After spending more than a year in a small prison cell, Angel Diaz, 20, was ready to stand at the summit of one of the tallest mountains in Washington and take in the limitless horizon.
“Man, I just want to get on the top and just see the whole thing,” said Diaz. “When you’re behind that wall, just the cell’s so small. Now I want to see something big. I want to be on top and just see everything, experience something new.”
That was exactly what Diaz planned to do when he signed up with Recovery Beyond, a Bellevue-based organization founded in 2011 that helps people working through addiction and homelessness move toward recovery by introducing them to backpacking, hiking or summiting 10,000-foot mountains.
Though he was enrolled in the recovery program at Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s (UGM) Riverton Place shelter, drugs were not the problem for Diaz, who was 17 when he was arrested for armed robbery in March 2017. Diaz pleaded guilty to robbery in the second degree and served 16 months. Now on probation, he says he’s getting his life back on track. He joined the Riverton Place recovery program after talking to a case manager there who specializes in working with people recently released from prison and on probation.
Last November, Diaz was four months into the program at Riverton Place when Nate Lanting, the program manager for Recovery Beyond, showed up.
Lanting shared stories of people who were working through addiction and homelessness or recovering from the havoc addiction wreaked on their lives. He showed videos and talked about how climbing to the top of a mountain was in some ways like the difficult journey through recovery.
Lanting said Recovery Beyond would prepare participants for the challenge of summiting Mount Baker by putting them through six months of training that included high intensity interval training (HIIT)-focused fitness classes, tutorials in how to use mountaineering gear, and biweekly hikes of increasing difficulty that included climbs up Mount Si and Mount Adams before the final climb up to Mount Baker in the summer.
For Lanting, however, Recovery Beyond is about more than training and climbing.
“The point of this whole thing is for your success,” said Lanting. “The reason it exists is for long-term sobriety, that you have an extra leg of support, a community that supplies a positive relationship, physical health, and a good sense of accountability and challenge that allows you to up your recovery in a new way.”
Recovery Beyond, which became a nonprofit in 2017, began collecting participation data in 2016, but executive director Gina Haines estimates 100 to 200 people have gone through the program since 2011, and 39 have summited Mount Rainier.
This year, the program has shifted its focus to make the program more accessible, and extended programming to include a backpacking track and an option to participate in fitness classes only. Also, due to limitations on team size for the Mount Rainier climb, Recovery Beyond decided to climb Mount Baker instead.
Lanting knows the allure of the mountains.
“It’s like going to outer space on a budget,” Lanting said, describing the otherworldly terrain at the summit of a tall mountain.
After Lanting’s presentation at Riverton Place, nearly everyone in the chapel signed up — including Diaz.
Many more joined after Lanting’s presentations at other shelters in Seattle and Tacoma, including UGM’s Hope Place shelter for women, and a total of 24 started the mountaineering program.
Eight months later, only five of the 24 would complete the program and summit Mount Baker on July 17.
Yet, even for those who never made it to the base of Mount Baker, participating in Recovery Beyond became an important step in their recovery journey.
“I gotta show the world you can climb to another direction”
Gladys Barillas-Reyes was 15 when she had her son Angel, and in many ways, mother and son grew up together. So when Diaz was incarcerated on armed-robbery charges two years ago, Barillas-Reyes was devastated.
At the time, despite enduring an abusive relationship while trying to care for her five children, Barillas-Reyes had been sober for four months. But she relapsed when she learned about Angel’s prison sentence.
“I was so mad at the world. I wasn’t open to help. I wasn’t open to surrender. I wasn’t open. I was really just so bitter and angry and hurt and broken,” Barillas-Reyes said. “How did I get here? I just couldn’t understand, how did I get here? It was just horrible.”
Eventually, Barillas-Reyes enrolled in the addiction-recovery program at Hope Place and several months later she signed up for the mountaineering team with Recovery Beyond.
As a mother, domestic-abuse survivor, and formerly an undocumented immigrant, Barillas-Reyes signed up for the program to be a good example to her children and an inspiration to women and Latinx people who have immigrated to the U.S. Climbing with her eldest son, Angel, was an added bonus.
