Everest, A Time Lapse Film

Elia Saikaly first journeyed to Everest Base Camp in 2005, as a young aspiring adventure filmmaker. Since then, he has returned to Nepal 13 times, taking part in seven Everest expeditions and building a formidable portfolio of Himalayan photography and video. In 2010, he summited Everest for the first time, sharing the achievement with some 20,000 Canadian students via a real-time web series.

Elia’s latest film is the culmination of over a decade of shooting in the Himalaya, a mesmerizing two-and-a-half minutes of time lapse footage from the top of the world. We caught up with Elia to discuss the film, the difficulties he faces when working at high altitude and his love of Nepal.

ExWeb: The footage for this time lapse is made up of some 1,896 stills, captured from multiple locations, including footage from Lobuche East, Camp 2 on Everest, and some striking images of climbers navigating the Khumbu Icefall. Which location proved the most difficult to work in, and why?

That’s 1,896 of almost 47,000! Having reached the summit twice with cameras, these lower camps were quite comfortable in comparison. That being said, none of this happens without the support of strong Sherpas and a good team to help me. We navigated this with proper planning to ensure tents and food were in place, and porters hired to carry the gear up to mid camp. The weather did not cooperate on the summit of Lobuche, but we did manage to get a few hours of clear skies over the three days we camped up there.

The moon rise over Lhotse from Camp 2 is always a dream to shoot. I use various apps to track the moon cycle and use the same apps to plan my shots ahead of time.

I had very ambitious ideas of time lapsing from the balcony, the south summit and possibly the summit of Everest, which would have required perfect conditions and a great deal of luck. Tragically, both seasons ended abruptly due to the 2014 and 2015 avalanches. You’d never know that some of these beautiful scenes we see in the short film are juxtaposed with a tragic behind-the-scenes reality. It was an impossible time to be on Everest. Shooting the night skies helped me navigate the trauma that we all experienced.

ExWeb: What are the main issues you encounter when using high tech gear at altitude? Are there certain tricks you use to protect your equipment from the elements?

The main issues are batteries dying quickly, lenses fogging up, buttons freezing, and shutters malfunctioning. I try to shoot as much as I can as the weather deteriorates, so condensation and snow also become a major problem.

I’ve only ever used low tech solutions to ensure my gear works on Everest. I place hand warmers in all my pockets and in the Pelican cases where I store my batteries. This ensures they retain as much of their charge as possible in the cold. When I’m shooting at extreme altitude, for example at 8,000 m on Mount Everest, I remove the battery from my camera after every shot and place it next to a hand warmer in my interior pocket. I replace it each time I want to capture a moment. This exposes my hands, but it’s how I’ve managed to shoot most of the route to the summit while chasing climbers who are, in most cases, unwilling to stop to allow me to get the shot.

I use a simple rain bag to protect the camera body when it’s snowing or wet. If it’s dry, I rely on the camera’s weather sealing and put it away after every shot. On a summit night, I keep the camera in a soft case that I clip to my backpack. This keeps the camera cool and balanced with the exterior temperature to avoid fogging. The last thing you want to do is pull your camera out and wait for the lens or sensor to defog.

I sometimes rig hand warmers around my camera and lenses while shooting time lapse. This also helps prevent lenses from fogging. It’s quite dry in the Himalaya, so often, unless cloud cover rolls in, you don’t deal with too many issues. It really depends on the weather patterns, which can all be predicted by apps.

Personally, I use Canon DSLRs. I’ve shot with a 5D Mark 3 on Everest with very little protection from the elements. The weather sealing is robust and it handles the extreme temperatures at altitude very well.

It’s all about the right gear for the job. To avoid the classic scenario of not returning with images due to malfunction, I always carry a backup DSLR or mirror-less camera, a small 4K Sony camcorder and various GoPros as an “if all else fails” plan. Anything can go wrong, and generally does, so best to plan for it.

ExWeb: You first travelled to Everest in 2005, and have clearly fallen in love with Nepal, visiting 13 times since that initial visit. What is it about the country that keeps you coming back?

First and foremost my love for Nepal is rooted in its people. The landscapes are beautiful and there is no shortage of adventure in the mountains, but for me it’s the Sherpas that keep me coming back year after year. When I combine my passion for storytelling, with a real-life adventure, created and lived with a team of people who are an absolute pleasure to collaborate with, nothing could be more meaningful.

Secondly, when I dig deep enough, the reality is that Nepal marked a profound turning point in my life. I was 26 when I discovered the Himalayas and while the experience blew my mind and heart wide open, it was also devastating for me as the expedition sadly ended in tragedy. My friend Dr. Sean Egan, who was aspiring to become the oldest Canadian to summit Everest (and who was the subject of my documentary) tragically died of heart failure during his ascent. I returned three times in four years attempting to reach the summit of Everest with the aim of honouring his life. Throughout that journey I discovered my own calling as an adventurer and storyteller.

I attribute much of my success to those first few visits to Nepal. I do my best to give back as often as I can, whether through employment of local people, the projects I bring to the region, awareness by way of sharing imagery and stories, or fundraising initiatives when needed.

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