A Colorado dad says his 8-year-old is the youngest to scale El Capitan, but did they really climb it?
The headlines screamed what anyone would consider a colossal feat: An 8-year-old boy climbed to the top of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan on Saturday, becoming one of the youngest people to summit the world famous rock.
“I am so proud of my son!” Joe Baker posted on his Facebook page Wednesday. “He is now officially the youngest person to climb ElCapitan.”
But what had been a well-promoted achievement quickly turned into controversy, all centered on whether the boy’s climb actually involved climbing.
Baker spread the word about his son’s ascent on their own website and appeared on local media outlets and on the ABC talk show “Live With Kelly and Ryan.” But within the tightknit community of climbers, Baker’s story about climbing one of the most daunting rock faces on the planet with an 8-year-old has been called a “hoax-climb.” Others question the use of the money Baker has raised from online donations.
After the climb, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Baker and his son relied on two climbers who set up a rope for them. The father and son then used hand clamps to climb up the rope, in essence not needing to touch the rock’s face as they ascended.
Baker addressed some of the criticism on his Facebook page but did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Times. Days after this story was published, he responded with a written statement defending his decision to climb, and pushing back against the criticism he’s faced.
“To be honest, I have never in my life heard that the word climb can’t be used to describe a rope ascent,” Baker said in the statement, adding that he’s been climbing his entire life. “There is no hoax or lie here. Sam lived on the wall, dealt with extreme temperature changes, forceful winds, slept on a port-a-ledge, cooked his meals on a jet boil and ascended every inch of the wall on ropes connected to anchors in the rock.”
The formidable climb of El Capitan is one usually tackled by expert climbers, many of them preparing for years on other peaks before facing off with El Capitan. But Baker referred to 8-year-old Sam as an “expert,” even as rock climbers and others questioned the safety of a preteen attempting the climb.
In the statement, Baker said Sam has already had experience sleeping on mountain walls during climbs, and even at his young age “has a series of skills that normal gym climbers do not.”
“He is one of the strongest climbers in the entire country for his age,” the statement read, adding that Sam has been active in national competitions, sometimes besting kids up to 11 years old.
But experts contend that in interviews and promotion of the climb, Baker did not disclose the real nature of the ascent, presenting it as a challenge undertaken solely by him and his son and failing to disclose the leading roles that guides took in the climb.
Critics say Baker misinterpreted the nature of the climb and, in doing so, attempted to place the feat on par with other skilled athletes who have climbed the wall without the same help.
The group’s ascent was captured in photos taken by Tom Evans, a fixture in the Yosemite Valley whose weather reports and chronicles of those attempting to scale El Capitan are a must-read for climbers.
“They didn’t climb a foot, so they don’t deserve any recognition,” Evans told The Times. “All they had to do was go up this little rope. They had no other responsibility otherwise. Hail the guides who were the climbers, because these guys were tag-alongs. Climbing a rock is not climbing a rope.”
From the ground, Evans is a regular during peak climbing season, aiming a telephoto lens at the rock’s face and relaying conditions on elcapreport.com.
“The Big Hoax is supposed to start climbing today,” he wrote on Oct. 25, referring to Baker’s group. “Would a world class climber choose to jug fixed lines instead of actually climbing the rock itself?? Of course not!!”
Evans observed Baker and his son using fixed ropes that were set in place by the two climbers ahead of them. They then used “ascenders” that lock on the rope to pull themselves up El Capitan’s face, sometimes called “jugging.”
In the blog, Evans accuses Baker and his wife of exploiting their son for publicity and exposing the boy to the dangers of El Capitan before he is ready for the actual climb.
“What is the hurry that justifies doing this now, instead of when he is not a small child as he is now?” he wrote. “I will tell you what. ... A supposed ‘World Record.’”
Evans said Baker and his son were “waiting for the essential ropes to be fixed for them,” while the two guide climbers ahead of them “huff and puff.”
“This has been a sore point for us in the climbing community for years,” he told The Times, adding that Baker and others falsely claim to have climbed El Capitan for money or fame.
“They try to grab a reputation as if they’re great climbers, and they’re not even climbers in the most part,” he said. “There’s a big difference between going up a rope and the vast experience about how to place gear, how to read the rock, how to carry your bag.”
He said claims such as Baker’s minimize the feats of accomplished climbers who have trained for years to ascend El Capitan.
“We’ve had friends who died up there,” he said.
Baker wrote about his plans to climb El Capitan with his son on Facebook on Sept. 26, saying the 8-year-old had been wanting to make the daunting climb for two years.
“Together we will spend at least four days and three nights living on the wall,” he wrote. “This will be a historic achievement for an 8-year-old.”
In the statement to The Times, Baker also denied suggestions that the project was a publicity stunt.
“It was really fun to do these interviews together [with Sam], and there was nothing wrong with having the media follow our story because our ascent of El Capitan was legitimate,” it read.
Other questions about the project were also raised, including how donations were being used. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Baker, who on his personal website identifies himself as a life coach, filmmaker and entrepreneur, repeatedly said in news interviews that the money would be used to help foster children, and that America’s Kids Belong, a nonprofit adoption agency in Colorado, had confirmed it had been in contact with Baker and expected the donation.
But the website chronicling the climb, which includes multiple links asking for donations, says the money would be used to “create a film that inspires parents to do big things with their kids.”
Laurie Zauche, senior director of operations for American Kids Belong, confirmed to The Times that Baker had made a pledge and that the organization was still expecting it to come through.
Baker had been in touch with the organization’s chief executive about the donation, but Zauche said she wasn’t aware of details of the donation or whether anything had changed about the initial pledge.
Baker told the San Francisco Chronicle that “it’s not a revenue generator” and that “there hadn’t been many donations made.”
He also attributed the confusion to his wording and said he wasn’t aware of a difference between a “rope ascent” and a “climb.”
Evans said he doesn’t buy it.
Baker has described himself as a climber, he said, and someone with a basic understanding of the sport would understand the difference.
“If he’s ever climbed anything, he knows that,” Evans said.
On Tuesday evening, Baker responded on his Facebook page to some of the criticism, calling it “disappointing.”
“Sam idolizes the climbing community, so it’s disappointing that a small portion is diminishing his accomplishment over a word choice,” he wrote. “As soon as we heard that this should be referred to as a rope ascent we made every effort to call it such. We understand that semantics matter.”
Baker refers to himself and his wife as “climbing enthusiasts who have scaled mountain faces all over the world.”
In his interview with the Chronicle, he said he wasn’t interested in an official world record for Sam for being the youngest climber of the wall, but that the experience and media attention were enough.
In the statement to The Times, Baker’s opinion about the world record seemed to change.
“Historically, an ascent like ours has counted for the records,” he said. “As his father, I am very proud of him. A kid can claim the title of being the youngest to climb El Capitan is a world-class climber in my book. That kid just happens to be my son.”
In a Facebook post Wednesday morning, Baker called his 8-year-old “officially the youngest person to climb ElCapitan,” but acknowledged it was by “rope ascent, where other climbers fix lines ahead of you.”
“We worked as a family to get him ready for this big goal!” he wrote. “The adventure that we shared was as good as it gets.”
Evans points out there are no set “rules” in the sport, part of what makes Baker’s claims frustrating for those in the community.
“He can do that, it’s legal for him to do that,” he said. “But to make all these claims — the climbing community does have a sense of ethics and what integrity means.”
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