A Colorado Springs father has stirred up a backlash among rock climbers after claiming his 8-year-old son became the youngest person to climb El Capitan, a famous 3,000-foot rock face in California’s Yosemite National Park.
That Joe Baker and his son, Sam, ascended the peak last week is not in dispute, but critics in the climbing community have said it didn’t really qualify as a “climb” because of the way in which they did it. Relying on ropes fixed in place by others, they used a device called an ascender (or jumar) that moves freely up a rope but grips it tightly with a downward pull. That meant they didn’t have to use El Cap’s meager handholds for upward movement. They could simply pull themselves up the ropes, known as “jugging” in climbing parlance.
Joe Baker and his son, Sam, shown on a multi-day rope ascent of El Capitan, a famous 3,000-foot rock face in Yosemite National Park. They summited the peak on Oct. 29. (Provided by Joe Baker)
The San Francisco Chronicle published a story headlined, “Did an 8-year-old actually climb Yosemite’s El Capitan? Not really. It’s complicated.” The Los Angeles Times went with “A Colorado dad says his 8-year-old is the youngest to scale El Capitan, but did they really climb it?” The Daily Mail in Great Britain published three stories on the controversy.
“Even before he went up, there was a blog written that said this is a big hoax and lie and a scam,” Joe Baker said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Then it shifted, ‘He said the word climb, so he’s a big liar.’ When I first heard that, I said, ‘I’ll be more careful, I’ll say ‘rope ascend’ every time I can to the media. When I say rope ascend, they don’t even hear that.
“Sam lived on the wall, he pooped in bags and dealt with all these really harsh elements for five days, and they’re saying, ‘That didn’t count, because it wasn’t really a climb.’ It just seems so petty and silly to take something that is so cool. Just hiking off El Capitan is an eight-mile hike. Most 8-year-olds I know could never do that, let alone all the elements of ascending the wall.”
Golden’s Charley Mace, who has guided two ascents of Mount Everest and climbed five other 8,000-meter peaks, had more nuanced reactions to the story than many of the outspoken critics commenting in the media and on Baker’s Facebook page.
“I’m not going to blame the kid,” said Mace, who climbed El Cap via the same route (The Nose) five years ago in a one-day ascent. “He’s 8, he’s innocent, he’s doing what his parents are telling him to do. He’s the youngest kid to have gotten up El Cap. A lot of people jug fixed lines. It looks like, from some of his Instagram things, that he’s clicking in himself — the kid is doing stuff on the wall. He’s not in a baby carrier getting carried up.”
Mace doesn’t quibble with the assertion that their ascent was a “climb” of El Capitan.
“Yeah, I think it is, but that’s personal, and that’s semantics that some people get worked up about,” Mace said. “The kid, from what I can gather, has a pretty decent climbing resume for an 8-year-old kid.”
Stewart Green, a longtime Colorado Springs climber who has written 14 guidebooks — including six focused on Colorado crags — questioned whether an 8-year-old should even attempt such a climb.
“Both of my kids were really good climbers,” Green said. “When they were little kids, I was so careful with them and didn’t put their safety at risk. Climbing El Cap is a big deal. I don’t know that an 8-year-old kid has the skills to actually climb it. He jumarred up the ropes. I guess that’s a legitimate ascent in some ways. I think it would have been better if they had waited until he was older.”
After his father passed him the phone, Sam said his favorite things about the experience were “snuggling with my dad” in a sleeping bag at night and the instant lasagna they had for dinner on the wall. He teased his dad for being slow on the climb and said the hardest part of the trip came when a party above them was slowed by a haul bag that got snagged on rock, delaying the Bakers’ arrival at their camp on the wall that night.
“We had to climb until 1 o’clock in the morning,” Sam said. “That was the scariest and the hardest part.”
Like many, Green criticized the publicity Baker sought to herald his son’s achievement.
“If they would have kept it low key, it wouldn’t have been a big deal,” Green said. “As soon as you start involving the media, having it on CNN and ABC News and portraying it as the kid climbed El Cap … you open yourself up for criticism.”
According to a biography at joebaker.org, Baker and his wife, Ann, named their three boys Samuel Adventure, Sylvan Lightyear and Joey Danger. It says Baker is founder and CEO of Superhero Sidekick, “a company that helps CEOs scale their businesses.” It also says he and his wife “experience God most vividly outdoors, so if you are looking for Joe and Ann on the weekend, try taking a hike at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and look up.”