An 8-year-old climbed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park – or did he?

DENVER — A Colorado Springs father has sparked backlash among rock climbers after he claimed his 8-year-old son was 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 scaled the summit is undisputed, but critics in the climbing community have said that the way they did it didn’t really qualify it as a ‘climb’. They relied on ropes attached by others and used a device called an ascender (or jumar) that moves freely up a rope but holds it in place with a downward pull. That meant they didn’t have to use El Cap’s skinny holds for the upward movement. They could simply pull themselves up on the ropes, called “jugging” in climbing jargon.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story headlined, “Did an Eight-Year-Old Actually Climb Yosemite’s El Capitan?” Not really. It’s complicated.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “A Colorado father says his 8-year-old son is the youngest person to climb El Capitan, but did they really climb it?” The UK’s Daily Mail ran three articles about the controversy.

“Even before he rose, there was a blog that said this was a big scam and a big lie and a scam,” Joe Baker said in a phone interview Thursday. “Then it changed: ‘He said the word climbing, so he’s a big liar.’ When I first heard this, I said to the media, “I’m going to be more careful, I’m going to say ‘climb the rope’ every time I can. When I say climb rope, they don’t even hear me.

“Sam has been living on the wall, he’s been pooping in sacks and he’s been dealing with all these really hard elements for five days, and they’re like, ‘That didn’t count because it wasn’t really a climb.’ It just seems so petty and silly to take something so cool. Hiking just from El Capitan is an eight-mile hike. Most 8-year-olds I know could never do that, let alone all the elements to climb the wall.”

Charley Mace, who has led two climbs of Mount Everest and climbed five other eight-thousanders, had a more nuanced reaction 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 five years ago via the same route (The Nose) in a one-day ascent. “He’s 8, he’s innocent, he does what his parents tell him. He’s the youngest kid to stand up on El Cap. A lot of people don’t have a landline. It looks like he’s clicking some of his Instagram stuff himself – the boy does stuff on the wall. He will not be carried up in a baby carrier.”

Mace doesn’t dispute the claim that her ascension was a “climb” on El Capitan.

“Yeah, I think so, but that’s personal, and that’s semantics that some people get upset about,” Mace said. “The boy has a pretty decent climbing resume for an 8-year-old, as far as I can tell.”

Stewart Green, a longtime climber from Colorado Springs who has written 14 guidebooks – including six focusing on Colorado cliffs – 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 compromise their safety. Climbing El Cap is a big deal. I don’t know if an 8 year old has the skills to actually climb it. He jumped up the ropes. I think that’s a legitimate move up in some ways. I think it would have been better if they had waited until he was older.”

After his dad gave him the phone, Sam said his favorite things about the experience were “snuggling in a sleeping bag with my dad at night” and the instant lasagna they had on the wall for dinner. He teased his father for being slow on the climb, saying the hardest part of the journey came when a group above them was slowed down by a carry bag that got stuck on a rock, marking the Bakers’ arrival at their camp the wall that night delayed.

“We had to climb until 1am,” Sam said. “That was the scariest and most difficult part.”

Like many others, Green criticized the publicity Baker attempted to herald his son’s performance.

“If they had kept it low-key, it wouldn’t have been a big deal,” Green said. “Once you start involving the media, having it on CNN and ABC News and portraying it as the kid climbing El Cap… you open yourself up to criticism.”

According to a bio on joebaker.org, Baker and his wife Ann named their three boys Samuel Adventure, Sylvan Lightyear and Joey Danger. It states that Baker is the founder and CEO of Superhero Sidekick, “a company that helps CEOs scale their businesses.” It is also said that he and his wife “experience God most vividly in the open air. So if you’re looking for Joe and Ann over the weekend, try taking a hike at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and looking up.”

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