The Climb Out Of Homelessness program uses alpine mountaineering to build new healthy lifestyle habits and relationships for homeless men and women in our addiction recovery program. Most importantly, it facilitates healing relationships between those in recovery and community members who climb alongside them.
After nearly a year of training, men and women from addiction recovery programs and a supporting crew of volunteers, climb to the summit of Mt. Rainier.
Would you consider hiking alongside these men and women this year?
Click below to learn more of how you can engage.How You Can Help
Recovery Beyond Featured In
We could barely see each other from 30 feet away, but the entire group of fifteen couldn’t have been more thankful. We were finally sheltered, however partially, from the cutting wind and the cloud moisture that would freeze to our eyelashes or exposed hair or just about anything fibrous. It was 7:22 am and we were standing in the summit crater of Mt. Rainier.
Eighteen members of our team left the comparative comfort of Camp Muir at one o’clock that morning. We had already stuck it out through some severe lighting storms that had almost completely shut down climbing operations. Only a handful of climbers went up the mountain the night before, and they left late– much later than normal.
Two of our climbers opted to stay behind at Muir, tucked onto the backside of a ridge at 10,080 feet. One worried about the danger, the other was ill. Our team brought along a spare volunteer guide, and he brought along a spare rope, in case we needed to “spin” climbers along the way. At 11,100 feet that guide, Bo Valencia would pull out that spare rope, tie together two more retreating team members, and lead them back to Muir.
It was not a classic climb, and these were not classic climbers. Most were members of the residential addiction recovery programs of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM). That’s right: recovering homeless addicts, who were completely apart at the seams this time last year. Now, they were climbing one of the highest mountains in the lower 48, and under pretty challenging conditions.
Just like with mountains, climbing out of homelessness and addiction requires a team.
They would have to cross a deep crevasse over a ladder-bridge, fight serious winds and cold, low visibility, thin air and exposure to fall hazzards and falling rocks. But that’s the easy stuff compared to overcoming heroin, crack, alcohol and meth addiction severe enough to have taken everything from them. Families, jobs, children, and homes can be all consumed into the yawning ravenous mouth of brokenness.
Just like with mountains, climbing out of homelessness and addiction requires a team. You need guides, and tools you don’t have– tools you don’t yet know how to use. Sometimes people slip and trip. Sometimes they get exhausted and quit, descending to the lowlands. Most of the time it’s hard to see the goal of the summit, and you have to trust the guides that if you keep climbing it will come. They know; they’ve been there.
At Seattle’s UGM, we had multiple goals behind the crazy idea to help our recovery clients become climbers. First, we wanted the men and women themselves to know that they are not defunct or defective. Challenged: yes. Defeated: no. Second, we wanted to find a way for the community to enroll in their journey of healing and recovery.
Most people see homeless persons and don’t know what to think. Why don’t they get help or get a job? Are there no jobs? Are they just junkies and alcoholics? If I give that panhandler money (I never do, by the way), will it just go to drugs or beer, and is that something I should worry about? Most people have no idea that their most important gift would actually be themselves.
When I told my team at UGM what I wanted to do, a colleague told me about Mark Ursino. Mark is a climber, and never dreamed that his personal hobby could help change someone’s life. So thought the other volunteer guides, like pro guide Eben Reckord of International Mountain Guides, Inc. or the myriad other supporters. Our climbs enable up to three-dozen people or more to come around these “recovery climbers” and, along the way, hear their stories. At some point, the addicts and the volunteers realize they have actually become part of each other’s stories.
Everyone who climbs knows that it’s not really about the mountain.
It’s about being on the mountain with people you trust.
Addiction and homelessness trap people into a self-defeating perception of one’s self, and a self-reinforcing social circle of dysfunction. Becoming real friends with “normal” people while doing amazing things with them– sober– serves to break down so many of the walls that have kept these gifted neighbors in their prisons.
