How climbing Mt Rainier is changing the lives of formerly homeless addicts

Jul 26, 2016, 6:03 PM | Updated: Jul 27, 2016, 10:40 am

Mike Johnson (third from left) with part of the 2015 Mt Rainier climbing team. (Photo courtesy of Mike Johnson)

(third from left)

Dawn Brown used to be addicted to crack.

“Addiction has been a problem for me for years. In the end I was all by myself, driving around in a car, smoking crack and drinking alcohol, 24/7. I just could not seem to get anything on track. I mean, I had been a registered nurse at one point.”

Eric Uebelacaer was in a similar situation.

“I was addicted crack cocaine for 25 years, off and on.”

These stories are not unusual at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and the Tacoma Rescue Mission, where homeless addicts might find themselves after hitting rock bottom.

The Missions give homeless people a permanent home for a year. They feed them, clothe them and put them in an addiction recovery program with counseling. In 2011, Mike Johnson, executive director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and an ex-ranger from Fort Lewis, added a new layer to the recovery program when he created Climbing out of a Homelessness. Johnson leads participants through a ten month training program that ends with climbing Mount Rainier.

“The first year of participants they said, you know, frankly, getting off heroine was harder,” says Johnson. “‘Thank you for giving me a neat experience.’ But what they really got out of it was the team. So from that point on we really focused on the team building side of things, the relationship side of things. We’ve now done five, almost six climbs. It’s changed a lot of lives, mine included.”

Johnson, who had never climbed Rainier before this program, says the climbers tend to stay off drugs, off of alcohol, and become functioning members of society again.

“It works because it’s dealing with the thing that’s actually the problem. The single biggest variable that’s correlated with adult homelessness is childhood maltreatment, childhood abuse, abandonment, trauma and neglect. We increasingly are aware that addiction’s root is really loneliness and inadequate connections with each other. And so it’s not merely that someone needs to learn to live without drugs or alcohol in their life. They need to learn how to live with people in their life. So the great thing about this climbing program is that while people are working on their sobriety, through a good and well established program, we’re also making available to them the chance to see a licensed mental health counselor to deal with their childhood trauma. Then the climbing program creates that new connection. It’s like, ohh, this is how people are meant to live with each other, to encourage each other. I need these guys as much as they need me. The truth is these are the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and I wouldn’t be climbing if it wasn’t for them.”

Anyone is welcome to join the climbing team, but in order to attempt Rainier, participants must first summit Mount Hood, which Uebelacaer did just two weeks ago. This is a huge accomplishment, considering he arrived at the Tacoma Rescue Mission in December in terrible shape.

“My addiction at that point had been at the worst stage it had ever been at. I’d been on a two year run, using every day, all day. When I got to the Mission I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, I was sick, no sense of belonging, no friends. It was a real dark place.”

Uebelacaer has a fresh tattoo of a mountain on his arm. Since he started training he hasn’t smoked a single cigarette, at 54 years old he says he’s in the best shape of his life and he’s getting ready to go back to school to earn a degree in exercise science and nutrition.

“Being a part of climb team is what’s taken me to the next level of my recovery,” Uebelacaer says. “It really has. The friendships, the sense of belonging, the community of it. You don’t have to do life alone. You really can’t do it alone, you’re not supposed to do it alone, that’s not the way it was ever designed. It’s been huge for me.

Homeless people often feel isolated from the rest of society, but the climbing program helps bridge that gap.

“Half the team is folks from the recovery program, the other half are people from the community,” Johnson explains. “We’re mixing them up in the van, we’re mixing them up on the trail, we’re mixing them up in the tents, frankly, up at Camp Muir. So in one tent you’ve got somebody who went to prison when he was 18 for armed robbery and has struggled with alcohol for the next dozen years and another guy who is a VP of accounts at Cisco Systems. They’re discovering that they’re climbing the same mountain, they want and need the same things, which includes each other. That’s what overcomes that sense of isolation.”

As for Dawn Brown, she was on the climbing team in 2013. She now works as a flight attendant and has connected with a group of women hikers and has gotten out on several trails this summer.

Click here for more information on how to join the Climbing out of a Homelessness team, or to make a donation.

Rachel Belle

Rachel Belle...

Rachel Belle

Belle: This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later

After 20 years in news radio, I'm leaving my post at KIRO Newsradio to focus on making my podcast "Your Last Meal" full-time!

2 years ago

emily post etiquette...

Rachel Belle

Emily Post’s “Etiquette” goes modern: Advice on pronouns, hugging

In 1922, Emily Post published her very first etiquette book. Since then, 18 editions have been published by five generations of Posts.

2 years ago


Rachel Belle

Combat winter blues with friluftsliv, the Nordic tradition of being outside

Friluftsliv is part of the culture in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark, places that are darker and colder than Seattle in winter.

2 years ago

small talk...

Rachel Belle

Most Americans hate small talk, but Seattleites continue talking about weather

Out of 1,000 people surveyed, 71% said they prefer silence to small talk and 89% of Gen Z use their phones to avoid making small talk.

2 years ago

(Igordoon Primus/Unsplash)...

Rachel Belle

Seattle sperm bank in desperate need of Black donors

Only 2% of American sperm donors are Black men, which is causing a lot of heartache for women specifically looking for a Black donor. 

2 years ago

Photo courtesy of Rosie Grant...

Rachel Belle

Woman cooking recipes engraved on gravestones says they’re all ‘to die for’

You know that recipe your family requests at every holiday, potluck and birthday party? What if you had it engraved on your tombstone?

2 years ago

How climbing Mt Rainier is changing the lives of formerly homeless addicts