Mark Tarbell is a paranoid schizophrenic who suffers extreme
anxiety and hallucinations when he confronts his greatest fears.
The 43-year-old homeless man, who once had delusions that he was
Satan, is afraid of avalanches, crevasses, exposed cliffs,
heights and success. Apparently all this makes him an ideal
candidate to climb Mount Rainier.
This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2003 issue
At the Union Gospel Mission in Spokane, men such as Tarbell can
join the Mountain Goats, a program that trains the homeless for
mountaineering expeditions in Washington's Cascade Range.
Chaplain Steve Slover, who encouraged Tarbell to join the Goats,
has transformed more than 20 homeless men into climbers since he
brought the program to the mission four years ago. The shelter
relies on donations to cover gear and expenses. "Learning to
trust others is a big issue in the mountains," says Slover, an
Alpinist with more than 30 years' experience. "Our goal here is
to help these men transfer the outdoor skills they use on the
mountain to other areas of their lives."
The club's nine members started training last February and
learned technical skills such as sliding down a mountain with an
ice ax and rescuing fellow climbers from crevasses. Last month
two Mountain Goats topped Rainier (14,411 feet) on a three-day
expedition. And three weeks ago four others summited Mount Baker
(10,778 feet) on a five-day trip.
Tarbell, a native of Huntsville, Ala., had been drifting in and
out of shelters along the West Coast for more than three years
after losing his job as an airport shuttle driver in Seattle.
Following a suicide attempt 13 months ago, he checked into the
Spokane shelter. There he started to train intensively by running
stairs and hills, lifting weights and hiking with a 50-pound pack
on nearby Tower Mountain on weekends. "I used to feel trapped,
like there was no way out from fighting the demons," says
Tarbell, who takes antidepressants. "When I started training with
the Mountain Goats, I didn't have those suicidal thoughts."
But two days before the summit bid on Rainier, the state's
highest peak, Tarbell began to worry that he'd hallucinate and be
unable to finish the climb. The others on the team prayed for his
safety. Worn out from a sleepless night and parched at the top of
the glacial volcano, Tarbell became nauseated, and his head
throbbed. Was that Satan knocking on his door again? "I didn't
know it at the time, but I had altitude sickness," he says.
Fellow Mountain Goat Perry Farley, a 47-year-old with rheumatoid
arthritis, had an equally challenging climb three weeks later on
Baker. He spent three nights camped in snowfields, and in the
cold and rain his hands became so swollen that he could barely
bend his fingers. "There were times I really wanted to quit, but
that's been my whole life story. I was determined to get to the
top," Farley says. "I feel like I can do anything. I want to
finish college and get my business degree. My wife and I are
reconciling. I'm thinking of sticking with mountaineering, too."