Mike Johnson (MS ’97) leads recovering addicts up a mountain and onward to their new lives in the documentary feature film, A New High.
By Sarah Fisher
Holding two climbing poles for balance, her hair blowing around her face by a wind that is ever-present at high altitudes, a young woman has a smile almost as expansive as the breathtaking views of Washington State surrounding her. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done!” she laughs.
Just 10 months prior, she had been in the early stages of recovering from substance addiction—a notoriously difficult obstacle to overcome— yet here she is, completely exhilarated by the hardest thing she has ever done: climbing 14,411 feet to Mt. Rainier’s summit.
The moment was captured in A New High, a 2015 documentary feature film that follows the progress of a group of people training to climb Mt. Rainier, just outside Seattle, Washington, all while participating in a yearlong recovery program for addiction and homelessness.
Featured heavily in A New High is Mike Johnson, the charismatic, energetic founder and leader of the Climbing Out of Homelessness project. The film follows Johnson and the group from sign-up in October 2012, when some of the aspiring climbers had been off the streets for no more than a week; through rigorous, zero-to-10K physical training; to the life-affirming moments at the summit in August 2013 as the group gazed in wonder at the views below—and at the abundant futures waiting for them at the bottom of the mountain.
“I was worried that homeless people were becoming urban wallpaper to the rest of the community,” says Johnson. “I wanted to find a way to re-humanize folks by telling their stories. Because their stories are powerful: of love, community, and overcoming.”
Johnson founded Climbing Out of Homelessness in 2010. He is now the CEO of the Tacoma Rescue Mission in Tacoma, Washington, but at the time he was a director at the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and would take residents on day trips from the mission’s shelter to Mt. Rainier National Park.
“The street is a very rough environment,” he explains. “It’s corrosive of humanity. I wanted to let them just breathe and relax and do something good for themselves and see beauty. On one trip, one of the guys looked up at the mountaintop from where we were and said, ‘I wish we could go up there.’ I thought, ‘Well, why not?’”
Johnson himself is a former ranger for the U.S. Army and used that leadership training to “basically grind people into a fine dust, athletically-speaking,” he quips. The project took its first four climbers to the summit of Mt. Rainier in August 2011, as documented by Seattle television journalist John Sharify; the coverage won multiple Emmy Awards and the 2012 National Edward R. Murrow Award for best video news documentary. That caught the attention of producers in New York, who reached out to Johnson with the idea for a feature-length documentary film.
He may be a CEO and the climbing project’s leader, but Johnson does everything his friends in recovery do: he trains hard, he traverses 10-foot aluminum ladders across heart- stopping 80-foot-drop cracks in glaciers, and he summits Mt. Rainier every single year with the group. He also opens up on camera about his childhood, which has helped him relate to those beating addiction. He proudly states that his father is now 34 years sober, but Johnson grew up in a home shadowed by alcoholism.
He joined the Army on his 18th birthday in order to “figure out a pathway to manhood,” he says. The decision changed his life, allowing him to be a part of a team, work hard, and take pride in his accomplishments. He notes that the vast majority of people he meets from the streets have in common childhoods tainted by neglect, abuse, or trauma.
“These are people who never knew how to have wholesome, trusting, healthy relationships in the first place. As a result they haven’t been able to function in community. What’s really needed is getting to do some of the things a healthy family should have done for these folks but didn’t,” he explains.
In A New High, shelter resident Dawn Brown explains that her life before recovery was just “driving around for days drinking and doing crack.” She wasn’t able to summit Mt. Rainier in the end, but after training for 10 months with the group and living in the community at the mission, she became clean, sober, and proud of herself for the very first time. Brown is now a flight attendant; she closes out the film by saying, “I didn’t make it to the summit of the mountain, and that was really disappointing to me, but now every day I fly over it and I’m even higher.”
A New High premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2015, one of just 12 documentaries selected for screening. At press time, the filmmakers are in the early stages of finding the right distributor for the film, but Johnson hopes it will eventually end up on Netflix or a similar service where it can find an audience.
“To be in a theatre in Los Angeles and have 150 people who just came to see this … it was hard not to cry,” says Johnson of the festival. “This film challenges stereotypes of homeless people and the capacity to change and overcome big hurdles. It was so gratifying to see how people who were complete strangers and didn’t know my friends were impacted by their stories.”