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Some thoughts on an improbable journey - newsletter


Some thoughts on an improbable journey

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Mike Sullivan, the day after the author's wedding, on one of his many deep dives into blackberry bushes to gather fresh berries. He somehow managed to avoid all thorns, while harvesting impressive yeilds. - photo © David Schmidt

Dear Recipient Name

My friend Mike Sullivan wasn't a sailor. But if he was, I suspect he would have been a lot like Bernard Moistessier, forsaking racecourse glory to save his soul in the Southern Ocean.

Chris, my lifelong friend, and I met Mike at the Himalayan Explorers Club in Kathmandu, Nepal, in early October of 1999. Chris and I were 22, fit, brash, and motivated to hammer our crampons into Himalayan ice. Mike was older, I think 36, wiser, equally fit, and far more experienced in the high mountains than either Chris or I, who, if I'm being honest, were nothing more than fresh-out-of-college graduates, hellbent on shedding the privileges and parental-imposed filters of our Fairfield County, Connecticut upbringings.

Mike was from a decidedly harder-knock school. His dad wasn't on the scene, and his mom, whom he loved, drank. Mike paid his own way through college at Rutgers University, where he earned an honors-level degree in electrical engineering, via his seemingly complimentary interests in personal economics and mind-altering substances.

I clearly remember a long talk with Mike, riding on top of a dilapidated Tata-built bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara and the Annapurna Sanctuary - he insisted that we ride up top with the porters, so that if the bus went off a cliff (always a possibility back then), we at least had a chance (jumping) - when he told us about his final week at Rutgers. Graduation took place on Sunday, his wedding to his college sweetheart unfurled Monday, and by Wednesday, the newlyweds were en route to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Mike had a job waiting for him at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

His gig? Building "instruments" that would be used for (or related to) the nation's nuclear-weapons arsenal and - eventually - serving as a technical expert on Glasnost-era trips to the former Soviet Union to ensure that the regime was complying with various arms accords.

Just the thing for a guy with a lifelong interest in psychedelics.

[If you're suspicious that this isn't about sailing, hang with me.]

From 8,000 meters, Mike had it all: A wife and family, a promising career, a house (and a mortgage - he was fond of explaining that "mortgage" is French for "death contract", an assertion that I never independently verified but occasionally perpetuate) and all the trimmings of the American Dream.

Which is when the mountains began exerting a gravity that Moitessier would have understood.

It started when he took up telemark skiing, before quickly progressing to rock climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering. Mike was a gifted athlete, and he had the head and the personal and physical grace to match.

Weekend backcountry skiing and climbing trips began usurping chess games. Numerous trips to the now-defunct USSR happened, trips where Mike was often the only actual technical expert in the room (everyone else was CIA, or so he said).

The pressures of dealing with "nuclear instruments" (his words) mounted, and climbing became a necessary escape-cum-coping mechanism. And for Mike, the closer to his personal and rapidly-evolving edge the climb and the experience were, the more potent the release.

After his marriage ended, Mike opted for the tall mountains, first the 14ers of Colorado, Utah, and Washington, then the big Mexican volcanoes and a foray to the Andes. By the time we met him, he had been climbing non-stop for almost eight years, with the resume to match. Chris and I didn't have a fraction of Mike's experience, but he took us under his wing anyway.

Deep and lasting friendships were forged in tea houses and in single-wall tents perched high on Himalayan glaciers. Oxygen-deprived philosophy sessions and chess games were in heavy rotation, as were frank talks about risk and the kind of table stakes required to earn a fleeting perch atop something grand.

Somewhere in the Annapurna Sanctuary, high on a mountain called Tharpu Chuli (18,684 feet), I realized that Mike and Chris were willing to play for bigger stakes than I was. They summitted; I succumbed to hypothermia and descended.

The adventures continued, in Nepal and across the American West. Chris and I helped Mike build an off-the-grid strawbale house in Crestone, Colorado, near the Great Sand Dunes National Park and under the Sangre de Cristo range's sawtooth skyline (Mike climbed all of them, sometimes in winter, often alone) the next summer.

And we argued. Sometimes bitterly. But always with love and respect.

His calling had become photovoltaic systems, and he volunteered his time installing solar panels everywhere from Tibetan monasteries to earthquake-ravished Haiti (2010). His goal was simple: to leverage his electrical engineering expertise to give the poor and desperate a modicum of dignity and the ability to read and play chess after dark.

And to always have some serious adventures along the way.

The author, helping plant a katsura tree - photo © David Schmidt
The author, helping plant a katsura tree - photo © David Schmidt

In 2012, Mike spent a week at my house in Seattle. That's when he helped my wife, Coreen, and I plant a lovely-but-still-fledgling katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) - the ones that emit a chemical compound (maltol) in late summer/early fall that smells just like cotton candy - on the strip of grass bifurcating our sidewalk from the street.

I remember him suffering from a cold and exhaustion on that trip - by then he was living out of his Toyota Tacoma and climbing and skiing some 150-200 days a year - but he kept his perfect record on the chessboard; in 13 years and hundreds of attempts, I never took a single game off of him.

