Standing at the summit of Everest, looking out over Nepal, Chris Bombardier unfolded the flag he carried in his pocket and posed for a picture. The 31-year-old Denver native is the first person with hemophilia to reach the summit of the world’s highest peak.
“It’s funny, I almost turned around shortly before the summit,” Bombardier explained from the base camp days later, “I was tired, and it seemed so scary and overwhelming… and I sat down actually in the snow before it and my Sherpa Tashi came up to me and said, ‘No! You can do this, it’s your mission it’s your purpose.’ He clipped me with his carabiner and started walking so that I had to get up and start walking.”
That slight falter on summit day is par for the course according to Bombardier and his wife Jessica. Chris has been on a quest for the past seven years, to climb the “seven summits,” the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. He reached the summit of Everest on May 22nd.
“I hear from a lot of women, I wouldn’t have let my husband go do this I don’t know how you’re doing it or handling it. For me, it was never really a question of will I allow him to do this it was more of, okay, how can we figure out a way for us to make this happen,” Jessica said. The couple has made every decision based around this mission, including putting off having children. They have also financed the climbs themselves for the most part, Everest being the first that was sponsored. Their determination bringing them closer together.
“When you have someone who is 100% on your side no matter what, trying to figure out how to make your dream come true or how to just be a partner and get him farther along in his goals and his mission. I don’t know how to put into words how that changes your relationship, we are so linked,” Jessica said. Chris echoes that sentiment, explaining that she has never faltered or questioned his dream.
The quest has consumed every aspect of their lives since 2011 and while it is winding down with the completion of the Mount Everest trip, it is not over yet. Chris had to change course and decided to tackle the most difficult mountain sixth, after being denied a climbing permit from Antarctica to scale Vinson Massif. Chris has been denied a permit for the past two seasons because of his hemophilia.
“They seemed uncomfortable with the condition and any perceived risk,” Jessica explained.
The condition is a rare disorder in which blood doesn’t clot normally because it lacks a specific protein. A person with hemophilia will appear to bleed for a longer time after an injury because of the lack of clotting.
“The number 1 stigma of hemophilia is if you get a paper cut, do you die? You don’t,” explains Amy Board Executive Director of the Colorado chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation. She clarifies that small cuts are not the greater health concern with the disorder. “We bleed internally all of the time and so with hemophilia that is the danger. They bleed into joints or muscles periodically or all of the time. Due to the internal bleeding especially into a joint or muscle if not treated, the blood can pool,” she said.
That blood can then cause damage to organs and ligaments, eating away at tissue and causing permanent damage. Many hemophiliacs have what is called a target joint or muscle, caused by bleeding in the same spot. With some slight laughter, Amy explains that while Chris is a mountaineer in every way, his target muscle prevents him from bowling. The disorder never stopped him from dreaming about achieving the seven summit quest.
The mission for Chris started with a trip to Kenya, an eye-opening experience into the inequalities of access to essential care for children with hemophilia. Chris still pauses at the memory and takes time to gather his thoughts as he works to describe what he saw at the clinic before he decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I saw, on the first day we were in the hospital there was a boy and it was obvious he was dying… they didn’t even know he had hemophilia even though it was obvious to us. But he was just in this bed and bleeding out.. nobody was treating him because they didn’t know what to do. And from that moment I decided I wanted it to be about more, more than myself.”
Jessica says she knew her husband had a spark and more to give the world, he just needed an outlet.
“Before Chris left for Africa, I think he was still searching for something, some purpose something that would spark his passion. Which I always could see in him, he has a lot of it,” she said with a smile,”he just didn’t have anywhere to put it.” Once Chris experienced the conditions at the clinic and accomplished the beginning of his personal goal, Jessica said the two things became completely intertwined.
“Not just climbing the mountains, but doing it for a a reason. It’s been a slow progression over the years since then. He’s changed his occupation completely. He’s getting a masters in global health, all of this has led him to pursuing this completely unique path. It changed him completely as a human,” Jessica said.
And the scope of the mission has been growing with each climb. Currently, Chris works with the organization GutMonkey, the outdoor experiential education company helps get kids in the hemophilia community outside, taking them rafting, canoeing, kayaking or hiking in a supervised environment.
While hiking Aconcagua in Argentina, Jessica said Chris came up with the idea for an outdoor hiking program. With the help of the Colorado Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation he co-founded the Backpacks & Bleeders group to encourage hemophiliacs to get active. Chris also works closely with and sits on the board of the non-profit, Save One Life. The group helped him gain sponsorship for his Mount Everest climb, and he used the quest to raise money for the Nepalese hemophilia community.
“That first moment when I realized that I actually made it is probably the happiest, proudest moment of my life. I had a flag representing Save One Life and it was signed by all of the guys with hemophilia from Nepal, and knowing that was in my pocket and I was going to show it at the summit and seeing that I made it was the highlight,” Chris said.
While the top of the world brought tears and hugs from Chris, he knows that the adventures are far from over.
“The biggest thing is that no matter how wild and crazy your dreams are and goals are, if you just start working toward them it’s amazing how far you actually get. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. I had this idea so many years ago. If you just keep making a little progress and moving toward the goal it’s amazing how far you can get. I still can’t believe I am in Nepal and just summited Everest! It’s pretty cool.”
The mission giving birth to an inspirational movement for those with the genetic disorder in a way that is only now starting to become possible.
“Without being in the community it’s hard to understand just how protected people with hemophilia are. It’s not that long ago that you’d have a newly diagnosed kid and here is a list of things you can’t do…. literally there is a whole list of things your kids can’t do because of hemophilia,” Jessica said.
Amy explains that treatment has changed in the past 10 years and says she expects some new advancements that will really have an impact to come down in the next four years. “This whole attitude of making everything safe is turning into how can you be smart with your body and that is what Chris is doing.”
Jessica said this is her husband’s outlet to bring awareness, and finding your own Everest doesn’t necessarily mean having a physical outlet.
“He just wants people to figure out what they’re passionate about and just shoot for the moon,” she said. That attitude applies to the future plans of the couple, once the final summit is reached.
“I am so excited for what happens after this because I think we are going to transition from it being the physical climbing component to it being more about the global awareness and becoming really deeply and personally involved in the community.”
Jessica says she can’t rule out the possibility of living in a developing country as the couple continues looking for meaningful outlets. Although, Chris might not be finished with the adventure aspect, “So many other adventures around the world that I want to partake in, maybe a ski trip to the south pole and north pole. I want to do more work for people with chronic medical conditions in developing countries.”
In a life’s work that has become larger than anyone thought possible, Chris says he wants everyone who hears his story to keep in mind, living with hemophilia doesn’t make anyone weak.
“I think there’s a lot of people who think we’re going to die from a paper cut,” he chuckles, “I want people to know we definitely have something that we have to deal with and struggle with sometimes but it doesn’t make us fragile or weak. It makes us, I think, more resilient and strong because we have to think about this condition and deal with it.”