2011 Michigan Ice Fest

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shore of Lake Superior is the town of Munising and the Pictured Rocks National Park and Lakeshore. It is the setting place for the 20+ year old Michigan Ice Festival. I spent the weekend there to give a presentation and teach clinics. As I was born and raised in the state, it was a special event for me, and I felt welcomed as such. I was really impressed by the beauty of the landscape. It’s a hilly snow covered scene with the ever present expanse of the lake commanding attention. Due to the abundance and porousness of the sandstone cliffs and the northerly latitude and climate, there are literally ice climbs everywhere. People traveled from near and far, and all levels of experience and preparedness were represented, from people climbing in jeans and cotton hoodies to people carrying packs that looked loaded with gear for month long expeditions.

An Illinois license plate

Packed crowd for the show

Home base for the Ice Fest

Fresh, local Lake Superior Trout, sweet potato fries, and a big salad care of Sydney’s

These guys do the grunt work to make the event so awesome and successful

There was one person in particular that I will never forget. He was older and was alone, but obviously experienced as a climber. He had all of his own gear, and wore it comfortably as he did a constant smile. I was informed before we went out on Sunday that he had lung cancer, and might be slow on the approach. He arrived at the crag and his breath was foreign. It was mechanical and slow and deep. It sounded as though a breathing machine was inside of him. Throughout the course of the day, I observed him and spent some individual time with him. I watched him on the first climb, and he only went up about 10 feet before he got winded and the ‘machine breathing’ ensued. I thought to myself, “he’s just warming up.”

Twin Falls

The same thing happened on his second climb. And then, on the third climb…Just 10 feet up, just a few moves, just a few moments. I went over to him as he was untying from the rope. He took his gloves off, and the sight of his wedding band allowed me a relief. I was happy to think that he was not alone; that he had someone who cared for him, someone that would be there when he got home. He said, “I have some , uhhhh, pulmonary issues,” and “I’ve started taking this new medicine that has really fucked my endurance.” I stood there for a moment just watching and listening. His breath slowly settled as he untied. He was looking down, and said with a simple honesty, it was almost contentment, “My days are done doing stuff like this.” I was caught off guard and confused, and it took me a moment to understand his words. It seemed like a long moment. Finally, I thought, “No. No way. He couldn’t…He didn’t just say that.” I had a strong and immediate emotional response, and fought hard to stay composed as tears welled up in my eyes. I thought, “You’ll get it next time.” He tried another time, and got less high and did less moves. I lowered him and went over. He said, “For this stuff, I’m used up.” He’s voice was so calm and his words were clear and candid. The realness of the situation weighed heavy on me. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there. He asked if I wanted to climb, and I did…I always do. I just responded by instinct. I tied in, and he belayed me up. As I climbed, he asked me detailed questions about my movements, about my tactics, about my swing, about my kicks… His genuine enthusiasm and desire to learn despite his condition affected me deeply.

I came down and he was psyched to try again. As he prepared, he said, “I may only make it half way, but I’m gonna enjoy it immensely.” Again, it was so real. I truly believed him. There was no glamor, no superlatives for emphasis, nothing cool to be done, no personal ‘bests’ to be had. All that was there was a little bit of ice, and the courage to make a little bit of effort. It was the endpoint in a process of subtleties that seemed like the true gems of the experience for him; just getting to be outside and walk for a few moments in the woods, just getting to pack up the pack and carry it, just getting to lace up the boots, just getting to hold and swing the axes a few times, just getting to tie into the rope, just getting to try. These things, which most of us often overlook and take for granted on the way to something else, were really all that he had left. We would be wise to learn this lesson. On the last attempt, his feet didn’t even leave the ground, no joke. He just swung his his tools into the ice a few times. He tried to bring his foot up once, but set it down and then removed the tools from the ice. He looked back with a smile, and asked if we could get his camera out and take a picture of him “posing” with the ice. Maybe for his wife, maybe just for himself to remember. He said, “This may be the last time I get to do something like this.” He was not upset or sad. He seemed happy and comfortable. It was probably because, he didn’t come out that day to make it to the top of an icefall, only to tie into the rope, and stand beneath it, and look up at it and smile. Thank you for this lesson old man.


