Scarpa North America Blog

Ouray Ice Festival Recap Part 1: Sam Elias

Jan. 30th 2013

The Ouray Ice Festival took place January 10-13 in Ouray, Colorado. SCARPA athlete, Sam Elias, participated in the festival competition this year wearing the SCARPA Phantom Guides. Elias shared a few thoughts on competing and his experience at the festival.

The Ouray Ice Festival is the largest ice climbing event in North America. It is also the busiest few days of the winter for the small mountain town in southwestern Colorado. I love the town, and the festival is one of my favorite climbing events to be a part of. My first experience at the festival was for the difficulty competition, and it has been a source of sweetness and suffering for me ever since. In 2008, it was my second season ice and winter mixed climbing. It was incidentally my first climbing competition ever. I took 16th, and didn’t qualify for the finals. I had no expectations or thoughts about how I should do, and it was fun, but I knew I was strong and could be good at it. In 2009, I was not invited to compete. Unlike 2008, in 2009 there was no qualifier, only a final. So, you were either invited into the final, or not. I was still inexperienced and unaccomplished. I was invited into the final in 2010, and I had a very memorable performance. I ended up topping the route in a diving, buzzer beating finish with only 2 seconds left on the clock.

It would have been too sweet to win that way, so Josh Wharton crushed the route in less time, and left me in 2nd. I had so much fun, and was proud of myself. But as I am cursed with overzealous ambition, I wanted to do better. I wanted to win, and I knew that I could. From the very day the 2010 festival ended, I put a lot of pressure on myself looking forward to the 2011 competition. I thought, “I have to be stronger, I have to climb faster.” I focused so much on that one thing – winning by climbing faster –  that I forgot about everything else. At the 2011 event, I was a nervous wreck, I had no fun, and I lost sight of so much. I literally threw myself off the comp route trying to hurry.  (

I was so disappointed. The 2012 comp was a little different, however disappointing in its own way through a stroke of bad luck – some things we can control, and some things we cannot. I was climbing well; strong and swift and focused from the start on the near side of the canyon, across the inverted ice bridge, and on to the opposite canyon wall. I gave a smile and a wave to the crowd. I felt good, but a couple moves later, the rock hold that I was using broke, and I was sent flying. I ended up in 5th. Damn. Competition is a curious thing. I found myself asking, “Why are you doing this? Who are you competing against?” because I wasn’t having any fun at all. I thought the answer was to win by beating everyone else, but in trying to do that, I had some of the worst climbing experiences ever.

I have come to realize that the competition is from within, and with myself. I pondered, “How well do I know myself? How skilled am I at this that I can control my experience to climb well and have fun regardless of the circumstances?” It’s not about getting to the top, it’s not about beating anyone. The most important thing is to enjoy every moment that I am climbing. It’s about feeling my body, feeling light and loose. I am in control of these things. I get to choose.

So this year, 2013, that’s all I wanted to do. And, I did. I performed well; beautifully even. I am proud of myself. I had fun, and I put on a good show. It is interesting what we must go through as people in order to learn our lessons. It sometimes takes so much – so much pain and suffering, so much time – to see that we must change. I think that we all cling to our habits and notions so tightly that those changes seem monumental, Really, they are just small shifts in attitude or outlook or perception. I hope that I continue to have experiences like this, and I feel indebted to climbing and its community for presenting these opportunities to me, and also for nurturing me through them.

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