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Mentorship program uses climbing exercise to motivate youths

Halfway up a 24-foot rock climbing wall, Gregory King stopped and looked down.

The 8-year-old never had done any rock climbing before, and even though he was strapped into a safety harness, he had had enough.

"I'm ready to come down," said Gregory, while gripping the wall with his hands. "I'm slipping."

But his friends and mentors encouraged the Modesto boy to keep going until he made it to the top, so he looked up and reached for another climbing hold.

Gregory overcame his fear of falling and pulled himself to the top. When he came down, he couldn't stop bragging.

"It was so high," he said Saturday after climbing the wall at Stonehenge, an indoor rock climbing gym in downtown Modesto. "I made it all the way to the top."

Gregory and 22 other youths got past their fear of heights with the help of legendary rock climber Royal Robbins, who has climbed El Capitan and the Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

"The most important thing to remember is that if you keep trying, you'll make it," said 73-year-old Robbins after scaling a 40-foot wall with ease.

Robbins and instructors at Stonehenge taught the children how to strap on a harness and scale the walls at the indoor gym.

The Saturday climb was part of a character-building activity for the youths from Project Uplift, a mentorship program that provides guidance to black youths in the Modesto area.

"(Rock climbing) is the perfect teaching tool to learn how to overtake obstacles," said John Ervin, one of Project Uplift's creators. "And they also have to hold the rope while the other one is climbing, so they have to trust one another."

Saturday's session was just practice to prepare the youths for a rock climbing session with Robbins in the Sierra Nevada next month.

"I don't know about that," said Marcus Gullatt, 17, of Modesto. "That's dangerous. Right here, we have a rubber floor. Out there, there's just rocks."

He's climbed the walls at Stonehenge before, and Saturday's session was fairly easy for him with all the instruction he received. Nevertheless, Marcus said he will muster the courage to travel with the group next month.

The group will travel to the Pinecrest area, where they can climb granite rock at the Donnell overlook, Robbins said. The youths will do some "crack- climbing," where they have to stick their hands in naturally formed spaces in the rock as they climb, he said.

"Climbing is a tough discipline, and the fact that these kids came out to do this shows a lot of self- confidence," Robbins said. "This is good training, but it's nothing like the real outdoors."

Adventure in the outdoors transforms people, he said, adding "it opens your mind to a lot of possibilities."

Robbins was transformed as a teenager when he went to a Boy Scout summer camp at Yosemite National Park. His love affair with outdoor adventure was born. Robbins went on to become one of the most influential U.S. climbers and one of the early pioneers of the sport.

Bob Draizen thought of his friend Robbins when he heard of Project Uplift. Draizen was hoping these youths would be transformed, just as Robbins was as a teen.

So Draizen and members of Commonwealth Modesto, a group that helps improve community leadership, came together with Project Uplift to organize the rock climbing adventure.

Pete Herrmann and his fellow members of Commonwealth Modesto want to tackle community issues such as economic development, Modesto's image and identifying where kids start failing in school.

Herrmann said rock climbing was one of their first smaller projects that could provide long-lasting positive effects.

"We're hopeful this will spread like a positive virus throughout the community," Herrmann said. "Simple efforts that can grow into larger things."

Rashad Sullivan, 16, of Modesto moved on to bigger things after he climbed the 24-foot wall at the gym. He scaled the more difficult 40-foot wall.

"That was hard," Rashad said. "I got tired. You have to use all of your strength to get to the top."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.