So, you wrote about the dead guy again.
You mean my best friend who died five years ago in a mountain climbing accident nearly ten years to the day after he’d been mauled by a grizzly in Yellowstone Park? Yes, I did write about him again. The book is called Altitude Sickness.
Well, we were best friends for over two decades and, like I say in the book, we got together and broke up more times than the earth has rotated the sun, so I’d say his sudden death at the age of forty-two was fairly earth-shattering. We loved each other deeply and his death nearly destroyed me. And I’ve been a writer most of my professional life, so it’s kind of hard to bypass all this.
Well, obviously. Anyone with a functioning brain stem should be able to figure out that part. But why did you call the book Altitude Sickness?
Because I think mountain climbing is dangerous and inane. Because I think climbers are in profound denial about the dangers they repeatedly undertake and the stresses their loved ones incur. Because I think drug addicts who are actively using–and we’ll get to them in a second–are equally in denial, but at least they don’t claim their activity is healthy. You’ll hear an addict deny their addiction, but they don’t try to convince you that cocaine is healthy.
You sound kind of pissed.
Oh, I’m beyond pissed. I’m angry.
You know it’s kind of futile being angry at a dead guy, right? You might as well try cutting steak with a spoon: you’re changing nothing.
One, no shit. Two, anger at the dead is spectacularly common. Jesus, read a fucking book. Or talk to people who’ve lost loved ones and who, also, articulate their feelings.
Do you think it’s easier to be angry at him than it is to miss him?
Yes, unquestionably. I discuss that in Altitude Sickness. He’s been dead five years. I stopped actively grieving him years ago. I fell in love again and am the happiest I’ve been. My fiance´is brilliant and funny and kind and, while this is beside the point, has excellent taste in shirts. But grief is a sneaky motherfucker and just when you think it’s gone, it turns out it was just napping. And when it pounces, it cuts your heart with razors and then sprays the wounds with gasoline. Grief is a psychopath. And the dead, the person who loved you most and who always protected you, is the person who introduced the two of you. So, a bit of anger is unsurprising. Particularly when the death was preventable.
How was his death preventable?
He defined himself as a climber. He said he felt most alive when he was climbing. But that begs the question, “Why did he feel most alive by risking death again and again?” High altitude climbing is inherently dangerous and, as he told me, he’d reached the point where anything under six thousand feet felt “boring.” If something goes wrong at that altitude, a person is generally hosed. In his case, the rock gave way, he fell one thousand feet, and he died instantly. As I told him during what turned out to be one of our last arguments, “You’re not not Sir Edmund Hillary. You’re risking your life again and again for no apparent reason.” Yet so many of his climbing friends ascribed a military-like heroism to his death. Which is as childish as it is stupid. He wasn’t on an overseas mission saving lives. The course of history wouldn’t have changed if he’d remained at sea level for fifteen consecutive seconds.
In Altitude Sickness, you describe in detail climbing’s risks and fallacies. Do you think you’ll prevent anyone from climbing?
Oh, god, no. Like I said above, climbers as a group are in profound denial. When he was alive, I knew dozens of them. Convincing them they could die climbing was like convincing a moon landing conspiracist that Neil Armstrong wasn’t faking.
Then what are you trying to do with Altitude Sickness?
I’d like climbers to have open and honest discussions with their loved ones about what they’ll leave behind should they go missing and/or die climbing. I’d like climbers to have their wills in order. It’s not enough to say, “I’m content if I die climbing.” As responsible and moral adults, they have to acknowledge people love them. And that these people will suffer huge loss should they die. And given that most climbers are relatively young, they should think about what lies ahead and whether it’s worth halving their lives to summit another peak.
Why did you write Altitude Sickness now?
I’d been taking notes on it for the past two years. In the spring, Future Tense Books, approached me. They said they were launching a new ebook line, Instant Future, in conjunction with their twentieth year anniversary and they wanted me to kick it off. They asked if I had a subject that would be right for a 10,000- to 12,000-word essay or memoir. I said I did and explained the premise of Altitude Sickness. I love Future Tense, they’re starting their third decade as one of the best independent publishers, and I’m grateful I have so many events coming up surrounding the book. It guts me, though, that this is the book’s subject. When he was alive, whenever I felt down, he’d cheer me by discussing how we’d celebrate the launch of my first book. (I have two others that are nearly finished.) Quite obviously, this isn’t what either of us foresaw.
You said you’d double-back to active drug users. What’s that about?
In Altitude Sickness, I examine the new and estimable research indicating the brains of addicts and of those who engage in extreme sports like climbing are strikingly similar. Essentially, the prevailing theory is that the brains of both groups are hardwired to require more stimulation to produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel joy. So, there seem to be a number of factors at work.
Would you be so angry about his death if you didn’t think he was so wonderful while he was alive?
Of course not. He was as intelligent, funny, and sweet as he was stubborn. He took care of me when I had shingles. We saw hundreds of films together. We had much sex and made each other laugh at goofy and inappropriate times. We kept each other’s secrets and helped each other through crises. Like I said, we were best friends.
When do you think you’ll stop missing him?
Maybe when I’m dead.
LITSA DREMOUSIS is the author of Altitude Sickness, a wry and candid examination of rock and mountain climbing and the mainstream culture that venerates it. Available from Future Tense Books’ new ebook line Instant Future, October 2014. Her essay “After the Fire” was selected as one of the “Most Notable Essays of 2011” by “Best American Essays 2012”. The Seattle Weekly named her one of “50 Women Who Rock Seattle”. Her work appears in The Believer, BlackBook, Esquire, Jezebel, McSweeney’s, Men’s Health, Monkeybicycle, MSN, New York Magazine, Nerve, Nylon, The Onion’s A.V. Club, Paste, Poets & Writers, Salon, Slate, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, on KUOW, NPR and in sundry other venues. Twitter: @LitsaDremousis.