In her visceral memoir Altitude Sickness, Litsa Dremousis explores the indistinct realms of mourning and resentment, humor and tragedy, and absence and presence. After her sometimes-lover and lifelong friend Neal dies in a tragic climbing accident on Mt. Rainier, Dremousis turns to writing in order to attempt her “steep climb of a different kind” in which she treks through her past as well as her multifaceted and contradictory emotions of loss. While her journey at times wavers in tone and purpose, Altitude Sickness still presents a raw account of grief as well as scrutinizes the venerated climbing culture that she blames for Neal’s death.
The rawness and honesty of Dremousis’ account appears in both her experimental structure and bold tone. Even though her memoir is only 70 pages, she has divided it into thirty-one choppy chapters. Dremousis writes, “Sometimes it’s easier for me to be angry at Neal than it is to miss him,” and it is in these short chapters that her anger most clearly erupts. The chapters shatter into brief snippets, ranging from women throwing themselves on funeral pyres to Courtney Love to Clif bars, and here we see the cracks of her over-processed tone. In the Clif bar chapter, she shifts from “When the worst of my grief subsided I resumed imbibing their tasty goodness” to “Fuck you, Clif bars. Fuck you straight to hell.” Anger as the shadow of sorrow becomes one of the key undercurrents of the narrative.
Yet lines like these also reveal Altitude Sickness’ unstable flux between tragedy and humor. The memoir opens with the line “The funeral ate balls,” and from here on out the reader views the entire tone of the piece with an uncertain and awkward lightheartedness. Dremousis disregards this jarring first sentence and delves into an excessively formal tone in which she describes her relationship with Neal as being “intertwined romantically or platonically for 21 years.” It is when Dremousis sheds both this clumsy humor and overblown formality that we glance the real magnitude of her grief. She visualizes Neal’s tragic fall and writes, “Even in death, Neal had remained in perpetual motion.” However, she immediately undercuts this poetic line with “My brother Gus was right: today’s funeral ate balls.” We see the same destabilizing humor when she lambasts all climbers: “People love you, you selfish, short-sighted idiots. If you die climbing, you don’t know how much you’ll be missed.” She follows this poignant address with “For God’s sake, fleece pullovers are not dinner attire.” Whenever the prose approaches a painful moment of realization it retreats to safer ground.
The restless prose jumps from formal to angry to humorous to even scholarly tones as she enters extended essayistic sections on the selfishness of risk-taking. These didactic addresses and reprimands to climbers serve as Altitude Sickness’ most unique angle. Rather than staying within the realm of her own grief, Dremousis ventures into the territory of scientific studies and research articles as if she needs concrete facts to understand Neal’s motivations and her own anger. Able to weigh both the splendor and the masochism of great heights, she portrays climbers as possessing a “certain damaged beauty.” Dremousis not only renders the literal rise and fall of a man but also the idolized culture of climbing surrounding him.
The cultural and ethical discussion of risk-taking comes to the forefront and in turn inflates the image of Neal to represent an entire ethos. In fact, we never truly see an in-focus image of Neal. Instead we see her version of him who eternally exists as a composite of superlatives. We see “his massive intelligence,” how he was “even kinder than he was complicated,” and how he was “so astonishingly fit.” We never see Neal as a character. We only see his legend. We see his ability to skirt fate again and again. We see his bicycle accidents, hiking mishaps, and even a bear mauling.
Dremousis tenderly weaves together the narrative of Neal’s bear attack with the narrative of his death, and the moments of intersection are the most poignant. She notes how he wore the “Yellowstone Park Medical Services” cap the paramedics gave him after the attack in the last picture before he died. She sobs when she imagines Neal’s body undergoing an autopsy because she knew what he looked like inside after he was mauled. Two days before Neal’s fatal climb they host a “Bear-iversary” party to commemorate ten years since the attack. She tells Neal, “I’m glad you’re still here” – the haunting last spoken words of the text.
It is in these tender moments that Dremousis packs the strongest punch. She captures how grief hides in the quiet details: Neal’s food still in her refrigerator after his death; her confusion at the doctor’s office when she realizes her “In Case of Emergency” person is dead; the fact that she can see where Neal died when she goes to the grocery store. She even dives into loss at the level of language. She stumbles over the word “we” as she realizes “there’s no verb in the English language that describes one of you in present tense and the other one of you in past.” These painfully precise descriptions reveal grief’s ability to manifest itself in the everyday.
How can you come to terms with absence when triggers surround you? How can you balance between absurdity and tragedy? How can you forgive someone for willfully placing himself in danger? How can you prevent a death that has already occurred? Dremousis’ Altitude Sickness scales these questions and more as she pays tribute to a man and a lost love.