Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Tacoma Rescue Mission group topples addiction and the state’s highest peak

Tacoma Rescue Mission Executive Director Mike Johnson (center) leads this year’s Mt. Rainier climb team.
Tacoma Rescue Mission Executive Director Mike Johnson (center) leads this year’s Mt. Rainier climb team. Tacoma Rescue Mission

When Mike Johnson left the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle to become executive director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission in December 2014, he brought a few things with him.

He brought his resolve. His compassion.

And his climbing gear.

Johnson, a former Army Ranger who was stationed at Fort Lewis once up on a time, has dedicated his post-military career to helping people climb out of homelessness and addiction.

That’s literal, through his work leading an organization that shelters hundreds of people every night in Tacoma.

And, it’s figurative, as his most recent summit of Mount Rainier — with a team that included three recent or soon-to-be graduates of the Rescue Mission’s addiction recovery program — illustrates.

“The whole point is the not the accomplishment of climbing the mountain,” Johnson says. “It’s coming together and discovering we’re all climbing the same mountain.”

Johnson’s trek up Mount Rainier this year — where his team reached the summit at 5:22 a.m. on Aug. 13 — marked his sixth time up the mountain with a group of recovering addicts. It’s a tradition he started in 2011 while working at the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle — where I first met him — and one he says he didn’t hesitate to continue once he arrived in the City of Destiny. (One of Johnson’s climbs while he was at the Union Gospel Mission was captured in the 2015 documentary “A New High.”)

While the 2015 climb included participants from both the Union Gospel Mission and Tacoma Rescue Mission, this year was the first time Tacoma climbers went it alone. Johnson says Tacoma has embraced the tradition, and that this year’s climb team “came together maybe better than any that we’ve had so far.”

“Tacoma isn’t necessarily like Seattle. Seattle’s identity is built on its accomplishments. Tacoma’s identity is largely drawn from its sense of community,” Johnson explains. “It doesn’t surprise me that a team from Tacoma had that in spades. What makes Tacoma Tacoma is its sense of togetherness and community, and that’s the magic of this program.”

Get talking to Johnson about the yearly summits — which pair Rescue Mission donors with anyone in the agency’s addiction recovery program who is interested in participating, provided they commit to the 10 months of training — and it quickly becomes clear that making it to the top of Rainier is secondary.

Johnson speaks of the importance of team building, of the way such a diverse group — which typically partners CEOs and doctors with recovering addicts — comes together to work past the societal divide homelessness and addiction present. And he talks of the confidence those who make it to the top carry with them for the rest of their life, having tackled a momentous feat that helps put other life challenges in perspective.

“Wherever there is such a huge divide between groups of people, learning how to count on each other for your life and your safety … is so transformative for everybody,” Johnson said. “The program doesn’t just get homeless folks to the top. It creates a team.”

Angela Buggert is a 26-year-old recovering from 10 years of heroin addiction — and, as Johnson says, “You can do that math on that.” She is one testament to the impact these climbs can have. The only woman to make the summit this year, Buggert tells me the experience “did wonders for my recovery and my confidence in myself.”

After graduating from the Rescue Mission’s addiction recovery program in April, Buggert now works full time at a local chiropractic clinic. We speak on her lunch break, and she’s eager to discuss the impact the experience of being on the climb team has made in her life. Next week, she tells me, she’s starting classes at Tacoma Community College.

For her, Mount Rainier was just the beginning.

“I think I could have gotten clean and stayed clean without (being on the climb team), but I think the confidence I have from it … I mean, I climbed Mount Rainier. I still look at it and get goosebumps,” Buggert says.

“A year and a half ago I didn’t have a single person that would trust me with anything. I didn’t have anyone that I trusted, and I didn’t have anyone who trusted me. To be a part of this team, where literally you trust each other with your lives … it’s a serious thing.

“It’s just been a huge part of my recovery.”

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