As I walk along a dirt trail that winds through Cheyenne Canyon near Colorado Springs, Colorado, I look up at the rock wall next to me. It’s imposing, around 400 feet tall with several jagged rocks that seem to stick out of the near-vertical face.
“This whole wall here is called the Army route,” says Joe Baker, speaking about the big thing he and his 8-year-old son, Sam, are about to climb. “You go right up the front of that.”
I’m from New Jersey. We don’t have rocks, nonetheless ones that you intentionally hook yourself to in an attempt to scale, so this entire experience is brand new to me, but for Sam, who is less than a third my age, it is anything but.
“We’re training Sam to be able to lead [a climb] and this has been one of our projects, and yesterday, he just led it masterfully and so I thought we’d try it again today,” said Joe, as we draw closer to the rock face.
If Sam’s name sounds familiar, it is because it is. We caught up with him and his dad in May 2021, shortly after the father-son duo made the decision they would climb one of the world’s most imposing rock faces in the world: El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
“I think Sam’s already ready,” said Joe on this cool September morning. “He’s definitely ready physically to do it. Is he ready for the exposure? I don’t know. Are any of us?”
To the uninitiated, El Capitan is known across the world as the mecca of climbing, with its 3,200 vertical feet of granite that's tested even the most experienced climbers since it was first climbed in the 1950s.
A few years ago, Joe thought it would be a good test for Sam’s ability, as he has already become the youngest person to climb three distinct peaks in North America.
On Oct. 24, the duo will set out for their newest journey, and if successful, it will make Sam the youngest person to climb and summit El Capitan.
“Just imagine walking on your fingers for a mile on the sidewalk, and then, think about that straight up, but you can’t walk anywhere because you’re literally hanging from your fingers or your anchors for four days,” said Joe, explaining the daunting task in front of them.
But going deeper, Joe thought it would be an even better test for the man he knows Sam will one day be.
“Yeah, just that internal confidence that you build with your father out on the rocks,” said Joe. “It’s something that’s going to be so beneficial when you’re building a business someday. You know, when you’re living life. Life is risky, life is dangerous, and learning to really acutely manage that [fear] is one of the greatest skills.”
As I watched Sam climb up the rocks of the Army Route with seemingly effortless ease, I witnessed what Joe meant about managing that fear. With no one around him around 60 feet from the ground, you could hear Sam call down to his father.
“It’s not going in! It’s not going in!”
He was referencing an anchor that you press between two rocks. The pressure of the device on the rocks holds it in place as you then attached a carabiner and rope to it for safety. Eighteen months ago, when we first met up with Sam, he might have given up on the task out of frustration, but today, after Joe asked if Sam wanted him to come up and help, Sam replied with a definitive, almost defiant, “No. I can do this.”
It was one of those moments where all you can do is smile. And as I looked over at Joe, that’s exactly what he was doing.