Everyone who climbs knows that it’s not really about the mountain. It’s about being on the mountain with people you trust. Helping the abused, abandoned, traumatized and betrayed learn how to trust again requires a partner. It requires a rope. It requires a mountain to climb together, entrusted to one another in the face of some danger. So, what I love the most is seeing people from the community and people from the streets becoming one team that changes everyone on it. The summit, if we make it, is icing on that cake.
You can help. Contact your local rescue mission. Ask to speak to a program supervisor, and invite some recovering homeless people along with you in what you would already be doing. It doesn’t really matter if your hobby is climbing or cycling, canoeing or sailing, flying model aircraft or the full-size kind. Just share it. Teach it to someone who didn’t have that chance, who wasn’t invested in. That investment will change you both.
What I love the most is seeing people from the community and people from the streets becoming one team that changes everyone on it.
My climbers are now graduated from UGM’s recovery program, working jobs and internships. Some of them have reconnected with families. Others are still navigating that. Each has a new mountain to climb, the next challenge. We continue to talk, because they’re my friends. Some have slipped and tripped– I’d be lying if I said this all worked like magic.
But even for those who have fallen, they’re learning how to stop the fall, get back up and start climbing again. And I got to be a part of that.
I’m a blessed man.
THE OUTDOORS IS JUST OUT YOUR DOOR – AND THE HOMELESS ARE TOO
– A note from Publisher Brad Bloom
Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission is a member of the 100-year old Association of Gospel Rescue Mission (AGRM). The association represents 300 members in North America. There is likely one or more missions near you. Gospel rescue missions have a long history of providing lifelines for those drowning in the waves of adversity and the undertow of addiction. Gospel is part of their name because their leaders are compelled foremost by Jesus’ instructions to actively care for those in need, and to introduce them to the liberating good news of His kingdom and all it represents. Their name includes rescue because delivering those in need from danger is the critical and consuming first part of a sometimes slow but always exciting journey that leads to new desires, choices, and direction in life. The word missions is in their name because those in need see each of their structures as a bastion of protection and a refuge from fatigue and failure, similar in concept to those Southwestern sanctuaries built by pioneering padres long ago.
The exciting story of Mike Johnson and team with men resident at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission has been documented in the compelling film New Heights, which was nominated for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Johnson shares the adventure with you here in Shout! Outdoor Lifestyle Magazine. But, this story offers much more than adventure. It is in invitation to add an extra challenge to your outdoor passions and experience life with those who are homeless. Certainly there are opportunities to climb Rainier with Mike Johnson and men. There are also opportunities to bike with the Denver Rescue Mission or run a race with Wheeler Mission Ministries’ in Indianapolis or perhaps whatever you like to do outdoors to support the ministry of one of 300 rescue gospel missions throughout North America. Find one near you, pray, contact them and then Be Life to others by taking your outdoor to new heights.
Recovery Beyond Featured In
If you appreciate metaphors, they’re everywhere in the Union Gospel Mission’s annual Mount Rainier climb. Now in its fourth year, the program takes 16 homeless men enrolled in UGM’s addiction-recovery program to Rainier’s summit. And from August 7 to 10, former Army Ranger Mike Johnson, who as UGM’s director of special projects spearheaded the program, will aim to get four more to the top—along with, for the first time in the program’s brief history, two climbers from UGM’s addiction-recovery program for women.
“Immediately, the metaphor was really powerful, like climbing out of homelessness is like climbing Mount Rainier. It’s hard. It takes a team. You need a guide. You have to get stronger than you’ve been,” Johnson says of his inspiration to get people from society’s depths up a 14,000-foot mountain. He remembers a 2010 day trip to Sunrise at which one of the men from the recovery program pointed toward the top and said, “I wish we could go up there.”
“We have to start pretty gently. We have a lot of guys who haven’t been good to themselves.”
Everything clicked, Johnson recalls, and with the help of sponsor Whittaker Mountaineering, UGM donors, and a handful of volunteer guides, an ascent of Mount Rainier has been an August tradition. Johnson starts training would-be climbers in October, welcoming anyone enrolled in the UGM 12-month recovery program. This year he started with about a dozen—a list that slowly shrank as time passed and training intensified.
