Addicts in the prime of their drugging and drinking aren’t usually revered for their athletic prowess. But in the beautifully shot new documentary, A New High, several men and a few women in the midst of early sobriety (some still using) climb 14,000 feet up a mountain after starting from the bottom—both literally and figuratively. The climbers all hail from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a rehabilitation program-homeless shelter hybrid that’s unofficially known as the absolute last resort for those can’t seem to kick a serious habit.
The film chronicles the yearly expedition to climb Washington state’s snow capped landmark Mount Rainier, which coincides with the drug and alcohol treatment program’s graduation. The climb is led by the Mission’s Special Projects Coordinator, the ever upbeat and kind-hearted, Mike Johnson, and anyone from the shelter who wants to try out for the team is welcome. The determination for who makes the team happens a few months into training, when the climbers perform what is essentially a test trek on Oregon’s Mount Hood. In the film, as training becomes more grueling, people taper off, some due to exhaustion or health issues and others, unfortunately, to relapse. What started as a crew of 28 is whittled down to just 12 by the day they climb Mount Hood.
Most people agree there is something very therapeutic and healing about being in nature and realizing just how small we really are. And the journey taken on this film certainly reminds us of that. Thanks to the magic of GoPros and high definition, we carefully trudge across stomach-dropping crevasses and lean into blistering windstorms alongside the climbers. Just watching these guys crunching through heaps of snow made me cold.
I spoke to one of the film’s producers, NYU graduate and co-founder of Other Side Pictures, Eamon Downey, about the process of making A New High. He said two directors actually trained the whole time with the addicts (makes sense, it’s not like they learned how to climb mountains in film school) and essentially had to climb the mountain twice to get all the camera gear up there.
In our conversation, Downey touched on the stigma surrounding addiction we discuss nearly every day here on the pages of AfterParty. While making the film, he learned the average citizen often thinks serious drug addicts, especially the ones who end up homeless, can’t do the same things as the rest of the world. It’s as if once they’re on street, an invisible, impenetrable wall erects. But through special projects like this, people at their lowest bottom have the chance to work toward a goal and ultimately reintegrate into society. They also find a new form of adrenaline, one that’s not the result of a chemical. Downey happily reports a lot of the participants he filmed are, in fact, still actively climbing. He says, “We need to change the mentality that we have when we treat addicts a certain way…hopefully this film can inspire people.”
Sobriety can often bring out the balls in people. (Is that sexist to say? I’m sure by 2020, it will be. Sobriety can often bring out the gender-less genitalia in people. How’s that?) Not only does it take immense bravery to admit a problem and get sober but it’s also a daily act of courage to genuinely try to continue to live substance-free. But with courage and another day sober, comes confidence. If and when one finally kicks the habit, whether it’s hooch or heroin, it can honestly feel like anything is possible. That’s why people run marathons, conquer Crossfit, become yoga teachers or climb mountains after getting sober. And you know what? That confidence is often well deserved and much needed.
Since the film wrapped, many of the climbers are not only still sober but also now married or in a healthy relationships. Yet another lesson from the mountain: the trust required of other people as one treks, literally being tied to another person in order to potentially save your life, translates to a new ability to establish trusting relationships off the mountain. I don’t want to give too much away but the outcomes of many of the climbers’ careers and personal lives post-Mount Rainer are uplifting, inspiring and a true testament to the miracle of recovery and human resilience.
A New High premiered to rave reviews at several film festivals already and will have limited distribution in theaters, with hopes of expansion. Learn more about this amazing documentary and how you can view it on Twitter and Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Eamon Downey