I returned from China to change; changing seasons, schedule, priorities. Winter, work, skiing, ice climbing and indoor gym climbing. I work for Black Diamond as the Rocky Mountain Ski Tech Rep. I enjoy it for the balance that it brings to my life; the balance of play with work, and climbing with skiing. It also allows me to understand the outdoor industry from different angles by experiencing  real inner business workings, as well as having close contact and interactions with many levels of people in the industry, from company owners to other athletes to sales and marketing people to retailers and to general consumers.


Aspen trees in Vail, CO

Burdens of the season

My winter ride full of skis and boots

Copper Mountain, CO

On the road in SW Colorado

Skiing in Jackson

Jackson, WY

Mile Long Chute in Granite Canyon. Jackson, WY

Spiral Staircase in Vail, CO

Ice climbing in Vail, CO

The Rigid Designator in Vail, CO

Ice climbing in Coal Creek, Redstone, CO


Basically, I’ve had damn good days with friends and family; 2 Thanksgiving holidays and dinners, a Christmas holiday and dinner and company party, a birthday or 2, and a couple other special events and random nights out. I feel really fortunate for all of the good people in my life, in the communities of which I am a part.  I’ve also had  some solid  ski, ice climbing, and gym climbing days. I got to  shred the resort with my little bro over Xmas, as well as  untracked, waist deep Jackson side country. I climbed outside at Vail and indoors in gyms to prepare for the Ouray Ice Competition and Festival. I taught a clinic and gave a media presentation and competed there this year. I made an early mistake in the comp, took a huge fall (supposedly the biggest fall in the Ouray Comp ever), slammed into the wall causing an explosion of sparks from metal crampons on rock, and put a crampon into my ankle. So for my performance, I took last place. It was difficult to swallow, still is, but through the experience some heavy lessons were revealed. I am trying to understand them now to gain a fresh view of things. See the video by clicking on the pic directly below.



Thanksgiving #1


Ice in Vail, CO

Chillin after climbing in Redstone, CO

My roomies birthday dinner

Jackson, WY

Skiing in Jackson, WY

Skiing in Jackson, WY with a good crew


January is a busy month that started with Ouray. After that, I was supposed to take a brief jaunt to Italy to compete in an Ice Climbing World Cup event in Val Daone. But, an organizer got tragically crushed by a bulldozer during the set up of the wall structure, and died. The organizing committee called the event off out of respect and mourning, so I obviously didn’t go over there. The Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show in Salt Lake City, UT was last week. And currently, the SnowSports Industries America (SIA) trade show is taking place in Denver. Immediately following SIA, I am traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the Michigan Ice Festival, and then down to Detroit to check in with the family and home team.

Here’s some shenanagins from the OR show

BD China and Hong Kong

4:00 am alarm. November 1.
“Wow, It’s November…Shit, it’s so early”

Pile into a small van with 6 other people and luggage bound for the Guilin airport.
“God damn, I’m tired. What I’d give for a little coffee.”

The van ride was only an hour, but it seemed like eternity. We arrived and all checked in. 6 of us were bound for Zhuhai and Black Diamond Asia headquarters. The other, Emily, was destined for Mexico. Despite my sad state, I thought she had the poorest bargain of us all, and did not envy her travel itinerary. We parted ways knowing that we would see each other in Canada in a few days time. The flight was an hour, and after a 2 hour taxi we were at the doorstep of BD Asia within the Zhuhai Free Trade Zone.


Factory floor

The facility is impressive; new, clean, state of the art. Contained within the grounds are the BD Asia offices, the BD global distribution center, and the Asian manufacturing and assembly factory. This is an extremely important element of Black Diamond, and and it was established from the ground up starting just 5 years ago. Everything here is entirely owned by BD, and everyone is a 100% BD employee. The energy of the place and the people felt positive and optimistic. There are ping-pong tables on the assembly floor, and a slack line and proper climbing wall outside. We took lunch with all of the employees in the cafeteria, which is provided by BD every day, as is the Chinese custom. After, we had a formal tour of the place.