“We have to start pretty gently. We have a lot of guys who haven’t been good to themselves,” Johnson says. “A couple guys usually fall off the team for relapse reasons. . . . It’s self-selecting. The group has always whittled itself down into a size I can work with.” By May, the climbers are ready for one final tall test before Rainier: “If you can’t climb Mount Hood, then you’re not going to climb Rainier. It’s just reality,” says Johnson, comparing the Oregon peak to “the sorting hat from Harry Potter.” This year he says five climbers got left on the side of the mountain. “We need people who are physically prepared,” he says simply.
Hood, of course, is just the warm-up. About 10,000 people attempt to summit Mount Rainier every year, but half fail, according to statistics from the National Park. But to hear Johnson tell it, the four days this week that UGM’s six remaining recovery-program climbers will spend tackling the most prominent mountain in the lower 48 won’t be so much a challenge as a celebration of something far bigger. In so many ways, these climbers have already made it.
“What I loved about [the idea] was that it felt like it had a lot of handles—ways for people to get a hold of what our folks [at UGM] are going through. Because I was worried, and still am, that homeless folks have a way of becoming urban wallpaper,” Johnson explains, sitting in a room a floor above UGM’s Pioneer Square men’s shelter, sweaty and not long removed from an afternoon training session with this year’s climbers. “It’s not that if you can climb Rainier, then you can climb out of homelessness. It’s if you can climb out of homelessness and addiction, then you can climb Rainier. This is the hard one.”
Sitting across from Johnson, 35-year-old Kristy Olmstead, one of this year’s two female climbers, speaks confidently, determined to join the list of UGM successes who have topped Rainier. Like the other five recovery-program climbers, Olmstead’s story is one of addiction, despair, and—now, she assures us—redemption. Olmstead says she spent a year in prison in Idaho on theft charges before coming home to Washington last year and finding her way into the UGM recovery program and onto the climbing team. “I liked it all,” Olmstead says of her history of addiction.
“One thing I learned is that if I put one foot in front of the other, I was going to get there.”
Primarily, though, she admits, methamphetamine was her drug of choice. And it was meth—more specifically, an unresolved charge of possession with intent to deliver hanging over her head in Snohomish County—that put Olmstead back in prison earlier this year for three months, even though she was enrolled in UGM’s recovery program and climb training. While others might have caved, Olmstead says the mountain was an inspiration.
She remembers improvising workouts in the prison yard to keep her training on track: banging out pushups and running in a circle, because in prison you can’t run in a straight line for long. “I was offered drugs when I was in there, and I said no, and they asked why, and I said I have a bigger plan,” Olmstead recalls.
The weekend after her release from prison, the UGM climbers took Mount Hood. And remarkably, Olmstead was right there with them. “I was just so proud of her,” Johnson says, admitting that he figured there was no way Olmstead would be prepared to climb after three months in lockup. Of this week’s Rainier trek, Johnson is far more certain. He says he knows Olmstead is ready.
“When I summited Hood I was just bawling and laughing and crying and praying. And I was just so happy, because I knew if I summited Hood, then I could still do Rainier,” she recalls.
“One thing I learned is that if I put one foot in front of the other, I was going to get there,” Olmstead says of her climbing mindset. “I wasn’t going to worry about 10 steps away. I wasn’t going to worry about how steep it looked. I just knew that if I put one foot in front of the other, that eventually I would end up at the top.”
It’s a metaphor we could all learn from.
Participants in Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s recovery program reached the peak of The Mountain last week. Staying on top of their addictions is the challenge now.
A few days after their Aug. 13 ascent to the peak, the triumphant group gathered around a table in the empty mission dining room with Mike Johnson, the UGM special projects director who led the men’s training and roped up with them for the climb. “Mike Johnson, he had a vision, and I became a part of it,” said Marcus Jackson, who got involved early. But Jackson had misgivings. “I’m 58 years old. Could I do it?”
