An Advanced Beginner

Sam Elias has lit up the probable third ascent of Red Bull (M11), Vail, Colorado, after only mixed climbing for roughly one season, and only climbing three years total.

By Rock and Ice | April 12th, 2010

Sam Elias has lit up the probable third ascent of Red Bull (M11), Vail, Colorado, after only mixed climbing for roughly one season, and only climbing three years total.

“I believe the route is rated M11 without heel spurs,” says Elias, but I have no idea what this really means. He says, “If I had to rate it in rock grades, based strictly on physical exertion, it would probably be 5.13a.”


Elias begins the first crux of the second pitch of Red Bull (M11).

Red Bull, in the Rigid Designator Amphitheater, is a two-pitch line that is done in a single 45-meter stretch. Eric Malmgren, of Grand Junction, Colorado, originally bolted it. The first pitch tackles a popular 60-foot M8. The second pitch adds another 50 feet of upside-down technical dry tooling, and then finishes on the area classic The Fang (WI 5). Malmgren sent the route through all the business, but fell off trying to gain the final 30 feet of ice, he never returned to redpoint the route. Hari Berger and Ines Papert are credited with the first and second ascents, the Europeans ticked the line during a two-day trip to Vail.

The Red Bull redpoint took Elias, 25 and from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, fewer than 10 tries over about as many days. Elias, like Papert and Berger, climbed Red Bull spurless.

Elias is one of only a few North American climbers to have sent both 5.14 and M11. In fact, the only other known North American to tick M11 (or harder) and climb 5.14 is Ryan Nelson. The M11/5.14 distinction may seem arbitrary, but it highlights how few North Americans are sport-mixed climbing, especially considering there are so many climbing 5.14. In fact, Elias says that during all his time at Vail, he rarely saw other people mixed climbing, and when he did, it was only on the area’s moderate routes.

“Ice and mixed climbing are really intimidating,” Elias says. “You have to have so much gear. It’s expensive to get into, and sways people away from it naturally. How do you even know if you’re going to like it?”

Sam Elias, originally from Michigan, first touched rock at a Colorado outdoor camp at about 12 years old. There, he cleanly toproped a 5.10a for his first route ever. Upon returning home, Sam was stoked about climbing, but spent his high school and college years competitive ski racing, training for the slopes 12 months a year.

“When I graduated college, skiing was over,” says Elias. “I got a job at the climbing gym, and pretty soon, found myself driving to the Red River Gorge every weekend. Then I quit my job and just moved there. By the end of his first season in the sport, he had redpointed 5.13c and I don’t know how many 5.13a’s.”


Toward the end of his second year of climbing, then living at Rifle, Elias sent his first 5.14a, Zulu. Elias is noticeably cool and composed when he climbs, often dispatching with routes quickly. Last fall, at the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Elias onsighted the 100-foot Joe Six Pack (5.13a), and then sent 130-foot Fall of Man (5.13b), second try, both routes are beta-intensive and extremely technical, while the latter is runout and heady. He credits his background in ski racing for this mental strength.

From training for all those competitions, I feel pretty confident most of the time in my abilities. I feel like I can make things happen just because I will them to.

Elias got into mixed and ice climbing this year through his friend and mentor Tony Angelis, a top-notch ice climber who had less practice in the sport-mixed arena. Angelis taught Elias how to swing the tools, while Elias taught Angelis about how to project and push himself on harder routes. The two trained at Vail every weekend this season, culminating in the Ouray Ice Comp, which Elias entered at the encouragement of his friend.

Though Elias did not make the finals, he did come in 16th place out of 32 competitors (only 12 advanced).

“The comp was really fun and unique,” says Elias. “I felt I could’ve done a lot better than I did, but that’s something to look forward to next year.”

“Asked what’s next,” he says, “I feel like I have a lot more to improve physically than mentally. I definitely don’t feel anywhere near my potential.”

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