With some staff in front of the climbing wall


Fresh new ultra light locking Nitron biners

Two notable aspects of the factory are the closed loop anodization line and the CTM, carabiner testing machine. Both are modern marvels of technology and engineering. Anodization is a notoriously nasty and environmentally unfriendly process due to the chemicals and dyes involved. The process yields increased corrosion and wear resistance, and better adhesion of paint to common metal, such as aluminum or titanium. Thus think, carabiners, ice tools, trekking and ski poles, bike frames, on and on…There are so many products in the outdoor industry that are anodized. This line is one of just a few in the entire world that emits virtually ZERO harmful waste into the environment. It is a closed loop system. It was conceived and created by and for Black Diamond. It is SUPER progressive. The CTM is another remarkable machine that is the only one of it’s kind. It is the 2nd generation of the machine and was designed and built at BD HQ in Salt Lake City, UT and then shipped straight to Zhuhai. EVERY single carabiner that BD makes goes through this thing. It tests the gate through 3 cycles, then pull tests up to ½ strength, then does a visual verification to ensure gate rivets are properly formed, then finally and only if the biner passes the first 3 tests, it pin etches a date code on it.


Stoppers anyone?

Being there and experiencing it first hand definitely changed my perception of ‘Made in China’. Although, it was explained to me that this is certainly not the norm, because BD upholds some of the very highest standards with respect to working conditions, wages, employee treatment, and product quality. It was my distinct pleasure to give a presentation to the managing staff the day following our arrival and tour. I tried to convey how important their work is to Black Diamond, and also to me personally, and how much I appreciated them. Everyone was engaged and attentive the entire time, and I was pleased by the faint notion that perhaps they could see their work and efforts in the skiing and climbing images I showed.


Lowering at Moon Hill. Nick Rueff photo.


Shortly after, I was on a 70-minute ferry from the port of Zhuhai to Hong Kong. I spent the evening navigating the subway and wandering the city. It is incredible and vast and busy, and I walked as the day became night until I was tired. The sun went away, and the sky was left illuminated by the lights of the myriad skyscrapers. It didn’t take long for fatigue to come. I had a long trip, and the last few days of the festival and travel had caught me. I was ready and happy to go home. After a single nights’ sleep, I was on my way back to Colorado where a refreshing transition awaited; snow and ice.


Ferry to Hong Kong


Hong Kong

2010 Yangshuo, China Climbing Festival

Before the FESTIVAL, we climbed two days in a row at Lei Pi Shan, and since the event is just around the corner, spectators came out to the crag to watch Yuji and Emily and I climb. It was pretty cool, and we managed to impress them with some sending and some big victory whippers. There has been increasing energy in the area as people have been arriving for the event. Also, the weather has remained great for climbing, so the general psyche is high.


Noodles for breakfast


Noodles for breakfast…Spi-to the-cy!


Yuji and Lei Pi Shan

On the day of the festival, 10/30/10, we rented scooters again, and went out to White Mountain early. Some American employees from Black Diamond have been in Asia working out of the new BD facility in Zhuhai, China, so they came to Yangshuo for the festival and to climb. We were a gang of 5 racing out to the crag, and it was fun weaving through traffic and speeding along together. There was a solid amount of laughing and shit talking and risk taking. It was a really cold morning, and my hands went numb from the wind, but it was refreshing. It made me think of the cold and the snow and the ski areas, which all await me back in Colorado.


Yuji and his scooter

Check out this little video I made:

Scooters to climbing in Yangshuo, China from Sam Elias on Vimeo.

We arrived and hung out for a while as things got going. Then, Emily and I lead a group out to The Egg crag. There, she taught a ‘steep climbing’ clinic, and I gave a ‘beginners’ clinic. Though an element of work and preparation must go into these instructional sessions, they are truly rewarding to do. I seem to learn and have fun as much as the participants. The people always seem to have genuine enthusiasm and curiosity. I had some people that had never climbed before. It is inspiring to me to watch them try and to field their questions. Their minds are so open and unbiased; the beginners mind. They have no notions of expectations and performance. It feels good to be around this kind of energy. Their approach is not attached to a goal or outcome, because they know nothing of things to come, so they simply exist in a present state of effort. I think this is the most pure way to experience something. We walked back to White Mountain, where Yuji had remained and taught an ‘onsighting’ clinic, and Abond taught a ‘redpointing’ clinic. Abond is a young local climber, and one of the strongest Chinese sport climbers ever. He is kind and generous, and I coincidentally met him for the first time when we were in Kentucky just a few weeks ago where he was on a month long trip to the Red.

