WYOMING ADVENTURE: Mini Mountaineer Bags Jaw-Dropping Peaks in Tetons

National park’s Mount Moran summit a worthy challenge for 6-year-old rock climber

Six-year-old Sylvan Lightyear Baker, of Colorado Springs, is poised above the West Horn at three-fourths of the way up the massive wall of Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. (Courtesy photo from Joe Baker)

By Bob Wooley

Special to the Wyoming Truth

This story has been updated for clarity on July 10, 2023 at 9:40 a.m. MT. 

The approach in itself can be daunting. With no maintained trails to speak of, just getting to the base of the mountain takes effort.

It usually starts with the paddling — crossing String Lake and Leigh Lake to access the Chicago Mountaineering Club (CMC) route to the summit of Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. Ascending the eastern face of the mountain, the CMC route isn’t the most technically challenging. But to be clear, it’s a serious climb for a mountaineer with skills.

And that’s what makes it all the more impressive that 6-year-old Sylvan Lightyear Baker summited the mountain on July 6. While it can’t be said for certain, it’s probably a first for someone of his age.

Sylvan, who will enter first grade this fall, is pictured at one pitch from the summit of Mount Moran. (Courtesy photo from Joe Baker) 

Sylvan may just be getting ready to enter first grade, but don’t let his relative youth fool you. The middle son of avid climbers Joe and Ann Baker, Sylvan has been preparing for this climb in one way or another for most of his life.

Hot on the heels of older brother Samuel Adventure, 9, who was the youngest person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan at age 8 last year, Sylvan is making a name for himself in the climbing world and setting an example for younger brother, 4-year-old Joey Danger. 

There’s a joyful reminder of Sylvan’s age when he talks about reaching the summit.

“It felt amazing. I wish we would have flown our kite, but it wasn’t windy, and we didn’t have much time,” he said.

Learning the ropes

For the Bakers, climbing is part of family life.

“It goes crawl, walk, rock climb in our house,” Joe told the Wyoming Truth. “The main aspect of our dating was always rock climbing. And so, as soon as we started having kids, we just brought them with us.”

Joe and Ann clarified that during those early climbs, the boys were always safely harnessed in backpack child carriers, and the climbs were always of the low-angle, low-impact variety.

Along with frequent family hiking and climbing excursions, Joe keeps the boys prepared with visualization exercises for unexpected scenarios they may encounter on a climb. They also spend time training on rock walls in climbing gyms.

To get ready for his Mount Moran summit, Sylvan trained at the Manitou Springs Incline, a staircase of 2,744 railroad ties rising 2,000 vertical feet in less than one mile. As an added benefit, the Manitou Incline is near their home in Colorado Springs where Joe, founder and CEO of Superhero Sidekick, helps CEOs scale their businesses.

Joe Baker and his son, Sylvan, are all smiles after reaching the summit of Mount Moran on July 6. Sylvan has been climbing with his parents and two brothers for most of his life. (Courtesy photo from Joe Baker)

The adventure begins

Within the first 24 hours of setting off on the Mount Moran climb and crossing the lakes, Joe, Sylvan and two friends that accompanied them, had seen two adult bears, including a mother with her cub. 

Day two started with a visit from a four-legged friend of a different variety — an elk that was so large, Sylvan initially thought it was a moose. From there, Joe said the day consisted of a massive hike up to a camp perched on the flank of the mountain. 

“It’s really a difficult hike because you’re climbing a wash — like a boulder field — and some of these boulders move beneath your feet,” Joe said. “From there, we launched the next day up the wall.”

That third day — the day of the climb to the summit and back down — took 18 hours. And according to Joe, it pushed him to his limits, climbing himself while coaching, encouraging and constantly staying within arm’s length of Sylvan, who Joe said performed like a champ. 

Starting out at 4 a.m. and wearing headlamps to see in the pitch-black conditions, the group spent the first two hours hiking what’s known as a scramble:  you usually have to use your hands and feet to traverse steep terrain. 

“Then we had to ascend two snow fields. Sylvan had his own ice axe; he was just working his way up the snow fields,” Joe said. “And then you scramble snow and loose rock all the way up to this area called the Drizzlepuss.”

From there, they had to rappel around 150 feet to drop down to the face of the mountain, which is where Joe said the “real climbing” to the summit began.

There was only one stretch of the climb on the final pitch of the ascent — a traverse pitch — where, for logistical reasons, Joe said he could only coach Sylvan from a distance.

“It was kind of a challenging, scary pitch. And it was the highest point on the wall,” Joe said. “It was such an awesome, moving moment, that he climbed through that pitch by himself and was OK. He was really strong the whole way.”

Joe and Sylvan had to cross snow and ice on the route to the summit. (Courtesy photo from Kaleb Musser)

Reaching the summit around 4 p.m., which was later than expected, the group kept a close eye on the weather as they began their six-hour descent.

Through it all, Sylvan, Joe said, stayed composed, with the exception of facing the dreaded Drizzlepuss on the way down. 

“By the time you’re facing it again, you’re already the most exhausted,” Joe said. “That was when he started getting a little bit emotional.”

Joe and Ann realize the amount of mental toughness and composure it took for Sylvan to remain calm (for the most part) and focused throughout the challenging climb, but stressed they make sure all of their boys know that it’s OK to be scared—and it’s OK to cry. It’s something that’s really important, Ann said, because for context, at six years old, Sylvan still takes an occasional nap.  

“It’s not about not having fear,” Joe said. “It’s about learning that when you have fear, you can push through those emotions and work through it.” 

It’s a lesson that will always be of value — maybe even this week as Samuel Adventure attempts to be the youngest to lead climb, in tandem with Joe, Grand Teton’s Exum Ridge. At 13,770 feet, Grand Teton is the second highest peak in the Teton Range.

As usual, Joe will be there to encourage and support Samuel every step of the way, while giving him the space to make the accomplishment his own.

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