All the way to the top

Chris Bombardier becomes the first hemophiliac to summit Everest on his way to conquer the Seven Summits

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Courtesy of the upcoming film 'Bombardier Blood'
Chris Bombardier recently became the first hemophiliac to summit Everest.

As he neared the South Summit of Everest, just over 28,700 feet above sea level, Denver-based mountaineer Chris Bombardier was thoroughly worked.

“I was so tired,” he says. “I got to that point and I was like, ‘This is too much.’” He knew his friends, family and supporters would be proud of him even if he didn’t reach the true summit.

He decided to turn around.

But then Tashi Sherpa, one of his guides, came up beside him. Bombardier says Tashi told him, “No, you can do this. You’re on a mission.”

So Bombardier kept going, one foot in front of the other. Because he was on a mission. He wasn’t your average, run-of-the-mill, under-experienced Everest climber just looking for the ultimate story to tell at cocktail parties. He was trying to become the first hemophiliac to reach the top of the world; he was seeking to become the first hemophiliac to complete the Seven Summits; and he was hoping it would show that hemophilia, while an obstacle, was not an impediment to chasing one’s dreams.

Growing up, Bombardier, 31, never would have imagined he’d one day be only a couple of hundred feet below Everest’s summit. He was born with Hemophilia B, a bleeding disorder caused by a missing protein known as clotting factor IX.

Bombardier’s parents encouraged him to lead a normal, active life.

“I don’t really remember being sheltered or protected in any special way,” he says. At 13 years old, he began prophylactic treatment to prevent bleeds before they happened. This involved injecting himself (known as self-infusing) with factor IX.

From childhood through his college years at Doane, in Nebraska, Bombardier was a competitive baseball player. After graduating, devoid of the outlet that organized sports had provided, Bombardier sought a new passion.

A crash-course apprenticeship in the mountains with his Uncle Dave quickly filled that hole. Listening to Dave’s stories about Denali and other larger peaks, Bombardier was already dreaming big: “Dave kind of just inspired me to try everything,” he says. “He never looked at my hemophilia as a limiting factor.”

His first try at a major peak came in 2011. Bombardier was invited to Kenya for his work with the University of Colorado Hemophilia Research Lab. Kilimanjaro was right over the border in Tanzania, so it seemed like fate.

“Climbing to the top, I was like, ‘I want to do all Seven Summits. I can do it,’” he remembers.

The Seven Summits is a challenge that entails scaling the highest peak on each continent. Kilimanjaro is likely the easiest of the seven, so even with one already under his belt, Bombardier had his work cut out for him.

Over the next several years, Bombardier ticked off Aconcagua (Argentina, 2013); Mt. Elbrus (Europe/Russia, 2013); Denali (Alaska, 2014); and Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia, 2015). After bureaucratic red tape prevented his nascent plans for Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson earlier this year, Everest jumped to next on the list.

Bombardier joined an expedition run by his friend Ryan Water’s company, Mountain Professionals, and started training for the climb of his life.

Preparation extended beyond conditioning his muscles, lungs and mind. Bombardier and his friend Patrick James Lynch, a filmmaker and fellow hemophiliac, decided to use the expedition as a platform to spread awareness about the lamentable state of hemophilia treatment and care in Nepal. Roughly 75 percent of hemophiliacs in Nepal die before the age of 10, Bombardier says.

He and Lynch spent their first week of the Everest expedition in Kathmandu and its surrounding areas.

Courtesy of the upcoming film 'Bombardier Blood'
Bombardier has to inject himself with a protein known as factor IX to treat his hemophilia.

They visited a local hospital’s hemophilia care unit that was renovated after the 2015 earthquake.

“Even there, there usually isn’t enough factor [protein] on hand to resolve the issue, but it’s better than nothing,” Bombardier says.

One youth Bombardier met at the unit had taken a bus three hours to get there. His elbow was swollen and had serious bleeding, and, because of limited resources, he could only get one infusion.

Armed with stories to motivate him, Bombardier set off for Everest Base Camp. When he finally saw the mountain, the full weight of what he was about to attempt hit him.

“You see the tip of Everest sticking up above Namche Bazaar [village]. It’s a really powerful experience.”

The Mountain Professionals team began an acclimatization regimen, spending progressively more time at higher altitudes on the mountain before returning to Base Camp to recuperate.

When it came time to launch a summit bid, Bombardier’s team was forced to wait, and then wait some more.

“We sat in Base Camp for 16 days,” praying for a long-enough fair-weather window, Bombardier says. “You get really antsy. Your imagination goes crazy. You’re constantly hearing horror stories of frostbite and death. You start missing home.

“That was all a lot harder than I expected,” he says.

Finally, a weather window appeared. For at least the third time that trip, Bombardier crossed the Khumbu Icefall, jumared up endless kilometers of fixed ropes, passed Camps One, Two and Three, and eventually arrived at Camp Four at the South Col — the final stop before the summit.

“We left at 11 p.m. for the summit,” on May 21, he says. “Really beautiful that night. Windy but clear skies. You see all the headlamps of people ahead, and it was hard to distinguish between stars and headlamps.”

Then came the South Summit. Lungs on fire, thoughts jumbled, he was sure he was done. But steadied by Tashi Sherpa’s soothing confidence and guidance (“Sweet, gentle Buddhist persuasion,” Bombardier’s wife, Jess, says), Bombardier kept going.

All the way to the top.

Standing on the summit on May 22 was worth every moment of self-doubt, every high-altitude self-infusion. “It was amazing,” Bombardier says. “There’s so much history there and so much has happened there. Standing on the top still feels like it was a dream.”

Courtesy of the upcoming film 'Bombardier Blood'
After waiting for a fair-weather window to open, Chris Bombarier finally reached the top of Everest, becoming the first hemophiliac to do so.

Returned, quite literally, from the stratospheric heights of Everest, Bombardier is still on a mission. He is a board member of Save One Life, a nonprofit that works to help hemophiliacs in the developing world get the treatment they need. He works tirelessly to help kids in those countries get the same chances he had growing up.

“There was a huge fundraising push through Save One Life when Chris was on Everest,” Jess says, “and $30,000 was donated to the Nepal Hemophilia Society,” a community group started in 1992 that works to reform hemophilia treatment in the country.

Also, the documentary about his climb and his Seven Summits project, titled Bombardier Blood, is slated to make the rounds at film festivals this coming fall.

In the coming months, Bombardier will have his hands full working on the doc; running Backpacks and Bleeders, a Colorado-based program he founded with Jess that takes those with bleeding disorders into the outdoors to show them how to adventure safely; and working his day job at a company called Gut Monkey, where he runs experiential education trips for those with chronic medical conditions.

And of course there’s that pesky seventh summit. Asked about when he’ll try to complete the septet, Bombardier simply says, “Hopefully December.”