Late last year, journalist, essayist and fiction writer Litsa Dremousis published Altitude Sickness, a memoir about losing her best friend (and sometimes lover), Neal, in a climbing accident five years ago. Published as part of a new e-book series by Portland’s Future Tense Books, the memoir paints a portrait both of a remarkable person and of a funny, poignant relationship while unfolding the story of Neal’s death.
In it, Dremousis deftly cuts together scenes from a decades-long friendship with details about what it was like to wait and wonder during Neal’s four-day disappearance in the wilderness, and what it was like to lose him at age 42. Along with her personal recollections, she mixes in research about climbing as a kind of neurobiological addiction, a physical compulsion that defies reason. The effect is a haunting criticism of extreme sports that pulses with moral ambiguity.
Dremousis and I got together to talk about the book and her views about the risks climbers take and reality they can leave behind.
How did this book project get started?
Future Tense approached me on April 30. For their 20-year anniversary, they wanted to launch their first e-book line, Instant Future. There’s going to be five or six of us in the series and they asked me to launch it.
Are they all novella length?
Yes. They wanted to do between 10,000 and 12,000 words. In print that’s a harder length to pull off. In magazines it’s almost always too long. It’s kind of chapbook-length. They thought, if we’re launching an e-book line, let’s do something different with it. Let’s have a reason we’re doing this e-book as opposed to just an experiment to see what the market will withstand. Kevin Sampsell is with Future Tense and Matthew Simmons is my editor and it’s been great to work with those guys. I’ve known them peripherally for years, but we’ve never worked together. It’s just been the best fit. It’s been very easy and they’ve been really supportive.
Did you already have the idea for the book when they approached you?
Yes. I knew what I wanted to write and I had been taking notes on it for two years. I had the title, everything. Then there was this pause where I realized, oh, I’m climbing down that hole again. I hadn’t read Neal’s email in three or four years, and all the cards and letters, going through his obituaries. All the notes from Search and Rescue. In order to get on with my life, I had stopped looking at that stuff years ago. It was diving into all of that again and realizing again how wonderful and loving he was.
Neal isn’t his real name. Why did you call him that in the book?
That was my nickname for him. It was easier to write the book calling him by his nickname than by his real name. Because if I had to constantly refer to him by his real name, that would’ve been constant upheaval.
How did he get the nickname?
He used to tease that he was Neal Cassady and I was Jack Kerouac—that essentially he was the lovable goofball and I kept writing about him. I published four pieces about him when he was alive and he just said, “Go with it. I trust you.”
What was it like to comb through all of those old letters and records?
At this point in my life I don’t have anyone who’s an active addict, but I have a lot of friends in recovery. When I was younger, I would discuss with my friends, you know, “I love you, you have a problem.” And they would be completely rational about every other subject except that. When I was going through my emails with Neal, it felt that way. Five years later, having this distance, it was clear this is a brilliant guy who’s loving and compassionate and sentient in every other aspect of his life.
In 2007, there had been another disaster on Mt. Hood. My Esquire editor asked me if I knew anyone who climbs Mt. Hood. I said, “Actually I do, but we used to date. Is that cool?” He said, “I don’t care, as long as he climbs.” So there’s actually an Esquire piece—it’s both eerie and comforting to read it now. My editor titled it “When Idiots Go Climbing.” Of course, we didn’t know he was going to die. But he talks a lot about what would happen if he would go missing and no one would be under moral obligation to go search for him. Like I discuss in the book, that played out much better in theory than in practice.
It’s like climbers have a blind spot.
He actually said in the Esquire piece that most climbing deaths, he believes, are due to human error. That people push it when they should turn back. He devoted his whole life to climbing. He wasn’t a weekend warrior. If the climate was bad, he could turn back. If the route didn’t look safe, he could turn back. That’s the point I keep making with everyone: No amount of sentience or experience is ever going to trump loose rock.
A journalist from New Zealand asked me, shouldn’t someone have the right to climb if that’s what brings them joy? Of course they should. I’m not advocating that climbers stop climbing. But I think there’s a real myopia that sets in, and a real denial of death. I think it’s incumbent upon the climber to have the conversation with their loved ones, to make sure their will is in order, to have the discussion. What I’ve found is that any time a climber dies—which in this region is quite often—the climber’s friends find reasons why that couldn’t happen to them. Just like addicts do.
As I was reading, I was wondering if you got in his face about it. And then, lo and behold, two pages later, you did.
It wasn’t until after he died that I started doing research on the neurological similarities between climbers and addicts. There was a piece in a scientific journal by a journalist who likes to go diving with sharks. She herself started to do neurobiological research because she feels a sense of euphoria when she’s close to the sharks. More and more research is examining the levels of dopamine that are produced by base jumpers, shark divers…
Whenever I see anyone go missing, I immediately feel for their loved ones and then there’s this sense of anger—hey you assholes, what the hell were you doing? Mt. Rainier just came off of its second deadliest season in history. Everest it was by far their deadliest season. Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, just had its deadliest season.
Do you think that rise in the number of deaths has anything to do with climate change? Maybe practiced, experienced climbers are expecting the earth to behave the way it used to, but the earth is changing.
Yes. There’s an enormous amount of research about that. If I’d had a longer book, I would have gone into it. Are we seeing more avalanches now because of climate change? The preliminary answer seems to be yes.
The book is very brave. What was the hardest part to write?
The most difficult part to write was not the funeral or the vigil. I realized we needed this person alive to show why the loss was so catastrophic.
The first scene that cuts back in time shows the two of you together eating cheese and crackers. It’s a simple but powerful scene.
And that was the hardest part to write. At the time there was no reason to think that night would take on so much significance. In order to get through all of this [loss], I had to compartmentalize a lot, because we went all over the city together. So those first two years, everything was a land mine. Joan Didion describes this in The Year of Magical Thinking—where you see something unexpected and all of a sudden time collapses and you’re back. The two hardest were that cheese and crackers scene and the end. It was exhausting, physically and emotionally.
Did you know the book was going to be a mix of personal stories and research?
Yes. I know it was going to be a combination of my story and the current neurobiology. I knew I wanted to weave it together and I wanted it to be funny. Because Neal was funny. Otherwise you’re just pounding people over the head. From a writing standpoint, it would have been so much harder to not have a release valve. You don’t want it to feel like a release valve. You don’t want it to feel like homework. That’s why I wanted the research interspersed with my story.
The passages that are research-driven provide relief from the emotional torque, too.
Yes—and things like the fact that he buried his cat outside his window and hand-carved the headstone and the fact that he paid that older man’s rent for over a decade—I wanted a sense of who he was, aside from climbing. It makes the contrast that much more impossible to fathom—how someone can be so compassionate and intelligent and then when the topic of climbing comes up, for there to be so much denial. I’m not against nature, and even if someone wants to climb, ok, do it. But I think they’re morally obligated to be much more honest.
What is it about our culture that fosters this?
[Climbing is] viewed as individual triumph. In the West, there’s not a lot of physical challenge—people want to feel a physical challenge and to commune with nature in a way that’s no longer possible on a day-to-day level. It becomes self-perpetuating. We see these iconic images in so many mainstream advertisements. I keep saying, show what Neal looked like after four and a half days in the wilderness. I mean, he fell 1,000 feet. Show that. Show the person who had to identify his body. But we don’t see that. It’s so heavily romanticized.
The last two years of Neal’s life, he did not go six days without climbing. This notion of “he died doing what he loved”—that’s great, but he should be here. I’ve accepted his death, but am I ever going to think it’s ok that he died doing what he loved? No.