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Everest 2012: Climber Sam Elias on Training, Being a Lab Rat, and Dating on Everest

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Climber Sam Eilas; Photograph courtesy The North Face

Climber Sam Elias has just arrived in Nepal as part of our 2012 Everest expedition—and if you don’t follow him on Instagram (BookofSamuel), you should. The guy has a great eye. Elias is part of our Southeast Ridge team, which also includes Emily Harrington (his girlfriend), Hilaree O’Neill, Kris Erickson, and their leader Phil Henderson of NOLS. (Learn more about the expedition, including the West Ridge team with Conrad Anker and Cory Richards.) While our Southeast Ridge climbers make their way to the summit, their vitals will be monitored by the Mayo Clinic … and the research could prove significant in how we understand and treat heart disease. Here Elias, who majored in biology, talks about the personal significance of the science, how he keeps his climbing from plateauing, and dating on Everest.

Adventure: You focus on climbing really hard routes with tough ratings. Is the Southeast Ridge of Everest a departure for you?
Sam Elias: This is definitely a departure for me—and Emily. I have a lot of skills in the ice- and mixed-climbing realm, but I have never applied them to bigger objectives—despite Conrad, Cory, and Renan [Ozturk] trying to drag me out. My mind and my body are always attracted to purely difficult challenges, within single-pitch objectives. I’m really excited for this challenge. It’s something that I think my skills will apply to—and something that I hope that I will learn a lot from Kris, Conrad, Cory, and Hilaree to be able to carry on after this expedition.

A: How do you keep yourself from plateauing as you keep pushing for harder and harder challenges in your sport climbing?
S.E: For me, I haven’t really been climbing that long. So far, I have experienced minimal plateaus. I do a lot of training and work that’s not exactly just climbing all the time, and that helps me to stay balanced and to get stronger. I have breaks and rest for both my body and my mind. That always really helps. I ski a lot and that balance of a completely difference sport helps me detach from climbing. I think that’s a really good way not to plateau.

A: So are you bringing skis to Everest?
S.E.: I am. Kris and Hilaree and I are all bringing skis. Our plan is to acclimatize, and then if there’s opportunity to do more, we hope to try to do more than that. But within the scope of the expedition and the partnerships, it’s not a high priority. It’s kind of our personal desire. It’s definitely way, way down on the priority list. It’s only going to be entering our minds if it in no way jeopardizes any of our other responsibilities.

A: How are you helping with the Mayo Clinic’s objectives?
S.E.: We’ve gone to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for baseline testing. Then they will be testing us the whole time they with us. They will be putting different devices on our bodies to monitor everything from our blood-oxygen saturation to our heart rates to our sleeping.

A: That’s  intense.
S.E.: It is intense, but for me it’s super cool because I studied biology and was a pre-med student for a while—so I get really into it. It’s pretty cool to be lab rats for those guys. Climbing is a pretty selfish thing, and I never felt like I was benefiting anyone except myself. But when I was out there at the Mayo Clinic, listening to them talk about the potential for this research and into the future … it really made me feel like, for the first time, that what I do could have some greater implications for the broader public. That was really powerful for me. In a way, it has justified my whole life as a climber.

A: That’s pretty profound. Have you been in Nepal before?
S.E.: No, I have not. But ever since I was a small child, I have been attracted to going there. I’m just fascinated by their culture and Buddhism. I am so, so excited to go.

A: You and Emily are dating. Most couples would find weeks of camping to be a little stressful on the relationship. But you two are probably used to it?
S.E.: We have been together for almost three years. And we have done trips together that are longer than this when we are together every waking second. And so thankfully that will help a lot. But this will be a much different experience. And I’m sure we’ll handle it just find. Inevitably, those sorts of experiences and trips are difficult. But I think we are really lucky to get to experience this trip together.

A: This trip is pretty long—three months! Where was your even longer trip?
S.E.: We have done several trips to Europe that are upwards of four months. We are pretty used to each other’s company.

A: What piece of gear do you think is totally going to make this expedition?
S.E.: The Himalayan Suit. We certainly could not do it without that thing. One lesser-known fact about that piece of gear is that it’s the most highly technical and developed piece of equipment that The North Face makes—more hours of research and development went into it than anything else. It’s a highly specialized piece of gear. We for sure could not survive without it.

A: When do you start wearing it?
S.E.: We start wearing it at Camp 2. We might hike it up to Camp 2 on an acclimatizing trip. And then leave it there. We get into Base Camp, people walk to Base Camp in normal clothes.

A: Did you all training together a lot before you left?
S.E: We’re lucky to all live in Boulder and to know each other pretty well already. We’re close friends. Cory and I did a pretty solid amount of training together specifically for our trip. We hang out, go to dinner and drinks routinely, regardless of this expedition. We’re lucky to be really close friends going into this.

A: What types of training did you do?
S.E.: Lots of cardio, running, ski touring. And just skiing. I’ve been doing some climbing, but more like longer, bigger days. I focused on easier objectives that require all-day endurance, as opposed to something really intense packed into a shorter amount of time.

A: Where’s your favorite place to go climbing?
S.E.: Spain. I was just there four days ago for a really random reason. I love it there. I love Spanish lifestyle and culture. The sport climbing and crags in Spain are the best in the world.

A: Sounds like that’s where everyone is hanging out these days. Where is on your adventure bucket list?
S.E.: I think I would like to go ice climbing in Norway.