A Colorado dad says his 8-year-old is the youngest to scale El Capitan, but did they really climb it?

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA - APRIL 11: Yosemite National Park is closed to visitors due to the coronavirus, Covid 19. El Capitan at sunrise on April 11, 2020. Animals roam the park without having to worry about crowds of people. Madera County on Saturday, April 11, 2020 in Yosemite National Park, CA. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Yosemite National Park's El Capitan at sunrise on April 11, 2020. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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 promoted his son's ascent on 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 his 8-year-old son has been called a "hoax-climb." Others question the use of the money Baker has raised from online donations.

Baker addressed some of the criticism on his Facebook page but did not respond to requests for comment from The Times.

The formidable climb 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.

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.

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 go up 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."

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 refers to 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 that he wasn't going to claim an official world record for Sam for being the youngest climber of the wall, but that the experience and media attention were enough.

In a Facebook post Wednesday morning, however, 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."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.