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Best of 2011: Climbing out of homelessness, to Mount Rainier

UGM special projects director Mike Johnson at left, with Scott Sowle, Lee Harmon, Rolls Martin, Marcus Jackson, and Lamar Jones (in front) on the mountain Credit: Photo: Jeff Lilley. Courtesy of Seattle's Union Gospel Mission

Editor’s Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of human effort and achievement.

A team of five homeless men from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) climbed Mount Rainier this summer, achieving a goal they had hardly imagined for themselves.

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: 

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