Climber: Sam Elias

Whip: 1994 AWD Chevy Astro Van

  • Engine: 4.3-liter V6.
  • Gas mileage: 18-20 miles/gallon.
  • Price paid: $1,500 (151,000 miles)
  • Current mileage: 163,800

About the whip: The Chevy Astro van is a popular conversion van that was first introduced to market in 1985. Though technically a “mini-van,” the Astro has a truck-based design that can tow up to 5,000 pounds, essentially making it a beast. Some Astros are rear-wheel drive, while others, like this one, are all-wheel drive. The Astro is rumored to have a cult following in Japan.

Pimped out how: Any whip worth its salt is going to have a place to sleep, a place to cook, storage space, and a place for passengers to sit. Sam managed to cram all of these features into the Astro’s relatively small space with a rather ingenious solution: he built a custom futon bed. The futon slides up and down using a rope and pulley jury-rigged to the van’s ceiling. Up to three people can sit on the futon when it’s pulled up, and it’s a two-person full-sized bed when folded down. Converting the futon from bed to couch takes only a few minutes. There’s also room underneath the futon to store climbing packs and ropes.

Another custom feature are fitted window coverings cut from a sheet of insulated bubble-wrap, which is a better solution than curtains to keeping out sun and light. The insulation reflects sun in the summer and keeps the van cooler, and in the winter it helps retain heat, making the van warmer.

Found items: Collection of worn, sharp carabiners harvested off of routes.

Map quest: This Chevy Astro recently pulled off a 3,000-mile road trip in fine style, making a loop from Boulder, Colorado to Boise, Idaho, to Yosemite, to the Bay Area, California, to Salt Lake City and Maple Canyon, to Vail and then back to Boulder.

Any good stories: “The funny thing about this kind of van,” writes Sam, “is that since I was a kid, I have always wanted one, before I even knew how to drive. I just thought that with an all-wheel drive van, I could go anywhere and live and be at home. When my Subaru of many years broke down last summer, I began scouring Craigslist only looking for a cheap and operable vehicle. I saw this one, instantly called the guy up, scheduled a test drive within the hour, drove it around the block and then straight to the ATM, pulled out the cash, and went back and paid for it and left with the title in hand. When I called my parents to tell them, they were like, ‘Oh, no way. You always wanted one of those.’ Thus far, it has been a dream come true.”


About the climber: Sam Elias is one of those jerks that do everything really, really well, seemingly without any effort at all: skiing, rock climbing, ice climbing, pottery, backflips, and so on. He’s a completely talented and very intense dude. In high school, he committed himself to skiing, and left his hometown in Michigan to attend an academy in Salt Lake City that specializes in ski racing. In college in Boise, he continued skiing and majored in art and completely devoted himself to becoming a master potter. After college, he decided to become a climber, and dove into that full on: dropping his ski weight, moving from Michigan to work at Miguel’s in the Red River Gorge, and climbing, by the end of his first season, a 5.13c. A few years ago, he decided to become a mixed climber and within a year into the sport, he had redpointed an M11 and taken second at the Ouray Ice Fest. He has since redpointed 5.14c, onsighted 5.13c and has this unique ability to pull redpoints out of his ass.

Sam is ferociously passionate about his own climbing—to the point that being around him when he is in that zone can make you feel small and insignificant. But he has learned how to temper that internal fire, and shine its light on everyone around him. He cares deeply about climbing and the people who participate in it. He’s a professional in all senses. Nowadays, Sam works part-time in the winter as a regional ski rep for Black Diamond, but is really a full-time year-round climber who gets by on sponsorships and slideshows.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Sam redpoint a route against all odds, but the latest one was last weekend. On Saturday at Rifle, during our annual “Guys’ Weekend: Get Drunk and Break Shit,” Sam lulled dispassionate since he had no project to focus on. He decided to get on the Bauhaus Proclamation (5.13d), a route no one ever does, but there were draws on it so, why not? It was a two-hour belay as he figured out the beta. Then on Sunday, he went back up the route, and fell a few times, but made some links. After resting an hour, we went back into the Bauhaus, this time with some much-needed tunes. As Eminem blared into the evening, Sam climbed into the crux and from the ground I could see his fingers uncurling on a sidepull crimp. It looked like he was at his limit, yet he fought and seemed to will his fingers to wrap tighter on the hold—then he launched a windmill dyno and barely, barely stuck the jug that marks the end of the sequence. Then, he calmly climbed to the top and clipped the chains for an impressive and inspiring third-go send.

Over the years, we’ve taken two deep-water soloing trips together, and Sam is, of course, a natural at this heady game. On his recent trip to Turkey last year, he hung it out there and almost went too far. When the team went to explore the deep-water soloing potential on this one coast, it was supposed to be a rest day for Sam; he didn’t even bring shoes or chalk. But having seen the cliff line — which ascends like a ramp out of the water, from 20-foot climbs on the right side to 100-plus-foot steep climbs on the left side – Sam got inspired and borrowed shoes (that were two sizes too big) and a chalk bag. He pointed the boat driver to take him over to the tall part of the cliff, which the driver insisted, “No, no one ever climbs over there! Too tall!”

Undeterred, Sam went on a vision quest, onsighting his way through 5.12 moves on this new, foreign terrain. In deep-water soloing, you don’t realize how quickly you can get so high – higher than you realize.  At 100 feet above the still, rock-hard water, Sam had to blindly pull over a lip. The rock, though good beneath him, had deteriorated to crumbly gerbil teeth on this final section. He felt the crimps he hung from crumble as he swung his foot over the lip and tried to gain purchase on a disintegrating foothold. Though he was above the ocean, a fall from 100 feet into placid water would be potentially deadly. The consequences were huge – surely bigger than Sam even realized in the moment. Yet he kept it together and pulled off what is definitely one of the more impressive bits of soloing that I’ve ever heard of. This video captures the final moments of this climb, and you can hear the true panic in his voice.

Over the past five years that I’ve known him, Sam has been one of my biggest influences and inspirations: not only in the sense that I feel like I’ve gained a loyal, lifelong best friend, but I continue to be pushed and elevated by his passion for both sport and life. Despite all of my flailing and punting, Sam remains one of the most encouraging, positive forces in my life. He has never doubted my abilities, and anytime I send a route, he is always even more psyched than I am. But what I appreciate most about Sam is that after the encouragements cease, he is the one who always reminds me, “You can go further.”



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  • Peter

    Really enjoying your writing here… in particular, the van features- I’ve lived in several of those over the years, but I never get tired of seeing and hearing about other people’s ideas and inventions!

  • Andrew Bisharat

    Thank you! I’m enjoying this web feature/series so far, and looking forward to doing more!