“There’s this notion of, if I can get to the top of that, it’s like this real powerful metaphor for, if I can get to that point with a bleeding disorder, what are the limits, right?”-Mountain climber Chris Bombardier on his 2017 quest to become the first-ever hemophiliac to summit Mount Everest
It’s hard enough to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. Now try to do it with a life-threatening blood disorder like Hemophilia B that can cause serious internal bleeding. That’s exactly what Colorado-based mountaineer Chris Bombardier attempted to do in 2017 when he produced a documentary called, “Bombardier Blood.” Recently, Chris spoke with Bloodworks 101 producer John Yeager and unpacked the message of the documentary, and shared the reason why he sought not only to climb Everest, but the rest of the world’s Seven Summits.
Listen to the full episode wherever you get your podcasts. Or read the full episode transcript below. Thanks for listening!
Chris: I fell into the rabbit hole of Everest and read all the books and documentaries. And there’s just something magical about the place. And, you know, I think it’s also, obviously, the highest mountain. So there’s this notion of, like, if I can get to the top of that, it’s like this real powerful metaphor for, like, if I can get to that point with a bleeding disorder, like, what are the limits, right?
John: His name is Chris Bombardier. He’s a world-class mountain climber, and he’s a hemophiliac. And a little while back, Chris had the crazy idea that he’d climb to the top of the world, to Mount Everest in the Himalayas, 29,032 feet up.
Hi, I’m John Yeager, and you’re listening to Bloodworks 101. I tell you it’s a blast meeting the kind of people that I get to meet producing this podcast. Chris Bombardier is definitely one of them, but to talk to him, you’d never know it. Chris Bombardier is as humble as he is determined. In 2017, 32-year-old Chris Bombardier attempted to do something no other person on earth with a blood disorder like his, hemophilia B, had ever done. He wanted to climb to the top of the world. It’s all chronicled in a new movie Chris produced called “Bombardier Blood.”
Chris: So my name is Chris Bombardier. That’s how I say it. And I’m currently the executive director at Save One Life. But I’m also a person with hemophilia that’s climbed the Seven Summits.
John: You probably know what that means. The Seven Summits are the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. Climbing the Seven Summits is generally considered the toughest of all mountaineering challenges, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Chris was telling me about the message of his documentary.
Chris: Yeah. So there’s a couple of messages in the documentary. First, you know, is that it’s about a person that’s living with a chronic medical condition that is trying to not let that limit him in his activity, which I guess is me, and kind of just showing, you know, that even living with this chronic condition, I was able to set some big goals and find ways to, you know, manage that condition in some pretty extreme environments. But the biggest message that I wanted to be a part of this film was about the drastic disparity in healthcare around the world.
So, being a person with hemophilia in the U.S. and having, you know, access to treatment my whole life, you know, helps me get to the point where I could think about climbing Mount Everest and the Seven Summits while people in Nepal with the exact same condition, their life expectancy, you know, is in their teen years. And climbing a mountain is just not an option, they’re just thinking about living. So I wanted to be able to highlight that, you know, just drastic disparity in care.
John: All right. Hemophilia still has a lot of misconceptions surrounding it. What’s the biggest misconception that you feel that you run up against when you’re talking to people?
Chris: I think when people first hear the word hemophilia, they think that we’re gonna die from a paper cut, like we’re gonna bleed out from a paper cut, which is definitely not true. I mean, I’m 34 years old. I’ve had many paper cuts in my life. So, I think trying to explain to people that it’s not really like that kind of bleeding issues, but that it’s more internal bleeding and bleeding into joints that leads to permanent damage that’s the major concern. I think that’s like the biggest misconception about it. I think there’s also misconceptions that it’s, you know, this royal disease and it’s only been caused by incest or something from the royals, but that’s also not true.
Hemophilia is equally distributed around the globe, which I find very interesting. So, every country you go to, there are people with hemophilia, and it’s also a pretty cool thing to have a connection when you go to anywhere in the world and meet somebody with hemophilia and you have this instant bond, which is interesting.
John: Tell me about when you were diagnosed. Was it when you were just a small boy? Do you remember anything about that time?
Chris: I don’t remember anything about being diagnosed. I was diagnosed at birth. So, my mom had two uncles with hemophilia. So she just knew that if she had a boy that she was supposed to ask the doctor to test for hemophilia, but she had no clue what that really meant. She remembered seeing her uncles, you know, with crutches and pretty bad joints when she was a kid, but she didn’t know what that meant. And when I was born, they had both already passed away. So she didn’t really have anybody to reference and talk to about it either. So, the diagnosis was pretty alarming for her and challenging for her to comprehend. But, yeah, I don’t remember that moment, but it’s always just been a part of my whole life.
John: Well, if you have that in your background, as far as the images of your family members on crutches, what gave you the idea that you could climb mountains?
Chris: Right. I don’t think my mom ever thought that that was going to be a possibility. But, you know, growing up, my parents and my treatment center in Colorado were just really open to letting me experience a normal childhood as much as possible. You know, they definitely tried to push me away from, you know, contact sports like football or hockey, but they let me play baseball and they let me do a lot of those sports. So I played baseball all through college, which was fantastic, and got to experience that. And then it kind of just kept evolving into finding new challenges and avenues and, yeah, led down to the mountains.
John: So tell me about this dream to climb Everest. I mean, you’ve climbed all seven summits, and, of course, Everest is the one thing that’s out there. I remember the old quote that George Mallory said. They asked him why he climbed it, and, you know, he said, “Because it’s there.” Why did you climb it?
