Chris Bombardier: Reaching New Heights

Facing exhaustion, treacherous terrain and the threat of frozen factor, mountaineer Chris Bombardier persevered to become the first person with hemophilia to summit Mount Everest
Author: Matt McMillen

Nine hours into his final day of climbing to the 29,029-foot summit of Mount Everest, Chris Bombardier sat down heavily on a chunk of ice, ready to give up. He had not slept the previous night, nor had he eaten all day. Ahead of him lay the most technically difficult—and most intimidating—section of the ascent: a narrow, near-vertical rock face called the Hillary Step, which has perilous drops many thousands of feet into nothingness on either side.

Exhausted and dispirited, Bombardier tried to convince himself he’d made it far enough; that if he turned back now, everyone would still be proud of him, that he would be proud of himself. Then, he recalls, a hand reached out and pulled him to his feet.

“Tashi, the head Sherpa, said to me, ‘Chris, you’re not done. You’re here for a reason. You have a mission. You can do this.’”

Bombardier trudged on, conquered the Hillary Step and, at 9:59 a.m. local time May 22, reached the top of the world. That day, the 32-year-old from Denver, who has severe hemophilia B, not only entered an elite mountaineering club, but also made history as the first person with hemophilia to ascend the world’s tallest mountain.

At the summit, Bombardier savored the moment. “To actually be there was surreal, and it’s so hard to describe the emotions I felt,” he says. “I was proud that I did it and proud that I could share it with the hemophilia community.”

 

FINDING INSPIRATION

The Everest climb had taken nearly two months, a physically and emotionally testing journey like no other Bombardier had experienced. On the way to the top, he’d passed through treacherous ice falls, where he and his team used ladders to cross a maze of crevasses, deep and deadly fissures in the ice. “You can hear the ice moving the whole time. You can hear it popping,” Bombardier says. “It makes weird, eerie sounds like big, scary cracks.” Survival, he says, was always on his mind. “There are things on mountains that you just can’t control, that could take your life. But if you think about that too much, it will paralyze you.”

Instead, he focused on what had brought him to Everest in the first place. Climbing had been a passion of Bombardier’s for several years, but this ascent was about more than adding to his list of accomplishments. Before trekking to Everest, he’d met with members of the Nepal Hemophilia Society. He wanted his climb to help raise awareness of the hardships faced by people with bleeding disorders outside the United States, especially the lack of life-preserving medicine.

Some 20 people in the Kathmandu bleeding disorders community signed a flag from the US-based international nonprofit Save One Life, which helps children and adults with bleeding disorders throughout the developing world. Bombardier put the flag in his pack and carried it up the mountain. “One of the things that helped me refocus and keep going even when I was struggling was that flag I was carrying,” he says. “I wanted it to be like they were coming with me as I summited the mountain. That was a huge motivator for me.”

 

A QUEST IS BORN

Bombardier’s journey to Everest began six years earlier. In 2011, while working as a lab technician in the hemophilia research laboratory at the University of Colorado, he traveled to Kenya with Save One Life to assist in opening a hemophilia clinic. The trip would take him a few hundred miles from Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Bombardier, who was relatively new to climbing then, jumped at the opportunity to summit the mountain. Moved by what he saw in the Kenyan bleeding disorders community, he used the climb as a fundraiser for Save One Life. Joining him for the ascent was his uncle Dave Bombardier, who had introduced him to mountaineering after college.

Success on Kilimanjaro spawned a new goal: climbing the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents (Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America, Mount Elbrus in Europe, Denali in North America, Carstensz Pyramid/Puncak Jaya in Australasia, Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Mount Everest in Asia). “I will have to overcome the physical challenges of training and the immensely difficult task of summiting these peaks, but also breaking the stereotypes of my condition,” Bombardier wrote on his website, adventuresofahemophiliac.com. Over the next four years, thanks to careful planning and sheer grit and determination, he summited Aconcagua and Elbrus in 2013, Denali in 2014 and Carstensz Pyramid in 2015. As with Kilimanjaro, each climb raised money for Save One Life. (Bombardier joined the Save One Life board in 2012.)

Prior to Everest, Alaska’s Denali had been the biggest challenge. For that ascent, Bombardier wore a 60-pound pack while pulling a sled weighing 50 pounds. Everest was the sixth peak of his Seven Summits quest. His final climb was in January, when he tackled Antarctica’s Mount Vinson. He’d always planned to save Everest for last, but he changed his plans when authorities initially denied him permission to climb Vinson because of his hemophilia, a decision that was reversed after his success on Everest. “I think they saw that I had the skill to climb Mount Vinson in a safe way,” he says.

Success on Vinson means he’s the first person with a bleeding disorder—and one of a few hundred people in the history of mountaineering—to complete the Seven Summits.

 

ADVENTURE THE ‘SMART WAY’

Summiting Everest is no small feat for anyone. Climbers must be in peak physical shape to withstand the rigors of performing at extremely high altitude. Preparing for his previous climbs, Bombardier had searched the web for “mountaineering training” and devised a strength and conditioning plan. For Everest, he knew that method would not be sufficient. He hired a coach, and they developed an exercise program that took into account his bleeding disorder.

