Five years ago, Sam Elias, now 29, left a well-paying job in Detroit, for Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. He was barely a climber. That season, between pizza shifts at Miguel’s, Elias sent 5.12. The next season, 5.13. Since then, after a few summers in Rifle, Colorado, Elias has ticked Tom Foolery (5.14b), The Crew and Girl Talk (5.14c), and his own Living the Dream (5.14a/b). Elias’ ethos—to trust his instincts and passion—is a daily practice. It’s also the key to his success as a professional athlete.
My dad was born in Syria. He came to the U.S. when he was 18. The story goes he only had $100 in his pocket. He didn’t have any special skills, but he had dedication and hard work. He always had super-high expectations for me to be a professional, like a doctor or lawyer. He’s both of those.
Even as a kid, in ski racing, I wanted to be sponsored, and I was. I don’t view it as gaining materials, but as mental and emotional support that pushes me harder.
Skiing taught me a lot of things that apply to climbing and life: commitment, dedication, mental awareness, body awareness, and physical strength. Ski racing is a fullbody endeavor just like climbing.
Ice climbing is dangerous. I took a pretty big fall in Ouray this year and put a crampon into my ankle.
Most of the time I’m sarcastic and cynical, but that might be more of a front than my true nature. I’d say I’m stubborn, pretty pessimistic, and a perfectionist.
I take climbing really seriously, maybe too seriously. I’m competitive with myself, with everyone. For better or worse, it’s just part of my nature. That said, I try to have fun and let climbing sift out my shortcomings.
Great climbers are the ones who trust that climbing can make their lives better, whether it’s the fun we all had our first day, or the proudest send ever. Climbing exposes weaknesses that we have to confront to become a better person.
One of the most important aspects of climbing is the willingness to fail—to put forth effort without being too attached to an outcome.
I don’t idolize anyone. When I started climbing, I wasn’t an impressionable kid at the climbing gym. I didn’t perceive climbing as this super-glamorous thing.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my mentors is that though climbing is totally selfish and ultimately unimportant in the grand scope of the world, it’s a perfectly legitimate way to live.