Chris: So Everest kind of has this alert to it. I don’t know how to describe it. I started getting into climbing after college with my uncle who we fondly call Crazy Uncle Dave. And I fell in love with the mental and physical challenges that the mountains bring. So not only are you pushing yourself physically, but you are also challenging yourself mentally. You’re in these pretty challenging environments and sometimes questioning why you’re there, you could be on your warm bed. But the satisfaction of hitting a summit and seeing the views that you can see from up on mountains and being in these secluded places is just magical. And so climbing with him, he helped me fall in love with the mountains, and then he had climbed Denali in Alaska back in the ’90s and told stories about it.
And so we just started talking about the Seven Summits, and I fell into the rabbit hole of Everest and read all the books and documentaries. And there’s just something magical about the place. And, you know, I think it’s also, obviously, the highest mountain, so there’s this notion of, like, if I can get to the top of that, it’s like this real powerful metaphor for, like, if I can get to that point with a bleeding disorder, like, what are the limits, right?
I just fell in love with that idea. And then, you know, having it being in a developing country is why we wanted to make a documentary about it because we wanted to highlight that disparity in care and make sure, like, people understand that there are medicines available in developed countries that save lives and allow people to live, you know, very normalized. But there are people around the world with the same conditions that just don’t have that access, and their lives look drastically different.
John: I was lucky enough back in the mid-’90s to follow Scott Fischer and Brent Bishop. This is about two years before Jon Krakauer did “Into Thin Air.” And you know what happened on that climb. We got as far as Base Camp. I mean, we were covering it with this TV journalist, the photographer, Glen Austin and I, you know, and we got to 18,000 feet. And, man, that was as much as I’ve ever done in my life. So, I can relate just a small bit to what you went through, but we did some filming into the Khumbu Icefall, which is that next thing past the Base Camp. And that scared the crap out of me. I mean, those big ice boxes, you know, boxcars full of…the size of a boxcar, just immense pieces of ice, which have been known to shift and move, you know, all of that stuff. That’s a scary place. What made you… Did you have second thoughts at any point of this?
Chris: Oh, yeah. I had lots of those second thoughts. I think it’s very normal to have those second thoughts, and especially in a place like the Khumbu Icefall. I think the first time going through there, I think I always tell people it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and the most terrifying place I’ve ever been. But, you know, when I was climbing through it, you know, I was just trying to, you know, make sure I was doing everything safe and making sure I was clipping all my carabiners, you know, and just being as safe as I could be in that situation and being efficient through that section. So, the team I was with was awesome, is guided by a guy from Boulder named Ryan Waters. And he always has really great teams and people on his team, and we all moved super efficiently through the icefall. And I just kinda tried to just focus on my steps through that icefall. I tried not to think about all the creaks and cracks that you can hear and all of the things that could happen. I just focused on the next step. There were a couple of, like, crevasses that, like, it wasn’t big enough for a ladder to go across. And I have pretty short legs. I’m only 5’6″ and, like, you know, the tall people would just step across it, and I would have to, like, kind of jump over the little crevasses, and those were pretty terrifying. But, yeah, I wouldn’t wanna do that again.
John: I mean, it scares me just to look at some of those images of the ladders lashed across these big crevasses. In the doc, we meet those living with hemophilia in Nepal. Why was that important to show?
Chris: So, I really wanted to show what life was like for those individuals in Nepal. You know, my clients have always been about raising awareness for that disparity in care, and particularly the organization Save One Life and the work being done to help those individuals with bleeding disorders. And I think, you know, it’s one thing to talk about what it’s like to have a bleeding disorder in a developing country, and then it’s another thing to see it and see the true struggles these guys go through with, you know, hugely swollen joints, you know, their siblings passing away from hemophilia at a very young age. The reality is very different. They all have the same dreams and goals that most people have of, you know, being successful and having a comfortable living, but they have this huge obstacle in front of them. And, you know, me climbing a mountain was something that I got to choose to do and got to choose to try and overcome and challenge myself, and these guys face bigger challenges every single day.
So, I wanted to bring that perspective to this film and, hopefully, open some eyes to what it’s like, not just for bleeding disorders in developing countries, but just healthcare in general around the world.
John: Chris, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, man. Good luck with everything. And I take my hat off to you. Just what you’ve done is inspirational to a lot of people, and I think it’s a message that needs to be heard. So I’m glad you’re doing it.
Chris: I appreciate it, John. Thank you so much.
John: Thanks again. Talk to you soon.
Chris: All right, bye.
John: Well, that just about wraps it up for “Bloodworks 101.” I should tell you that I was able to see an advanced screening, and it is riveting. As someone who’s been to Everest and understands a little bit of the challenge that Chris faced, I really enjoyed watching it. You will like this documentary, and you’ll never forget the opening scene. You can see “Bombardier Blood” by registering today to gain a free access code to view the documentary before the event. Watch the film at your convenience, and then join us for a live fireside chat with Chris Bombardier on April 21st from 5 to 6 p.m. Pacific. Bring your questions, and invite your friends. To register, go to wghalliance.org. There’ll be a direct link there to the event. It’s hosted by the Washington Global Health Alliance and brought to you by We Work For Health and Bloodworks Northwest. The featured guest is Chris Bombardier. I think you’ll enjoy talking to him as much as I did. Okay. That’s it for this edition of “Bloodworks 101.” I’m your host, John Yeager. See you next time.