Age and health were factors to ponder. So was the utter strangeness of the idea of climbing a mountain. Addicts learn on the streets to consider themselves different and distant from people living a normal life, whom they call ‘normies,’ Johnson said.
Rolls Martin explained, “Climbing a mountain was something other people did.” This felt doubly true for the black members of the group. “Black people don’t climb mountains,” laughed Lee Harmon. “We were the only three black people on the entire mountain.”
Harmon, 39, told some of his story. After serving 16 years in the Marines and then being employed in law enforcement, he lost his job. “I got so bitter afterward it was almost, like, ‘You want to see bad? I’ll show you bad.’ I experimented with crack for the first time in my life. Pretty soon I had a full-blown addiction.”
The worst part, said Harmon, was the way people viewed him when he was down and out. “I was sleeping at a bus stop on a bench. Here I’d done two tours in Iraq, I had a B.A. in criminal justice, and look how degraded I was. The core of me still said, ‘I’m somebody,’ but not being able to express that, people looking at you as uneducated and just wanting a handout, not knowing how you are inside — this was the most frustrating, and it made me want to be what they thought.”
Jackson nodded. “If you’re here you’ve got a crisis in your life. My life was out of control. I have an awesome family but I wasn’t supportive of them. My kids, my grandkids — I wasn’t there for them.”
The lives of the other men had been equally unmanageable. Martin said, “I was so caught up in my mess that ‘normal’ to me was isolation and stress, running, being afraid.” For seven years he hadn’t been allowed to see his daughters, because “I was always leaving their lives, going back to the streets, going to jail. My ex thought it was better just to keep me away.” Scott (“Scooter”) Sowle had contracted Hepatitis C from unclean needles. Lamar Jones, born in Seattle and a 26-year-old newcomer at UGM, summed up all their stories when putting his own in a nutshell: “A lot of things didn’t pan out, so I took the wrong road.”
The recovery program at UGM has a success rate of 80 percent, measured by participants remaining clean and sober for a full year afterward, Johnson said in a followup conversation. It’s a 13-month program.
“To treat addictions as if they were in some kind of category of their own and didn’t grow out of somebody’s abuse and abandonment and trauma and neglect — these are very rough stories — the program will fail. Maintaining sobriety means giving them a chance to recover from what has broken them.” So besides lasting over a year the program, called New Creations, includes weekly individual therapy.
Johnson went on: “Guys who are actively homeless on the streets of Seattle have grown up in chaos. There are certain developmental steps a child has to take, that can’t be taken in chaos. UGM provides a replacement family experience, with stability, support, education, accountability, and love.” It’s not just a matter of “dusting them off, getting them back on their feet, and putting them back in the game. They never had a game to begin with. If we can give them what they didn’t have, they will be able to go back into the community, and give back, too. They’re just as smart, just as capable as anyone.”
Training for the climb started last October. Martin joined the group in December and plunged into the running regimen. “I got up to running eight miles three times a week. I was getting stress fractures in my ankles. We climbed stairs all over the city with 40 pounds on our back — up Seattle Municipal Building, up and down Pike Place Market steps.” The men at the table groaned reminiscently, laughing. Then the group started going on occasional hikes in the country. Said Harmon, “Mike did such a good job of having just strategic, small amounts — Mount Si once a month, once or twice a month go out on a hike and get a taste of it.” They also climbed Mount Adams.
Martin is an exuberant guy, but he resisted committing fully to the project. It was as if he protected himself from disappointment by refusing to believe something really good might happen in his life. For seven months, he admitted, staying with the training was merely “to humor the situation. If there was any chance of it working, I wanted to be there. But I was only going along with the motions. I didn’t really believe we were going to get to climb Rainier. Because it was such an unbelievable opportunity.”
