Last month, weeks before the biggest rock climb of his 6-year-old life, Sam Baker descended his training route on Garden of the Gods’ Montezuma Tower and toiled with his shoelaces.
A much older passerby noticed this.
“Buddy, you can do that,” he said, motioning to the sandstone pinnacle, “but you can’t tie your shoes?”
The kid out of kindergarten is still working on that.
“He can do a whole bunch of knots,” Sam’s father, Joe, says, “but not that knot yet.”
Among kids who can’t tie their shoes, you’ll struggle to find one willing and able to ascend Lost Arrow Spire, the vaunted, granite thumb poking 2,700 feet to the sky from Yosemite Valley’s floor. Sam finished the route July 22 after spending one cold night high against the sheer rock with his dad in a portaledge.
It’s unclear how rare the achievement is for someone Sam’s age. Tommy Caldwell, Colorado’s most famous climber, is known to have ascended Lost Arrow Spire also at age 6. But it’s most certainly not often you hear of someone this young tackling one of the most iconic rocks in America’s most iconic climbing center. Though, you are hearing about it more.
Inspirations for this mission were Selah Schneiter, the 10-year-old Coloradan who in June 2019 became the youngest person to scale El Capitan. Three months later, the title went to 9-year-old Pearl Johnson.
Both summited the Nose the same way Sam went up Lost Arrow: by jumaring, harnessed to a fixed rope with handheld devices that add protection clipped to the rope.
Sam got good at jumaring out the backdoor of the family’s Colorado Springs home. Joe fashioned a rope paralleling a gutter from the roof; Sam would jumar up to the second-story deck, detach himself, run down the stairs, out the backdoor again and climb up again. Over and over and over. The boy not yet 50 pounds would do this 30 times a day for months leading up to Lost Arrow.
He does this now.
“We’re preparing for an even bigger route,” Joe says.
“Moonlight Buttress!” Sam hollers up against the house, referring to the 1,000-foot crack spanning a slab at Zion National Park.
“It was one of Alex Honnold’s first big solos,” says Sam’s mom, Ann, referring to the man who might have more fame than any climber ever thanks to the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo.”
And later, the goal is for the biggest, grandest climb of all.
“We think we can get Sam up there when he’s 8,” Joe says.
“2022,” Ann says.
“But,” Joe says, “there’s a lot we gotta do before then.”
It would likely be a five-day sufferfest, so Sam must get stronger. And not only physically but, more importantly, mentally, Joe says. And ideally, he adds, sponsors would be lined up to provide financial support.
Exposure helps. The film crew that joined father and son up Lost Arrow helps, as did the one that tagged along last year for Sam’s journey up the rough face of 11,884-foot Pingora Peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. The recent write-up in Men’s Journal helps, as will this one.
Sam knows the camera poses by now, raising a fist atop the second-story deck. In other photos kept around the house, he’s seen in some wild place flashing what appears to be a rebel yell.
“Yeah,” his dad says with a chuckle, “he’ll be glad to sign autographs later.”
“Don’t let it get to his head,” Ann says.
Sam Adventure (middle name) has a head of white-blond hair and piercing blue eyes just like his younger brothers: Sylvan Lightyear, 3, and Joey Danger, 1. When naming their children, Joe and Ann thought of the great outdoors, the importance it’s had on their lives.
Sylvan is for the lake they cherish in South Dakota, where they met, venturing through the Black Hills, a girl who once had dreams of playing pro basketball and a boy who once thought of climbing mountains for a living.
Danger is for the kinds of situations Ann and Joe occasionally found themselves in. Like once in the Wind River Range, where they were stranded in the dark at the base of a humongous rock wall.
“So we spent the night there, shivering and telling stories and singing songs,” Joe says. “And I was like, ‘You know what, I could marry this girl.’”
They married in 2011. Their honeymoon was spent on Stawamus Chief Mountain, the mighty monolith of British Columbia. They explored China that first year of marriage.
In the living room, there’s a framed photo of the then-twentysomethings on Lost Arrow Spire in 2007. They each called Yosemite home for a while. “That was the beginning of our love story,” Joe says.
And now they get to see their kids fall in love with that place. Now, maybe, Joe alongside his boy could conquer El Cap — the rock that bested him three times in his long-haired youth.
“It’s cool because when we first had kids, it was hard to sort of give up that part of your life,” Ann says. “When you have a newborn, your whole life sort of changes; you can’t do big things anymore. So it’s cool seeing them grow up because you start to have these dreams and big visions with your kids. ... It’s like it doesn’t stop; it just changes.”
And there are valuable lessons, too, Joe says.
“The lessons you learn by doing a route like (Lost Arrow) are tremendous, way beyond rock climbing. To have that inner confidence to approach something that looks so impossible. ... I mean, you look up this wall and you think it’s impossible, totally absurd. No kid could think they could do it without a father speaking into his life: ‘You got this, you can do this.’”
Now the father tells his son to straighten up for the video camera. Sam is bashful or energetic or both, burying his head into his dad’s chest and scurrying behind the couch.
“You gotta answer questions, buddy,” Joe says. “This all goes with being on TV and being famous. If you want people to get your autograph, you gotta be good.”
Later, Sam is found alone in a hallway on his back. His feet are up against a wall and he’s staring at the display of photos: him as a baby on the backs of his hiking parents, him on his first climbs as a 3-year-old. There’s a bunch of photos of him smiling with his smiling parents, and there’s plenty of room for more.
“I like these,” he says. “Every day I look at them. I just do.”