the way. First ascent, ego-pumping,” he said. He waved his fist as if beating on a drum. “And what happens? I can’t handle it. I’m bonking. I’m dying. But I pull through; I pull through. We get to the top of Dyer.” Here he paused and half-grinned and half grimaced. “And then…the karmic blow: Nuck. And at this time, it’s still unresolved. I’m just…anxious.”
Back in Mammoth, I drove Mike to his girlfriend’s apartment complex. Nucko lay on the stoop. The dog’s hair was matted, and her muzzle appeared bleached, her dark eyes tired and recessed. She managed to wag her tail weakly. Mike gathered her into his arms and buried his face in her fur. They limped to his truck and set off for home.
ONE RECENT SUMMER, finding myself surrounded by those years known as middle age, I set out to prove my not-dead-yetness by accomplishing some glorious thing, a self-propelled circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe from door to door, running, mountain biking, kayaking and road bike riding in one push, with a side-trip to the crags of Donner Summit, using the Lake’s dirt, aqueous and asphalt beltway. I worked with a coach who catapulted me from about four hours of training each week to four times that. I ignored her advice and stretched hour-long trail runs into three. Soon the sensation of glass shards incised my Achilles, but I kept running until the ankle locked up and a lump the size of a robin’s egg protruded from the sheath. When I rushed into physical therapy, the coach and therapist advised me to curb my athletic ambitions.
I was then in graduate school at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying for a journalism degree— another phase of my midlife do-over—and I moved to Vermont for an internship at Alpinist Magazine. Too injured to batter my body running on the Long Trail, I noodled my road bike past dairy farms stocked with happy heifers, aimlessly fat-tired up trails lined with maple trees and blue sap lines, and ambled along verdant fields on dewy nights when the breeze flowed down the lower flanks of Mt. Mansfield amid the neon strobes of fireflies. I returned to Nevada sated, but soft, and still limping. The lack of edgy vigor hadn’t nudged the earth out of orbit, sequestered the sunrise or stifled the bloom of the lupine. I felt fine and quite alive, and I found myself thinking of Mike’s improvised sermon on that mid-August day by Shadow Lake.
Much later, one of Mike’s oldest friends and climbing partners explained to me that “majesty” was Mike’s shorthand for the sacred and the selfless, while “glory” represented the gluttonous pursuit of fame. Mike knew, then, that as stunning as a transcendent hit of first-ascent euphoria might be, its half-life can be fleeting at best, addictive at worst and ultimately lacking resonance against the inescapable end of life. All too often, he might say, we’re tempted to commit the “only blasphemy” limned by John Long, risking everything to engender self-esteem, placing vainglorious goals ahead of friends and family. We suffer when we fail to fill that inchoate void, searching for something lost when we were very young—and never found again in objects or places or figures in ledgers. Sometimes it’s enough merely to soak in the majesties that flow from, say, palming the Sierra’s quartz-bejeweled granite on a long ridge well within one’s abilities, and sitting astride a solitary block that has persisted despite millennia of winter’s ice and vicious winds.
By the time all these thoughts coalesced, of course, I could no longer ask Mike what he really meant. I’d left the Eastern Sierra for the Bay Area a month after the Dyer adventure to begin a temporary new life that required power neckties and impeccable hair. A few years later, Nuck went missing again. This time, she never journeyed home. Although Mike’s knee healed, and he went on to enjoy many more adventures, he died in 2007, after developing a strange infatuation with crystal meth. He’d tasted much majesty in his life: traveling the world with friends to make adventure videos, new-routing in the Arizona deserts, marrying a woman he loved—and playing flute with his left leg cocked against the right, as the shadows of bonfires leapt off the curdled granite surround of Casa Diablo Mountain. Restive, and possessed of a hunger to consume as much of the endless Sierra skyline as he could (which he loved, perhaps, more than any living thing), he’d also continued to seek out striking lines.
As his meth habit waxed, Mike’s sweetness gave way to a persistent dourness and defensiveness; he lost his way, and then he lost his marriage. Just when it appeared that he was coming back to himself—he had a new job, and he was teaching kids to climb—he took that last fatal dose into his body on a sweltering September evening on the outskirts of Lone Pine.
Family and friends divided his ashes and scattered them in the places he loved the best. A group of visiting climbers established a six-pitch climb on the south face of Lone Pine Peak and named it Michael Strassman Memorial Route. After repeating the route with SP Parker and Andrew Soleman, Doug Robinson uncapped a plastic film canister and tossed his friend’s ashes aloft.
A southwesterly wind caught the atomized bones and sent them scudding towards the Owen Valley; then an eddy took them north. Perhaps they dusted the wings of a raven rasping toward Whitney’s needles, or else they rode thermals, drifting over the arid summits of the Inyos, across the cracked salt plains of Death Valley and into the rain-shadow desert of the Mojave. Frolicsome…easy, good tempered and free. For me, he’ll forever live in his thirty-six-year-old body, wearing a pained half-grin, explaining why those middling majesties are in greater symmetry with a well-lived life than questing, often in vain, for glory.
Brad Rassler’s writing has appeared in Outside, Sierra, Alpinist, Ascent, and other outdoor publications. He and his longtime partner, Jane, live in the foothills of Northern Nevada’s Carson Range.
This story originally appeared in Alpinist Magazine. Many thanks to Alpinist’s Editor-in-Chief, Katie Ives, who helped mold this piece, and to Adam Howard, Height of Land’s CEO, for his permission to reprint it.