Mike fell to his death on Monday, August 28, 2017, a week after the solar eclipse, while rappelling down a route near Steeple Peak in Wyoming's Wind River Range that he and his partner had just completed. Something happened at the belay ledge, something I'll never know or understand. While Mike had an affinity for un-roped travel on terrain that I would have plugged full of Camalots, he had Jedi-like control over his mind. In 18-plus years of knowing him, I never once saw him get scared (and trust me, we tested that plenty). His climbing partner was looking in the other direction when Mike fell, but - years later - Chris and I learned that his last words were: "Oh, wow."

The author's wife, celebrating a successful tree planting in 2012. - photo © David Schmidt
The author's wife, celebrating a successful tree planting in 2012. - photo © David Schmidt

Suddenly, a street tree that was planted on a warm October afternoon in 2012 took on outsized importance; Aside from mutual friends, this tree was my last living connection to my friend. Let's just say that it never wanted for water or sunlight.

Coreen and I decided to sell our Seattle digs as the first volley of the pandemic was sounding (an unrelated strategical decision), and we hadn't yet found our next domicile when we closed. With tears flowing, we picked a few katsura leaves, which we pressed in waxed paper in a hardcover book, and we left word with the neighbors to press gang the new owners into taking care of our connection to Mike. We were also clear that if the new owners ever wanted the tree gone, they should ping us.

And that's exactly what they did. Fortunately, we were by then in possession of a new patch of dirt in Bellingham, Washington, that was in need of just such a tree.

Let the tree-rescue games begin! - photo © David Schmidt
Let the tree-rescue games begin! - photo © David Schmidt

Coreen, a landscape architect with connections to arborists, worked the logistics, and I started working my phone, assembling a small army of friends and former neighbors to take on what we assumed would be a (ballpark) 500-pound root ball, load it onto a flatbed trailer, and then move it some 90 miles up I-5.

The response amongst my friends and neighbors was unreal, and humbling. Some of these people helped me deal with Mike's loss in 2017, others thought it sounded like a great adventure, and ten days ago they all showed up motivated to work hard. We knew our odds of success were low, and the misery factor had the potential to be high. But we also knew that this was exactly the kind of Hail Mary that Mike would have loved, table stakes be damned.

Grinders, tacticians, and the skipper all worked together to accomplish something great. - photo © David Schmidt
Grinders, tacticians, and the skipper all worked together to accomplish something great. - photo © David Schmidt

Hours of heavy work and serious root-ball wresting followed. It's fair to say the little tree had done some growing in its nine years in the Emerald City. Everyone brought something valuable to the table, from the tacticians who called our next moves, to the grinders, whose job it was to (gently) move earth, to the trimmers, whose job was to ensure that the tree's now-bare canopy was properly tied, its hefty root ball properly wrapped in burlap, and its entirety secured in the flatbed, to our skipper (Coreen) who ensured that everything came together just so.

Preparing the tree for its improbably journey to Bellingham. - photo © David Schmidt
Preparing the tree for its improbably journey to Bellingham. - photo © David Schmidt

And it did.

Four hours, 90 miles, and significant mud accrual later, the tree arrived at our Bellingham house, where a team of college kids/professional movers helped us transplant the katsura to its freshly dug hole (consensus held that it weighed over 1,000 pounds).

Coreen and I were just finishing tamping-down the new topsoil as the rains came and as the last flicker of light vanished. We retreated inside for an earned bottle of wine, which we shared on the front porch, laughing, and telling Mike stories.

The author's wife, celebrating a hopefully successful tree-rescue mission in 2021 - photo © David Schmidt
The author's wife, celebrating a hopefully successful tree-rescue mission in 2021 - photo © David Schmidt

So, what does this have to do with sailing? Everything.

Having just had the good fortune and honor to compete in the Round the County race, which circumnavigates Washington State's majestic San Juan Islands, two weeks prior with my good friend Jonathan aboard his always-fast and well-sailed Riptide 44, Dark Star, I was freshly reacquainted with the joys and challenges of working hard with a group of friends to safely bring a delicate object around a challenging course. Adversity lurked, but our team pulled through and took second place, well-ahead of the TP52s. Most importantly, we had a blast doing so, despite the occasional moments of Type II fun.

Sipping my wine, listening to the rain hit my porch roof with Coreen, I realized that moving our katsura tree wasn't so different. Our crew of friends, family, neighbors, and professional movers pulled together, and we (read: Coreen) ensured that everyone played to their strengths to bring a delicate object on an improbable journey.

More importantly, we collectively achieved something greater than any of us could have done on our own.

Just like sailing.

While we won't know if our efforts were successful until the onset of spring's foliage, we saved the katsura from certain death (the new owners plan to install raised vegetable gardens in its stead), giving it a fighting chance... sort of like riding atop a dilapidated bus en route from Kathmandu to Pokhara, so many long years ago.

Namaskar, Mike Sullivan. I wish you had lived to someday - hopefully - see the Southern Ocean with me and Chris. But, if we're able to somehow make it to South Georgia island under sail, crampons and skis in hand, I will be carrying a katsura leaf to leave somewhere beautiful for you, old friend.

May the four winds blow you safely home,
David Schmidt

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