We rallied the scooters back to town to freshen up and do some final preparations for our slide show that evening. As is the norm, I of course couldn’t make it all the way back without incident, and narrowly avoided t-boning another scooter as the rider was perpendicularly creeping into the Saturday evening traffic indifferent to the inertia of hundreds of vehicles travelling at right angles to him, and apparently convinced of his imperviousness to them all.

Emily and Yuji and I presented the videos and photos from our trip to Turkey in April to a packed house. We killed it. First Em, and then I, and then Yuji. We were all really happy with the flow and energy of the show, and the crowd responded. Afterward, the bouldering comp started, and Em and I signed hundreds of posters as well. Literally, for almost 2 hours straight we greeted people. Everyone wanted a signed poster and a picture with the 3 of us. The night continued as we went for some food and drinks, and it got late quickly, but we were all amped because of our successful show and the festival and people in general.


Giving the slide show at the festival


At the bar

Here is a friend and BD co worker Nick Rueff’s gallery of the festival.

On Sunday, we got a late start, but went to Moon Hill for our last day of climbing. It was Yuji’s first trip up there. To get up to the breathtaking formation of rock, one must ascend a long hand made stone path with about 800 stairs. It is a pretty cool approach and it winds through a forest of bamboo and other Asian trees and bushes. We met the BD crew up there, and had the place surprisingly to ourselves. It is generally the windiest and coolest crag, and as today was no exception, it was great conditions. Abond joined us all a little after we arrived. A fatigue from climbing days past and a couple late nights of enjoying the festival, as well as a sadness of the awareness of the finality our trip created a mellow pace that carried us through the day. Though exhaustion was present, we climbed happily into the darkness and slowly braved the steep stairway downward and out of our dream.

We went to dinner…To the bar… And, late into the night, until the unfortunate but necessary disbanding of our three-strong crew. Yuji back home to Japan, Emily to Mexico for the Petzl Roctrip, and I to Zhuhai, China to the BD Asia location before Hong Kong for a night and then home. It was made easier however, by the knowledge that we would meet again in practically a single week in Banff, Canada on the other side of the world for the North Face global athlete summit.


Bar 98 where all the climbers hang out

Lots to tell

Yuji (Hirayama) arrived 3 nights ago from Japan to join Emily and I. We are all here for the Yangshuo Climbing Festival on Oct 29-31. It is the China’s largest climbing event and it is sponsored by Black Diamond and The North Face. There are competitions, clinics, presentations, and general sharing and celebrating of our sport. We are all very excited for the event. But first, a little climbing for ourselves…

Festival banner

Em and I just climbed 3 days, and Yuji for the latter 2 with us. It was fun, productive, and eventful. The first day, Em and I went back to Lei Pi Shan. It was Sunday, and there was a great group of people at the small crag. It was a simply enjoyable day of hanging out and climbing. Yuji arrived late this night, and we awoke and found him in the hotel, cheerful and excited as ever. We had previously agreed to forerun the festival competition boulder problems in the gymnasium that morning, so after breakfast we headed there. After a nice little session that went into the early afternoon, the plan was to rent motor scooters and go out to White Mountain, since we were getting a later start, and because it was an overcast day. This is where is gets interesting.

