American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mike Strassman, 1960-2007

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

Mike Strassman 1960–2007

Mike Strassman, prolific first ascentionist, writer, and video maker was found dead at home in Lone Pine on July 1. He was 47 years old. Mike was best known for directing the 1988 video Moving Over Stone. But as his friends and climbing partners began comparing notes after his death, we realized that no one could count all the new routes Mike had done, because they are scattered across so much of the West. From Cochise Stronghold to the Idaho panhandle, and out obscure dirt roads in Nevada.

But mostly up and down the Eastern Sierra. I’m thinking 200, but at this point that’s just a wild guess.

Mike had first ascents on every one of the Mt. Whitney Needles, just for starters, a project that lasted decades and facetiously spawned the “East Face Club.” He counted nine Needles marching southward from Whitney, gave some of them trademark goofy names and eventually put FAs on each. The climbs themselves are often outstanding and serious. Like the proud Aiguille Junior (10a), and “the finest route I have done in the Whitney Region,” the South Face of Aiguille Extra. Like a solo FA on Keeler Needle that took eight days. On the face of Mt. Whitney itself, seven attempts finally led to a runout 5.11 crux. Name? “If at First...”

Strassman’s Greatest Hits in Arizona would have to include Ides of Middlemarch (5.9+) and Magnas Coloradas (5.11a) at Cochise Stronghold, and discovering the Wall of the Trundling Trolls on Mt. Lemmon. In the Sierra, there’s Malletosis (10b) in Tuolumne and well as Switch Hitter (10d) and He She (10b) in Rock Creek. Mike was a pioneer in the Owens River Gorge—try Nucko, Pride of the North (11b) and Steel Monkey (12c). And in the Alabama Hills you could choose from Strassman routes literally “too numerous to mention.”

When I met Mike in 1986 he was fresh out of UCLA film school and quickly inspired me with the dream of a video that became Moving Over Stone. We had no idea what we were getting into. Mike had produced nothing bigger than a five-minute student video, and I had never worked in the medium. Over the next year, with support from Patagonia and Austin Hearst, we filmed from Yosemite to Smith Rock, from Indian Creek to the Needles, with rock stars like John Bachar, Lynn Hill, Dale Bard, and Peter Croft. In between, our crew of three was often crammed among camera cases and tripods in my tiny VW Sirocco for long night drives crisscrossing the West. Leasing a shoulder-top TV camera, we quickly discovered that its old-school tube technology was delicate. Not built for dangling shots hundreds of feet up. One time it quit on us in Indian Creek, which led to the novel scene of Mike in a desert phone booth with a technician on the line trying desperately to repair it with a Swiss Army Knife. Half-shot sequences were adroitly salvaged by fine editing on Mike’s part. Moving Over Stone was the second-ever climbing video to hit the market. It went on to become the best selling “rock video” of all time.

Mike formed Range of Light Productions, which became well-known for snowboard and mountain bike videos, like Kamikaze, featuring deadly speed wobbles careening down Mammoth Mountain. Mike also wrote The Basic Essentials of Rock Climbing, Climbing Big Walls, and the first-ever guidebook to the Alabama Hills.

The sardonic way Mike treated his own life could become abrasive, even erupting into flame wars. But then he would turn generous and surprisingly civic-minded. Like the weekendin the Alabama Hills when he organized rock stars to teach disadvantaged kids to climb, then everyone built trails alongside the BLM ranger. And as Kevin Kleinfelter pointed out, “He was also a legendary entertainer. A Strassman party was not something to miss. Anyone who’s attended one of these events will know what I mean.”

Mike had been battling for years with crystal meth. Last spring he wrote a song about it, “Sorry Ass Tweaker.” which Peter Mayfield used to introduce a video warning to teenagers www.chromadynamics.com/lifeormeth.html. It’s powerful. And poignant.

Mike, I have a bottle of your ashes right here. Next spring I’m taking you with me up Birch Mountain again. We always talked about climbing that long, Dark Star–like buttress together. Our project deteriorated into wrangling over naming it after your dead friend or mine. Now it’s gonna be you.

Doug Robinson

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.