“A lot of things led to our whole entire family just falling apart and ended up from having a good life to just being broken and destroyed and here we are getting back up,” she said. “It’s just amazing. I gotta show the world you can climb to another direction.”
For Diaz, the Recovery Beyond program was about getting away.
Growing up in Mount Vernon, he saw Mount Baker every day. Climbing the mountain represented a chance to get away from the city and the gangs and negative influences that had surrounded him in his youth.
In January, mother and son began working out with Recovery Beyond three times a week. They started out slowly with short runs and some leg-strengthening exercises, and progressed to high-intensity interval training. Every other week they went on weekend group hikes of increasing difficulty.
Diaz, who had developed his own exercise routine in prison, had no trouble with the workouts or novice hikes. On those weekend hikes, Diaz would charge up the trail, sometimes passing his mom and encouraging her along the way.
“Hey, man, we’re Chicanos,” he’d say. “It’s in our blood. You’d better not stop. You gotta keep going.”
And she’d keep going, walking faster and faster.
Sometimes, as mother and son hiked together, Barillas-Reyes would occasionally look at Diaz and marvel at how far she and her family had come from homelessness, addiction, domestic violence and incarceration.
“I feel like I’m alive again”
In May, shortly before the program’s penultimate climb up Mount Adams, Diaz made the difficult decision to drop out. He wanted to focus on future planning, as he considered jobs or college. In August, Diaz graduated from the Riverton Place recovery program and has prioritized finding a way to support his family. He says he’s most passionate about making a difference at his church and helping people.
Even though he left the program before attempting to summit Mount Baker, Diaz says he gained a lot from it.
“From being locked in a little cell, in a little box, everybody wearing the same color clothes, everything the same, same thing different day,” Diaz said. “Now I’m climbing up and hiking, surrounded by different people. You’re just going up on this big ol’ mountain away from the city, and I felt free.”
It wasn’t easy for Barillas-Reyes to accept her son’s decision to leave Recovery Beyond early, but she stuck with the program. She completed all the planned hikes and training sessions and prepared herself for the 12,000-foot climb up Mount Adams that would require her to use all she had learned about mountaineering.
Barillas-Reyes was one of only seven who had made it this far. Some dropped out for scheduling or personal reasons, or because they had graduated from their recovery programs. Others relapsed — something University of Washington psychiatry professor Dr. Andrew Saxon says is common among anyone dealing with a chronic disease, whether that’s addiction or diabetes.
At about 1 a.m. on June 9, Barillas-Reyes reached Pikers Peak on Mount Adams along with six others from the original class of 24 who signed up for Recovery Beyond’s Mount Baker climbing group in November 2018.
The experience, she said, was glorious.
“I’m telling you … the stars,” she said with awe in her voice. “Where I was a year (ago) was ugly. I mean, horrible. Standing up on that mountain made me realize how far I’ve come.”
She had every intention of making that final climb with her team up to Mount Baker. But a week before the climb, Barillas-Reyes dropped out due to a date change that pushed the Mount Baker climb up a week early.
The new dates conflicted with Barillas-Reyes’ plans to attend a lowrider car show with her family, something she and her kids used to enjoy before their lives took a turn. When forced to pick between the Mount Baker climb and being with her kids, the choice, she says, was obvious.
After enduring years of domestic violence, homelessness and addiction, Barillas-Reyes wants to focus on getting back to who she is and spending time with her family.
“I’d never been so broken in my life,” she says of her past. “I feel like all these pieces of me just got lost. Somewhere along the line in life, I went into this big dark cloud.
“I feel like I’m so blessed right now because I feel like it’s all coming back. It might show up differently but it’s coming back. I feel like I’m alive again, you know?”
Barillas-Reyes hasn’t decided if she’ll continue mountaineering, but she says Recovery Beyond sparked an interest in hiking and backpacking and taught her about the importance of community and communication in staying sober.
The most important lesson, however, she learned from her son.
“Angel was able to say, ‘This is what I can take on my plate and this is what I can rule out,’ ” Barillas-Reyes said. “That made me feel proud. (He) can make those decisions. … It took me being up on Mount Adams to realize that: Your journey is not everyone’s.”