Rock-climbing baby scaled walls before she could walk

Posted at 8:09 PM, Jun 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-26 20:09:50-04

When Ellie Farmer is working her way up a climbing wall, she sometimes plants her foot or reaches her hand just-so and has to squeal down to her parents, as if to say, “Look! I did it!”

She can scale a wall, but she can’t quite form the words to celebrate yet; she’s 20 months old.

Videos of the rosy-cheeked toddler pulling herself up climbing walls zipped across the Internet this week, drawing millions of views on Facebook in just a few days.

Her parents, Rachael and Zak Farmer, are competitive climbers who always hoped she’d join in the family pastime. Ellie was climbing with her mother throughout her pregnancy and has been a fixture at their local gym in Flagstaff, Arizona, her entire life.

“She’s really been part of the climbing community since birth,” said Zak Farmer, 31. “When she was first opening her eyes, she was at the gym, seeing climbers climb.”

Ellie was climbing before she could walk and scaled her first wall around 8 months.

“I kind of imagined when I had Ellie that she was going to be this calm baby, and we’d always go hiking in the woods, and she’d watch the butterflies go by,” said Rachael Farmer, 28. “That’s really nice, and we definitely have those moments together, but she is a really active kid.”

Her father built an 8-foot climbing wall in the bedroom beside her crib. (Now, because she’s such an ace climber, it stands beside her toddler bed.) Ellie is typically at the gym with her parents about five days a week, and some of that time is dedicated just to her interests: hanging, gripping and scrambling up kid-size walls.

Kids are natural climbers, the Farmers said, whether its stairs, furniture, trees, or, in their case, specially designed climbing walls surrounded by safety mats. They think its important for her gross and fine motor development, and her sense of confidence.

“She has to think out the movement, decide where to place her foot, where to place her hand,” Rachael Farmer said. “She’ll maybe fall backward and engages that core and sits back up.

“When she turns around and gets excited, that’s exactly what I want for her.”

Ellie is mostly bouldering, a harness-free style of climbing that focuses on short, powerful movements and lower heights. The wall she scaled in a recent viral video is about 7 feet tall, Rachael Farmer said, and she’s never out of her parents’ reach.

At 20 months, Ellie is too small to fit in a harness and could easily bump into a wall if she fell while wearing one, they said. Instead, she wears soft-soled leather shoes to protect her feet, and her parents spot her while she’s climbing, making sure they’re close enough to offer direction during a tough ascent.

Ellie has fallen, but they’ve always caught her, her parents said. If she’s a foot or so off the ground, they’ll let her land on the soft mats below to help her understand how it feels. As longtime climbers, they know that falling is part of the sport. So far, it’s made Ellie giggle.

The Farmers posted their daughter’s climbing videos before, but they’d never spread far before this week. Rachael Farmer thinks the most recent video took off because it showed her daughter solving problems as she worked up the wall. Because of its popularity, they started a Facebook page, The Little Zen Monkey, just to share her adventures.

“I want to encourage her to be a child, to develop those muscles,” Rachael Farmer said. “People are really excited about what we’re doing and that we’re getting our kid outside, keeping her active and encouraging her to be strong as she grows older.”

Commenters have been most supportive, the Farmers said, and they’re ignoring the comments that aren’t.

“I’ve been putting those aside, because I think I’m a phenomenal parent, and I know for a fact that I’m keeping my child safe while she does this activity,” said Rachael Farmer, who works as a nurse.

The Farmers said they’ll keep climbing with Ellie as long as she’s interested. In short clips on the Internet, it can be easy to forget that she’s still a toddler whose personality changes every week, who throws her oatmeal on the dog between bites and has a regular naptime. Her next big challenge might be a tougher climb, or potty-training.

“She has her fits; she has her ups and downs. They get new words, new attitudes and new interactions. It’s been cool to watch that grow pretty much every week,” Zak Farmer said. She’s “an excellent climber for her age, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune to all the other issues of being a baby.”