So last month he suddenly packed up and left UGM for a temporary job that would pay the court costs of being legally allowed at last to visit his daughters. By that time, KING 5 TV’s John Sharify and Doug Burgess were making a documentary series on the men, their training, and the climb itself. “Mike chased me down at the bus station, with the KING 5 news crew,” said Martin (the scene is in Sharify’s July 1 episode). “From there I had no doubt we were going to be on that mountain.” And Martin had learned something: “You have to let yourself be guided.”
Harmon said he had to learn that achieving fitness, like recovering from addiction, takes a long time. “If you’re not addicted [any more], you have to get used to things happening slow. That became part of the process.” And the training made Harmon think differently about problems that cropped up in his life — for example, when his wife and kids recently lost their housing. “I was part of what put them in that situation, and it caused me guilt and shame,” he said. The temptation was “to retreat, and fall back into old patterns.” Instead, he told himself, “This is a mountain. Don’t run from it. Climb it. Take it one step at a time. So I made a bunch of phone calls, and over time got them what they needed.”
Sowle had done lots of backcountry hiking in Utah and the Wasatch mountains in the past. Climbing Rainier “was a dream, long before I even came here,” he said, “but my addictions didn’t allow me to. So when the opportunity arose, I wanted to jump at it.” He taught his teammates all sorts of backcountry lore, and they appreciated his expertise. Jackson said, “I come from the blacktop. He came from the mountains. He knew survivor skills.” Sowle looked down, suddenly shy: “The guys probably got tired of me saying, “Drink a lot of water. Tie your boots up.’ ” “Yeah,” laughed Jackson. “He was truly a Big Brother.”
The training period was its own special challenge, Johnson said. “These men haven’t taken care of themselves. But for everybody who participated, even guys that washed out of the recovery program and couldn’t go, the preparation was good for their recovery. They were learning how to be good to themselves, like getting exercise.”
On the day of the climb up Rainier, veteran climbers led the way. Said Martin, “We weren’t guided by paid guides, but friends — professional retired guides.” “Professional angels,” Jackson interjected. These angels, from Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), donated their time.
That day Harmon made a personal plan for the climb: to mimic guide Alex Van Steen‘s every move. “Alex sat down, I sat down. He ate, I ate. He’s a legendary hiker. I knew 10 minutes after I met him, ‘You’re the guy I want to be roped behind.’ ” During the climb Harmon “realized what you call the cadence, from the steps we were taking in sync. If I really have God to guide my life, following somebody who really knows where they’re going and stay in step with…” He broke off. Then: “When I was at the top Alex took off his pack and gave me a hug. I didn’t even know I’d gotten there.”
Jackson’s worst moment was “when I tripped over my crampons and fell.” He started sliding down the ice, “but because of paying attention and following the training I was able to self-arrest. I was surprised. The training was legit.”
Martin was glad part of the journey was in the dark so they couldn’t see all the dangers around them, such as the massive glacier chunk that broke off with a thundering roar like an airplane. Harmon developed a migraine headache, Jones was nauseated, and Jackson got sunburn “in my mouth! in my nose! I was breathing hard to take oxygen in with the sun reflecting off the snow.”
But, Jackson continued, “They trained us well. We couldn’t have done it without them. We don’t trust people to lead and guide us. I think about how many people God brought into my life, but I couldn’t get out of my stupor. I needed to know how to recognize and trust in people who are legit.”
What happened at the top? “We cried,” said Jackson. “You’re trusting people to get you through. You never let people direct and guide you before, because you been hurt in different ways.” He gestured around the table at the group. “Here we are, free. I came out of this climb being committed to something besides myself, for the first time in my life. You get hopeless, so caught up in yourself.”
Martin’s big realization came when Jackson was having trouble on the climb and had to be pulled along: “He’s 200-plus pounds. The only way he could be pulled up was because he allowed them to. I got it.”
