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."
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