For six months, Bombardier did intense interval training. He hiked at a normal pace for 15 minutes before briefly pushing himself to his limit, a pattern he repeated over and over while wearing a weighted backpack. When not outdoors, he focused on body-weight exercises to strengthen his core and leg muscles. “I’d never felt so healthy and prepared in my life as I did before Everest,” Bombardier says.

Physical preparation was only one concern, though. He also knew that his hemophilia would be a challenge, as a bleed during a climb could lead to a dire situation. Lessons learned from his uncle Dave have helped keep him safe on this front. “He really ingrained in me that you do things the right way, you do things the smart way,” says Bombardier. “It might seem risky to other people, but it’s not that risky if you’re well prepared.”

A key component of Bombardier’s preparation has been coordinating with the staff at the Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center at the University of Colorado Denver to develop a treatment plan for his climbs. Bombardier has stayed in touch with his doctors and physical therapists throughout his Seven Summits journey. “This was, and still is, new territory for people with bleeding disorders, and there were a lot of questions,” says Bombardier. “Would the pressure at high altitudes make bleeding issues more likely? Would infusing be more difficult? We didn’t know the answers.”

Starting with the climb of Denali, Bombardier added a safeguard to his infusion plan. His climbing partner and guide, Ryan Waters, a fellow Colorado mountaineer whose company, Mountain Professionals, also led the Everest expedition, learned to infuse Bombardier in case he was unable to do it himself. “Having Ryan as a backup for regular infusions and emergencies was key,” says Bombardier.

Bombardier hasn’t needed help yet, although the cold on Everest did require industrious thinking. To prevent his factor from freezing, Bombardier wrapped it in wool socks and kept it close to his body as he climbed. At night, he slept with it in his sleeping bag so his body heat would keep it warm. Above basecamp, he had to infuse more often than at lower elevations. The cold was so harsh, he had to wrap himself in multiple layers of clothing or zip himself into his sleeping bag to get warm enough to do an injection. Ironically, he found these infusions easier than the ones he does at home.

“I have a pretty terrible fear of needles, and when I’m at home and don’t have a clear reason to infuse, I really struggle,” he explains. “When I’m on a climb, infusions are still hard, but I know this is the only option.”

 

A BROADER MISSION

Throughout his Seven Summits journey, Bombardier has never lost sight of where it all began: overseas, while helping those with bleeding disorders who are less fortunate than himself. He plans to continue those efforts. Between climbs, he has been working toward a master’s degree in global health from Northwestern University. “I’m excited to focus on that and then see where it takes me,” he says. “I hope to do more work with the hemophilia community internationally.”

Also in between climbs, Bombardier got married in 2015, and he looks forward to starting a family with his wife, Jessica.

For now, when he’s not scaling the world’s highest mountains, he encourages people with bleeding disorders to embrace the outdoors. In 2016, he joined the staff of GutMonkey, an organization based in Portland, Oregon, that provides outdoor experiential education programs for people with chronic medical conditions. Bombardier runs backpacking, canoeing and kayaking adventures for people with bleeding disorders.

“These trips are spectacular because we get to show people not only some of the most beautiful places in our country, but also that you can be outside and do trips like this despite a bleeding disorder,” says Bombardier. He also conceived of and helped launch Backpacks + Bleeders, an outdoors program run by the Colorado chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation (NHF).

Through his accomplishments, and his commitment to helping others challenge themselves to scale new heights, Bombardier imparts a powerful message: “Don’t let your bleeding disorder be an excuse to not pursue your dream, whatever it might be,” he says. “Find your passion and your drive. If you pursue it in a smart way, you can chase any dream you have.”


Save One Life

Founded in 2000 by Laureen Kelley, who has a son with hemophilia, Save One Life coordinates sponsorships throughout the developing world for children and adults with bleeding disorders. These sponsorships provide recipients better access to education, nutrition and other essentials that help improve their lives and futures.

In 2016, Save One Life raised more than $300,000 for 1,350 beneficiaries. The money
also helped fund small enterprise grants, scholarships and hemophilia camps. 

Chris Bombardier joined the Save One Life Board of Directors in 2012 after working with the organization in Kenya. “By having an education or their own business, people with hemophilia who normally would be burdens to their families often are able instead to support their families, which is truly amazing!” says Bombardier. “I’m really proud to serve on their board.” 

Learn more about how you can get involved: saveonelife.net


Coming to a screen near you

An upcoming documentary film, Bombardier Blood, tells the story of Chris Bombardier’s training for and his ascent of Mount Everest. The film does more than capture Bombardier’s preparations and the epic climb; it also focuses on his commitment to raise awareness and funds to help the international bleeding disorders community.

“Most people with hemophilia around the world don’t have access to the care they need to have a full, high-quality life,” says Bombardier Blood director Patrick James Lynch, who himself has severe hemophilia A. “The population in Nepal exemplifies the point we are making.”

Bombardier, Lynch and a film crew spent time with the Nepalese bleeding disorders community in Kathmandu. The team’s goal is to highlight the health disparities imposed by poverty and, more broadly, the challenges people with bleeding disorders face in much of the developing world.

“The more people in our community who spread the word about Bombardier Blood,” says Lynch, “the more people will lean in and pay attention to hemophilia.” Lynch expects the film to be released in late 2018.

Both the film and Bombardier’s Everest expedition were fully funded by the pharmaceutical company Octapharma.

View the “Bombardier Blood” trailer and get updates about the film: bombardierblood.com