Lei Pi Shan

Lei Pi Shan

Yuji Hirayama

Yuji Hirayama

We had a friend help us negotiate for 2 scooters, Chinese style. This happens for basically every good that some one wants to acquire, and is really an argument that goes until one side concedes. It can get loud, it can get heated, and it can take a long time. Since people have been doing this for thousands of years here, they are pretty god damned resilient. I think that they view it as a battle where there is a very definite and winner and loser. Well, I think that we got the most pitiful and insufferable and stubborn woman in the whole fucking country. So, after about 30 min, our friend managed to get about 10% off the price. It was getting later, and we were anxious to climb, especially Yuji, as it was his first day, so we conceded. Though our Chinese friend that translated and negotiated was not happy about it. Just so you know, the scooters were like $10 each, so we saved a couple bucks for our 30 minutes… Renting them wasn’t gonna break the bank, but there is a practice here of overcharging foreigners for EVERYTHING. And, it is usually on the order or 2 to 3, sometimes 5 times more than a local. It is a pretty lame practice, and might even be racist. But, it is an accepted way here. After a couple photos, laughs, and instructions in Chinese we were nervously and dangerously on our way; Em and I and our 2 climbing packs on one scooter, and Yuji with his pack on another. I seriously think that this was the most dangerous thing that any of us have done in out lives, and I’ve done some stupid things and taken some unnecessary risks thus far in my life, but holy shit, I think that just sitting down on a scooter decreases your lifespan by 75% instantly.

Time to get rowdy

Time to get rowdy

But, I thought too soon, because the return trip would turn out to be FAR more dangerous…

After almost T-boning a huge dump truck on the way to the crag, because the guy just instantly decided to whip a slow-mo U-turn, and I was maybe going a little too fast, we were getting close to the crag. Two minutes from the wall, I couldn’t see Yuji in my rearview. We stopped and waited. Nothing. A little longer. Still nothing, so we turned around and found Yuji a couple hundred yards back down the road sitting on his scooter, smiling. The fucking thing UNBELIEVEABLY broke down. It took me about 3 seconds to figure out what to do. I whipped up my 9.4 BlueWater Dominator rope, and lassoed the 2 petrol fueled steeds together like a god damned proud American cowboy. So, yep, we towed Yuji and his broke ass scooter to the crag, but the last part of the approach is like a technical, turny, single-track trail, and it was intense and caused us to wreck once, crashing over sideways into a ditch of bushes. Mildly amused, we managed to make it safely to the crag, and were in good spirits. There were clouds in the sky, we had the crag to ourselves, and it was fantastic. Since we got the late start, we tried to climb as long as possible, but had in our minds to try and allow enough time so not to have to tow the scooter back in the dark. We failed.

At White Mtn

At White Mtn

Slowly and sketchily we made it back to town. It was gripping, and I could feel death riding closely the whole time; seriously, SERIOUSLY dangerous. There were just so many uncontrollable elements; pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, cars, vans, trucks, construction vehicles, tour buses. AND, it was DARK. AND, we were towing a moped with another moped with a climbing rope. AND, we were in China where there are NO real driving rules. Despite all of this, the whole day was comical and fun in a way. Yin and yang. I mean, it’s easy to see light side of life in good times, but to see the light in the darkness and in fear, it is a true test. Accept what you can, control what you can, then let go and roll the fucking dice.

We thought that we would surely be refunded our money, and had a friend meet us there upon our return to speak Chinese and work it out. We arrived to the “pissed off” lady to find her mood unimproved, and completely unconcerned with the problem or our safety, but bummed her scooter was broken and worried about the cost of repair. Thus, there was no way she was going to give us any money back, and she acted like we were at fault and like she wasn’t responsible for anything. After another 30 minutes of our time, she gave us back about $4. Whatthefuckever… To balance the day out properly though, we were invited to a global gathering of locals for a vegan potluck dinner. It was very special for us to be included. The meal was incredible and the people were so kind and genuine. There were so many different flavors; of food, but also of culture and ideas. We have made good friends here. I thank them.

Van to crag

Back of the van to the crag

The next day, yesterday, was not nearly as exciting, though the weather dramatically shifted to overcast and windy and cold. We again foreran some of the comp problems in the gym in the morning, and then we visited a new crag called Banyan Tree. It is a small wall with only a handful of routes, but usually in the sun most of the day, so we were lucky to enjoy it in the fine conditions. I love climbing with the wind. I feel an electricity in the movement of the air that makes me feel aware and engaged, light and strong. Though it was the 3rd day of climbing in a row, the wind helped me to forget my sore skin and muscles.

View from Banyan Tree crag

View from Banyan Tree crag

Today, it is cold and crisp, but we rest and relax and walk around town. Maybe buy a fake designer watch…if the price is right…