Sterling Roussel is stuck on a ledge. The teenager from St. Paul had moved quickly up the first half of the rock climb at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, but now he is frozen with fear, clutching the cliff face as if somebody is trying to pull him off by the ankles.
It's a sunny Saturday in May, and throngs of park visitors pass the aptly named Tourist Rocks. From the paved trail beneath the cliff, you can see the St. Croix River, shimmering and rain-swollen. Many of the walkers on the trail stop to watch the climbers. The rock is dark and fractured, part of a basalt protrusion that extends across the river into Wisconsin. More than a billion years ago, the now ancient stone bubbled up as lava from a great crack in the earth. Go a short way up- or downriver, and the river valley walls become limestone or sandstone, but this small area is home to vertiginous, durable rock well suited for climbing.
"I can't go higher," Roussel calls down. He is one of a dozen St. Paul teens here with New Lens Urban Mentoring Society, a nonprofit organization that pairs young African-American men with community mentors. The teens and two mentors are spending the day rock climbing with several instructors from the Voyageur Outward Bound School, another St. Paul nonprofit that fosters personal growth in the outdoors.
"Can't?" shouts Dominque Suttles, one of Roussel's mentors. "That word is foreign!"
"Kind of a bad spot," Roussel says.
"No, that's a great spot," Suttles rebuts.
Aaron Cluse, holding the other end of the rope to which Roussel is harnessed, prepares to lower Roussel to the ground as climbing instructor Liz Poulson supervises.
"Let go," Poulson tells Roussel. He resists for a moment, then releases his grip on the rock. As soon as his weight is on the rope, he windmills his arms and grabs the rock again, unnerved by his separation from the earth.
"We got you covered," Suttles says. Roussel groans as he trusts his intact skeletal system to the rope and the belayer.
Cluse gently lowers Roussel to the ground.
"I got up there," Roussel says. "That's some real live adrenaline rush. I like this. I saw I was getting pretty high." He shakes his head and says to Cluse, "Thanks for not dropping me, bro."
The Edge of Comfort
"Everything we do is to expose our boys to things they usually wouldn't have access to," says Glorius L. Martin, program coordinator at New Lens. The mentees participate in activities such as archery, boxing, and fencing free of cost. With Voyageur Outward Bound School, they also go on multiday backpacking and canoeing trips.
New Lens has about 100 mentees, who typically enroll at the end of seventh grade and stay involved through high school graduation. The first group of young men in the program, which began in 2013, is just now graduating.
"We're taking individuals with leadership characteristics, cultivating them, and sending them back to their communities to make ripple waves," says Eskender Yousuf, evaluation coordinator for New Lens.
"We use the outdoors as metaphor," says Jesse Littleton, a Voyageur Outward Bound School instructor. "It's social-emotional learning that emphasizes perseverance, teamwork, and grit. We encourage students to go to the edge of comfort and take one more step. We want actual risk to be rock bottom, like sleeping in a feather bed, but perceived risk is really high."
Upon arriving at the crag, I had asked a couple of the mentees their first impressions of the cliff.
"Rocks look dangerous," Jairus Freeze said.
"I'll do indoor; I don't know about rock," said Jamar Adedjiji.
After coming close to reaching the top of a climb called Sonny and Juanita on his first attempt, Adedjiji is trying again.
I ask him how he'll get past the spot where he got stuck.
"I have no idea, man," he says.
He rubs his hands together and appraises the cliff. He scampers up about 10 feet, to a point where rock flares out on both sides of the route to form a 90-degree inside corner. Low in the corner, Adedjiji has numerous cracks and ledges to support himself, but higher up, the sides of the corner go slick. He sinks his fingers into a vertical crack, stands on his tiptoes, works his left foot up, and throws a hand onto a ledge. He palms the ledge with both hands and pushes himself onto it like he is exiting a swimming pool.
From here, the rock is featureless but for a horizontal seam at waist level and a higher ledge Adedjiji can barely reach with a knuckle's depth of fingertips. He grunts as he tries to pull himself up. His feet come up a few inches off the lower ledge, but that's all. He searches the rock for features with his right foot, testing it on nubbins to no avail until he draws the foot way up to the waist-high seam. His quads flare and he's out of the corner and over the hardest part. He scrambles to the top of the route and collapses on the flat rock.
Back on the ground and breathing heavily, Adedjiji says: "I didn't know where to go. As soon as I got past [the point where he'd been stuck], I went, bro. I knew the way and I was over."
Jaleel Simpson starts up a different route. Adedjiji and Cluse belay him. After climbing two-thirds of the route, including the most difficult part, he stops.
"I made it high enough," Simpson says. "I'm going back down. I'm at my goal already."
"You're right there!" Adedjiji says, incredulous.
"Who do you think I am?"
Adedjiji continues to coax him.
"No, bro!" Simpson hollers.
"Can I trust you?" Simpson is coming down.
"Can I trust you with my life?"
"Bro, I trusted him two times," Adedjiji says, while cocking his head at Cluse.
Simpson backs off the ledge. Adedjiji eases him to the ground.
"I got as high as I wanted to go," Simpson says.
Who's Your Belayer?
With helmets and harnesses put away into large mesh sacks, the young climbers gather in the shade at the base of the cliff.
"Put a fist in the air if you met your goal for today," Poulson says. Nine fists rise. "What were your goals?"
"To make it to the top," Adedjiji answers.
"To make it higher than I did, and not be a chicken and be scared," Freeze says.
"Your goals are something to keep working towards," Poulson says. "Small steps toward your goal. Short-term goals can be used to get to your larger goals. Did you feel supported?"
"I felt supported," Roussel says. "Guys didn't let me fall."
Simpson says he felt supported because people gave him suggestions on where to move when he was stuck.
"Friends and family, they're your belayers and have your back," Poulson says.
"Think about people in your life who are your belayers," instructor Fonz Le says. "How are they doing? Does your belayer hold you too tight, or too loose?"
"In school," Adedjiji starts. "Geometry, my teacher pressures me a lot. Sometimes he's OK, but sometimes I don't like it."
"In life, sometimes people belay too loose or too tight," Le says. "It's up to you to have a conversation to tell them that."
"I'm proud that everybody got up, even if you didn't get up," Rob Nelson, a New Lens mentor, says.
"This is something for life: It's the smaller things that help you get up the bigger things," says Suttles. "You can't be afraid to take these short jumps. Was the top better than down here?"
"Yeah," says Adedjiji.
The group heads for the parking lot. "I like seeing the build in kids," Nelson says. "Watching that bravado peel away, watching them break down a bit—not in a dark way, but getting to a point where they realize, 'Now I need to humble myself.'"
Waiting for the bus, I ask the mentees about their specific goals.
"Try to get at least a third of the way up," Cardell Arnett says. "Yeah, I got there." Climbing, he says, is "kind of cool. It's really exciting, pushing myself."
Roussel states a loftier long-term goal: "To be my own boss." He walks away without another word and boards the bus.