Mountains have the power to transform lives
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Sometimes, mountains save lives. It's no secret climbing is inherently dangerous. But it can also be a lifeline, a way to stay grounded and focused, to remember what's important in life, to challenge us to be our best selves. Before McKenzie Johnson could conquer high peaks, she had to conquer an addiction to alcohol. She found that spending time outside hauling herself up rock walls and across glaciers was enough to distract her from reaching for the next drink. Then she discovered climbing could give her strength, community and purpose. Now, the 35-year-old Seattle woman inspires people on a daily basis with her story and balances life with going to the mountains and giving back. She helps guide trips for Recovery Beyond, a nonprofit that takes recovering addicts up mountains like Baker and Rainier. She volunteers with Soulumination, which provides photography packages to families facing life-threatening illnesses. Johnson also organizes a fundraising event for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and is a patient advocate for the Scientific Review Committee at Fred Hutch. Here's more of the story on this impressive mountain queen:
Q: Tell us about your life before you became a climber. A: I grew up in Seattle in an upper middle class family. I was always a perfectionist, putting a lot of pressure on myself from a young age to be ‘perfect.’ As soon as I could, I moved to California. I started college at 17 in San Luis Obispo and got a job at a local restaurant. The fast-paced environment and making great money in tips really appealed to me. I managed restaurants while in school and after for the better part of 10 years. I moved to Australia to be with a boyfriend, and I moved back to California. As my drinking progressed it slowly took out relationships one by one in my life. Early in college my eating disorder that started in high school quickly transferred to alcoholism. From there it wasn’t a slow burn to damaging behavior, it took over the next 10 years of my life. I can’t say I had many hobbies aside from cooking and I did still love to travel, but everything in my life revolved around drinking.
Q:What was the road to recovery like? A: It was long and hard. Especially for my family watching from the outside and from far away. Towards the end there was at least two years where I struggled personally trying to get sober on my own. I did the classic alcoholic behavior of trying to limit my alcohol to beer, or only to wine, or to only drink after a certain time, to only drink on weekends, etc. The longest I ever managed to not drink after I started was nine days. The last year or so was especially destructive. I would be on three-day benders not really knowing what day or time it was. I really expected to not wake up one day. I was in and out of the hospital numerous times before I finally agreed to go to treatment.
Q: How did you get into climbing? A: When I was in treatment and had graduated to Edgewood’s extended care program, we could sign up for weekly field trips. I signed up for a trip to a climbing gym. I completely fell in love with it. Months later after I had moved back home to Seattle, I joined Stone Gardens, soon learning to lead climb indoors, then outdoors and finally took a mountaineering course, where I fell in love with glaciers.
Q: How did climbing help change your life? A: Simply put, it gave me focus and an activity to do besides drinking. It allowed me to get in shape. It’s given me the opportunity to see and do things I never thought I would.
Q: What is it you love so much about climbing or being outside? A: Seeing things most people don’t get to see, and pushing my body to do things I never thought possible.
Q: How are you hoping to help others by sharing your journey? A: I don’t think I ever set out thinking ‘this is going to help others.’ One day I wrote a post about my journey and what a difference the outdoors has made to me. The response floored me. After that, I’ve consciously shared about my past and in the process I’ve been able to help others. I get so many messages from people who have a loved one suffering from addiction. I always think, if what I write can help one person, that’s pretty incredible, and totally worth it. But it’s also healing me.
Q: What is the accomplishment you're most proud of? A: I think my sobriety. To go from living a life where I had to drink every day to function, to being almost eight years without a drink or drug, is mind-boggling to me.
Q: What's the hardest moment you've had on a mountain? A: I have a lot of hard moments in the mountains. Just because I climb a lot doesn’t mean it is easy. I get anxiety when spending the night outside in the middle of nowhere. I get altitude sickness rather easily, and there are times when I swear I will never do this again. But then I think of all I’ve been through, what my mom has gone through with cancer treatment and others still in addiction. And I keep going.
Q: Have you ever felt like giving up, either climbing or sobriety? A: There have definitely been times when I think a drink sounds good. Luckily I have support and experience in what to do when that happens. There will always be a part of me that wishes I could drink. There will always be a part of me that misses my old life. I have the distinct feeling that I’ve lived two completely different lives. But I know which one is better. I had a moment on Rainer a couple summers ago where had you had a contract that said I would never climb again, I would have signed it right there. I was feeling very sick and very cold, backed up at a crevasse crossing. Luckily I got through that few hours and haven’t quit my climbing career. There is always part of me, however, that wonders how long I will do it. Will I find something else? Am I climbing for the right reasons? I try to keep myself in check.
Q: What do you most want people who have found mountains on the road to recovery to know? A: That we can do so much more than we think we are capable of.