Harmon’s lesson was “It takes a team. One person stops, you stop. Definitely everybody got a role to play. The higher you go, the less appetite you’ll have, but you eat regardless because you’ll need the calories, 300 at every stop, eating when you don’t feel like it.” This made Harmon reflect on his stubbornness in the past, always insisting he alone knew what was best for him. “I need to follow people who’ve been there before. If I had deviated in any way, I might not have made it to the top.”
Sowle had been silent several minutes. “I didn’t make it to the summit. Because of my Hep C.” Left behind at the base camp, Muir, “I had two days alone to reflect on what my life was. But each one of us has a different summit, and it doesn’t have to be 14,300 feet. Mine was 10,000 feet for that moment. The thing is, you can’t turn around and quit and go back to the old lifestyle just because you didn’t make the summit the other person made.”
But Sowle was with the team the whole way up, from his teammates’ perspective. Harmon explained: “When I came aboard, Scooter was the leader, the most experienced hiker. He even had his own equipment.” On the first hike up Mount Tenerife, “I’m carrying all this weight up the steepness of it, and behind me Scooter was encouraging me. It was my first hike. If I didn’t make the initial one, I would have said, ‘This is not for me,’ but he, probably the quickest person on the team, stayed behind me and pushed me to the top. It killed me, but when I got to the top I could believe I could make Rainier.”
People can develop internal mechanisms that partly compensate for old deprivations and trauma even though the deficits and scars themselves don’t disappear. Johnson, when asked about his hopes for these five men, said, “The mountain peak is a new floor for them. They are able to say, ‘Because I have done this I can do anything.’ ”
What will happen when media attention fades, and invitations from radio and TV stop coming? In Johnson’s view, “It was a good choice for us to tell the story in the media, but the danger is always that the experience becomes a little unreal” in the hoopla of being mediated by and for others. What they need now is to keep it real for each other and themselves.
How can the larger Seattle community help people like these men? Johnson believes that progress for adults who lacked supportive relationships within their families when they were children “has to be achieved in a relational way. What I would ask the community to do is build a relationship with someone in need, and be their friend, and let opportunities come from that.”
UGM president Jeff Lilley, who climbed with the team as far as Camp Muir, said that mission residents have typically lost touch with friends and relatives. “Part of the program is learning to reach out to others,” he said, “to reconnect with God and with their families.” But even when repairing family relationships is impossible, they can still grow new habits and attitudes. “The thing that any of us can do for them is just look them in the eye and treat them like human beings.”
Lilley continued, “Any time we feel a little anxious or afraid, we look away,” when what these individuals need at that moment might be “as simple as a smile and a nod, having a cup of coffee with them and visiting with them. ‘What’s your name, where are you from, how did you end up here?’ The work of the mission is a long road that starts with these small actions of humanity.”
And sometimes it starts with big ones. Here are the men at the summit, accompanied by their guiding angels and KING 5’s crew. Mike Johnson narrates, closing with thanks to his family:
Learn more about the documentary “A New High” (2015)
In the heart of downtown Seattle, a diverse group of men and women will come together to climb out of homelessness and drug addiction through an unorthodox recovery program that uses mountain climbing as a means of rehabilitation. After one year of intense physical and mental conditioning, the team will attempt to summit one of the most dangerous mountains in the country, Mt. Rainier.
See IMDB ListingA New High on IMDB
What other’s are saying…
“This is an excellent film. It is inspiring. So encouraging! I highly recommend this film to any & everyone, whether your an addict or not. Everyone can relate to the actors in This film and their real life struggles. This film will make you laugh, cry & everything in between. It is truly an amazing piece of work.” Heidi Lynn Leitheiser, IMDB
“Most notable about the film is how it captures its subject’s stories with an amazing amount of artistry and clarity. As a group of former addicts finally ascend to the summit of Rainier amidst some sacrifice, another shot shows a row of climbers surrounded by darkness, illuminated by only the lanterns they are carrying. It is as chilling as it is striking, very symbolic to the story we’ve seen unfold from each individual.” EDUARDO VICTORY, Crome Yellow
Archive for 2015
Recovery Beyond > 2015