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    Sam Elias climbs at Movement Climbing and Fitness gym in Boulder. Cliff Grassmick / January 31, 2013



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What: Winter Mountain Games

When: Feb 8-10

Where: Vail

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W hile climbing Mount Everest last spring, Boulder climber Sam Elias kept a small plastic bottle of water from the Dead Sea close to his chest, tucked inside his clothing’s inner layers so it wouldn’t freeze.

Once he reached the summit, he dumped out the water, and refilled the bottle with snow. After his summit, Elias returned the bottle to German artist Fabian Knecht, who then took the snowmelt back to the Dead Sea, as a part of his performance piece “The Great Transfusion”

This project resonated with Elias.

“In a way, the philosophy that everything is connected and that the snow that evaporates off the top of Everest is falling somewhere else in the world,” Elias said. “That happens naturally, but to actually be a part of that, to sort of use ourselves as people to symbolize it and participate in it, it was just a cool idea.”

The project embodied the artistic and athletic sides of 30-year-old Elias, who studied ceramics and biology at the College of Idaho. Climbing represents both of those sides now, Elias said, after a training session at Movement Climbing and Fitness gym in Boulder one Thursday afternoon.

“The way that I feel when I’m moving, and just the experience of moving up the wall, it feels really creative,” Elias said. “Sometimes I just try to turn my mind off and let my body take over and there’s a lot of creativity that goes into that. I’m grateful for it because I need that outlet.”

Elias took first in the mixed climbing competition at last year’s Winter Mountain Games in Vail. He said he’d like to win again this year, but lately, he’s been putting more emphasis on the pure joy of climbing, rather than winning.

“I won the Mountain Games last year, but it was a pretty miserable day for me,” Elias said. “I was a nervous wreck all day. I just knew that I could do well. I know that I’m strong and a good climber, and that the potential and the possibility for me to do really well is there, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. Maybe this year I won’t win, but I want to have more fun and be a little bit more lighthearted about it.”

He took fourth at Montana’s Bozeman Ice Breaker Invitational in December, and third at Colorado’s Ouray Ice Festival in January. Elias looks back fondly on those two days of climbing and remembers how relaxed he was.

“When it was all said and done, I think I prefer to enjoy the day rather than to win,” he said. “Who I am in my climbing, it doesn’t get determined on those days and in those single moments. So once I realized that and took it to heart and applied it, it’s definitely helped me to have a different outlook on (competing).”

Back at the climbing gym, a shirtless Elias clung to the wall in lime-green pants. When he missed a handhold and dropped from the wall, Elias kicked both legs out to each side in frustration, uttering a guttural scream that echoed across the gym.

He brushed a lock of dark brown hair out of his even darker brown eyes, refocused his gaze on the wall and tried again.

Elias’ intensity sometimes gets in way, said coach Justen Sjong.

“Sam’s really intense,” Sjong said. “He’s just so hard on himself naturally, and that’s why he’s become very successful. We’re trying to reprogram him and frame things in a positive way. Success isn’t really determined by winning — that isn’t really a goal, that’s an outcome. We’re trying to shape goals that result in winning as a byproduct of your goals.”

Photographer and videographer Keith Ladzinski remembers meeting Elias for the first time in 2005 in Rifle, Colo.

He wasn’t sure about the two of them being friends at first because of Elias’ fierce personality. But as their relationship grew, Ladzinski said he gained an intensely loyal, genuine and “true” friend in Elias.

“He’s very passionate,” Ladzinski said. “He’d go until he literally had nothing left (while climbing) and then just ‘ahhhh!’ You’d see the frustration and the emotion within him. He’d let it all out and calm down and then do exactly what he set out to do.”

Ladzinski said watching Elias climb gave him a new respect for how the mind can overcome the body to accomplish incredible feats.

Before climbing, Elias was an equally competitive ski racer in Michigan, and before Everest, Elias had never been higher than around 13,000 feet. In all his athletic and personal endeavors, Ladzinski said, Elias just decides to go for it, and accomplishes whatever he sets out to do.

“He has this inherent strength inside him where he believes he’s going to do it,” Ladzinski said. “That shows when he’s trying. Mentally, that’s where a lot of people hang up. They can be a lot better than they allow themselves to be. It’s almost like that barrier doesn’t exist for him. He won’t allow failure to be part of the equation.”

–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.