This 8-Year-Old Boy Became the Youngest Person to Ascend El Capitan

With the help of guides and ropes, Sam Baker and his father reached the top in four days

El Capitan
El Capitan towers more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor in Yosemite National Park. Mike Murphy via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The father of an 8-year-old boy says his son is now the youngest person to climb California’s iconic El Capitan rock formation. After four days of guided climbing, Joe Baker and his son Sam Baker reached the top of the cliff face inside Yosemite National Park last week.

“We made it!” Joe Baker wrote on Facebook. “... What an amazing week! I’m so proud of Sam. He completed the youngest rope ascent of ElCap! In a few years he might be … back breaking more records. We will be in [the] afterglow for days.”

Rock climbing has long been a favorite pastime for the Baker family, who live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Though Sam’s mother, Ann Baker, didn’t join for the ascent, she is also an avid climber and a big supporter of her son’s endeavors. The family set up a website to document Sam Baker’s adventures and raise money to “make films that inspire parents to adventure big with their kids.”

Sam Baker began training for the ascent at least 18 months ago and summited Moonlight Buttress inside Zion National Park in Utah as a bit of a test run, according to his dad.

“He did terrific on [Moonlight Buttress] and really showed us that he could handle the exposure,” Joe Baker tells CNN’s Andy Rose and Aya Elamroussi.

The duo began the ascent of the 3,000-foot-tall granite formation on October 25 and reached the summit on October 28. They made the high-elevation journey with the help of two guides.

But their achievement has not been without controversy: As the ascent made headlines around the world, some members of the Yosemite climbing community began to complain publicly that what the pair had done did not actually constitute climbing. One long-time climber even called the feat a “publicity hoax.”

The Bakers used a technique known as “jugging,” also known as a rope ascent, which involves using handheld devices to slide up a fixed rope that’s been placed by a guide who’s farther up the rock. This way, the climber can shimmy up the rope without touching the rock face. 

“I’m very annoyed by this because climbing El Capitan puts you in an elite group of climbers,” says Tom Evans, 76, who many in the community view as El Capitan’s unofficial record-keeper, to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Gregory Thomas.

“A rope [ascent] of ElCap is not near as awesome as the guys we met that free it in a day,” Tom Baker wrote in an Instagram post. “… [H]owever when [you’re] 8 living on the wall and climbing ropes for days is frickin rad … And it took a lot to get him ready for such an adventure. I am very proud of him. He earned it.

No matter the technique, reaching the top of El Cap can be difficult and dangerous. The ascent takes multiple days, which means carrying up all necessary food, water and other heavy equipment to sustain the group. It also involves setting up and sleeping on a small platform that’s suspended thousands of feet in the air. The rock face is very exposed, a mountaineering term used to describe terrain that’s steep and unprotected.

Prior to Sam Baker’s summit, 9-year-old Pearl Johnson was believed to be the youngest person to climb El Cap, setting the record in October 2019. She also used handheld devices, known as ascenders, to shimmy up a fixed rope, per Outside’s Chris Van Leuven. Earlier that same summer, 10-year-old Selah Schneiter also reached the top of the formation.

“It’s just a mythic place,” Joe Baker tells Good Morning America’s Yi-Jin Yu. “It’s kind of like the mecca of rock climbing. It’s so big and it’s such a big adventure and also an opportunity.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.