As It Happens

8-year-old climbing El Capitan with his dad mostly in it for the candy and cuddles 

Sam Adventure Baker is setting out to be the youngest person to climb California's towering El Capitan rock formation. But, ultimately, it's not about the record or the glory, but rather spending quality time with his dad.

Sam Adventure Baker sets out to be the youngest person to ascend the California rock formation

A young boy and a man stand side by side, leaning against rockface, mountains looming in the background. They are both wearing helmets, sunglasses and climbing gear. The boy's T-shirt reads: "Adventure is my middle name."
Sam and Joe Baker are climbing California's El Capitan. If they succeed, it's believed that eight-year-old Sam will be the youngest person to ascent the famous rock formation. (wildlovestory/Instagram)

In some ways, eight-year-old Sam Baker had a pretty ordinary night, snuggling with his dad and eating candy as they watched The Lion King.

Except, unlike most kids his age, he did it all on a narrow rock ledge about 300 metres above the ground, overlooking California's Yosemite Valley. 

"He was real cuddly last night," Sam's dad, Joe Baker, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "There wasn't a lot of room."

The father-son duo are in the middle of climbing El Capitan, a 914-metre tall rock formation in Yosemite National Park that's catnip to thrill-seeking adventurers. If they succeed, Sam will be the youngest known person on record to scale the peak.

Two photos side by side. On the left, a view from above shows a small boy sleeping on a yellow mat on a narrow rock ledge overlooking hills dotted with evergreen trees. On the right, a closer-up version of the same picture shows Sam sleeping, but the view below is not visible.
This is where Sam and his father spent Tuesday night watching the Lion King and falling asleep. (Submitted by Joe Baker)

They started the ascent Tuesday, and spoke to CBC just as they were getting ready for their second day of climbing. Sam declared Day 1 to be both "amazing" and "pretty easy" as he stuffed Sour Patch Kids into his mouth. 

"We eat a lot of candy," his dad said. "It keeps everybody motivated."

His middle name is Adventure

Baker has wanted to climb El Capitan with his son ever since he first heard about Selah Schneiter, a 10-year-old who made the ascent with her father in 2019. (Selah's record has since been supplanted by nine-year-old Pearl Jonson.)

"When I saw that … I couldn't even sleep, I was so blown away by how much adventure and friendship they shared," Baker said. "And I just said, wow, I'd like to do that with one of my boys when they're ready — and Sam's ready."

Sam was practically born ready. His middle name is literally Adventure, and he's been climbing since he was a toddler.

According to the family's website that chronicles Sam's adventures, he climbed the Second Flatiron in Boulder, Colo., when he was just four, and completed Lost Arrow Spire, a climb that starts 763 metres above Yosemite Valley, at the age of six.

At eight, his dad says he is already "one of the strongest climbers in Colorado."

"At the rock gym, people stop and just watch him, and he loves that. And then he also loves racing people at the rock gym, and he bets them a dollar that he can beat him — and then he always beats them," Baker said.

"I once made $10 off that," Sam said. 

"Our local gym got actually pretty aggravated about it, so they won't let him do it anymore," his dad said.

"They kicked us out," Sam said.

"They kicked him out for like a week," his dad confirmed.

Sugary snacks and pasta dinners

Baker says there are two aspects to being ready for El Capitan. The first is physical climbing strength, which he says Sam has in spades.

"And then the harder one is the mental readiness," Baker said.

"There was a series of mountains we had to do to really help him, psychologically, to be able to get to the exposure — because, you know, you're above eternity up here the whole time. I mean, you're hanging from your fingers or your anchors every day, all day."

But as Sam climbs, his father is always close by. 

"He's always within a few feet of me where I can really just be there, as, you know, emotional support — give him a hug, talk to him. You know, I've got a backpack. I can throw a Band-Aid on him if he gets a scrape. I get up and put his gloves on if he needs them," he said.

A man and a small boy smile with their mouths wide open. They're both wearing puffy jackets, and behind them, climbing gear hangs from a wall.
Sam and Baker on Tuesday before beginning their ascent of El Capitan in California. (wildlivestory/Instagram)

The other thing that keeps Sam going, Baker said, is the food. 

As the pair climbs, they gobble down candies and sugary snacks. Sam's favourite is Honey Buns, a pre-packaged pastry smothered in icing.

Baker says the sugar rush keeps Sam going during the day, but it also helps him crash at night as they make camp in precarious places. 

"Our next campsite is actually fully suspended. So it's a cot that we're suspending on the side of the wall that we're going to sleep on," he said

While the snacks are sweet, the dinners are hearty. On Tuesday, they had lasagna. When they wrap up Wednesday's climb, they plan to feast on mac and cheese.

'We're best friends up here'

Of course, what goes in must come out.

"So you have poop bags," little Sam explained. "And the poop bag, you poop in it."

Asked what they do with the poop bags when they're done, the eight-year-old declared: "We chuck 'em off the wall!"

"No we don't. No we don't. That was a joke," his dad quickly interjected. "That would be a poop water balloon. Not cool. No, we carry them up. They're super gross." 

The Day 1 climb, Baker says, was a "piece of cake." But they have at least a couple more days of climbing ahead of them. And the higher they go, the more vertical the ascent. 

"It's just going to get bigger and harder from here," Baker said. "But Sam's got it, I think."

At the end of the day, though, young Sam isn't in it for the record or the glory — or even the snacks. He just likes climbing with his dad all day, then falling asleep together at night as they watch movies on his phone. 

"We're best friends up here," Baker said. 

Interview with Joe and Sam Baker produced by Devin Nguyen.

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