Unclimbed: The Storyteller, Elia Saikaly (Interview)

Tenzing (7916m). Hillary (7681m). Unclimbed. “It’s a human series with a backdrop of an adventure,” says Elia Saikaly.

They are on a double unclimbed challenge: Scaling two peaks in Himalaya, just released for climbing by the Nepal Government in honor of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Sherpa. One expedition mate was injured and now it’s only the two of them: The Westerner and the Sherpa, 60 years on after the famous Everest duo.

We caught up with team Unclimbed shortly after the rescue. We kick off today with Elia Saikaly: Climber, adventure film maker and tech spearhead, mixing realities and filming Himalayan night skies with the eye of a story teller.

Pythom: Hi Elia, you once told us adventure film making is all about the story: so what’s the short of it here? Why are you on two unclimbed peaks, alone with a Sherpa?

Elia: Bell Media (who own Discovery Canada) in partnership with Jeep Canada, created an 8-part web series and 1hr broadcast television special called ‘Unclimbed – Reaching the summit.’ The series features our training, who we are as a three man team, why we do what we do and gives the audience a glimpse into our lives, which includes our families and loved ones.

In my personal case the series tells my story of growing up as a teen rebel punk rocker, breaking a world record after meeting a world strong man at the age of 17, breaking my back in the Himalayas in 2014, how I got into all of this through the loss of my mentor on Everest in 2005, etc. Pasang Kaji and Gabriel’s back stories are equally profiled. It’s a human series with a backdrop of an adventure about three friends climbing two mountains in Nepal.

The current expedition we are now living is the end of the story.

Pythom: How is Gab doing? How far did he fall and what happened?

Elia: Gab is doing well. He is recovering at home in Canada and helping us as much as he can from afar. As you can imagine, it’s been tremendously difficult for him.

Pasang Kaji, who was belaying at the time of the accident, estimated a 60ft fall. Gab was leading a wet rock pitch at 5700m and a boulder he was using for leverage gave out. Next thing we knew we saw Gabriel fly backwards upside down and bounce like a rag doll from cliff to cliff before coming to an eventual stop upside down just feet from PK. It was a horrible sight to witness and I was certain he was paralyzed or dead.

Miraculously, after 20 mins of helping him orient himself, he was able to stand on his two feet and we helped get him down to basecamp 500m below. He escaped death. We are incredible grateful for the miracle.

(Ed note: Gab is Gabriel Filippi)

Pythom: You say it’s all about Pasang Kaji Sherpa. I must acknowledge the gorilla in the room – what do you tell people thinking he’s actually your climbing guide?

Elia: Is that what people are thinking?

Since our expedition leader had to be evacuated I think it’s fair to say that PK (Pasang Kaji) is now leading the climb. He’s IFMGA/UIAGM and NMGA certified and now has an opportunity to put all his skills to work. That being said, we are working in an equal capacity on most levels. Despite the unfortunate reality of losing Gabriel a few weeks ago, nothing makes me more proud than to see PK in the lead. If that makes me his Sherpa, then all the better. 😉

This team was assembled primarily based on our friendship, but also based on complimentary skill sets. I’m the tech guy, producer, filmmaker who is quite consistent at extreme altitude and who can make sure every moment is captured every step of the way.

I invested almost a year developing, planning and co-creating with the producers at Bell media to manifest what we have today. With PK being in Nepal, and the above not being his skill personal skill sets, naturally the work load fell on me. Gabriel took care of all the climbing logistics and planning in Nepal alongside Pasang Kaji. Its been a 100% team effort where no one keeps score of who does what. It all adds up.

Pythom: We just ran an interview with a local Everest outfitter who went from a dirt shack to a thriving business guiding all over the world. These guys have something to teach about real drive, What’s Pasang’s background?

Elia: It’s funny because my first instinct is to say: you need to watch the series. 😉

PK, like most climbing Sherpas began his career as a porter and climbed his was up the ladder. His hero is Tenzing Norgay. He’s got 4 Everest summits under his belt, he’s summited Manaslu and Cho Oyu in addition to many other mountains.

What really impressed me about him was that over the span of 10 years he’s managed to earn his IFMGA/UIAGM and NMGA certification. He runs a restaurant and climbing shop in Kathmandu and is a father of two. Like many others in his community, as the youngest son, he also takes care of his parents and extended family.

PK and I met in 2013 as he was assigned to work with me on a reality TV series on Everest called ‘On the Top’ which earned a CINE Golden Eagle award. He and I forged a great friendship that year and I’ve been working with him ever since.

We collaborated on the Google Street View project in 2014 and UnderArmour’s ‘Mission 14’ project in 2015. We survived both avalanches together which naturally strengthened our relationship. He’s a very strong climber, technically savvy, has a entrepreneurial spirit and has a strong interest in story telling and filmmaking. He also has a great sense of humor, which keeps things light in the mountains.

On a side: PK was stationed in Syria this past winter working with the UN while assisting the Nepali military.

I feel like he’s only just begun and I’m proud to be part of his journey.

(Ed note: More on PK next week)

Pythom: What’s your own climbing history?

Elia: Despite having summited Everest twice, Cho Oyu, Denali, Aconcagua twice and some other commercial mountains, this type of climb is new territory for me and I approach it with tremendous respect and humility.

You have to remember that I was a filmmaker long before I started climbing. I’m grateful to have a climbing partner like Pasang Kaji. He jokes that I’m becoming part Sherpa as I’m always loaded up and easily able to keep.

Pythom: Why did you guys choose these particular peaks? I understand they lack “death zone” altitude – what would you say is the difficulty involved here instead?*

Elia: We wanted to do something different. We wanted to be isolated and alone in the mountains as three friends. Gab wanted to assemble a climb that embodied the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the last century. Of course I come along with all my tech and TV production ideas and kinda messed it all up, but that’s why we all work so well together. We compliment one another very well.

When the Nepal Government released the news of these two ‘Unclimbed Peaks’ it seemed like the perfect project idea. For me, climbing two mountains wasn’t enough of a story, I helped develop Gab’s idea into what it is today.

The difficulty, in my humble opinion, is the manner in which we are climbing these mountains. You have to remember: we’re the only ones here and we are doing everything ourselves. There are no other teams to help break trail and fix safety lines. We are forging our own path, carrying everything ourselves and filming everything along the way.

The biggest challenge for us right now is figuring out how to safely access the upper part of the mountain. We’ve been met with a few major impasses and of course we lost three weeks of time due to the evacuation. Now that we are a two-man team, the odds are even more stacked against us. Our plan at this point is to go as far as the mountain Gods will allow us. The most important thing for me is getting us both home safely.

Once/If we can access the upper part of mountain, there will be a whole other set of challenges to deal with. For now, it’s one step at a time.

We have a cook at basecamp and 4 porters who have helped move 1000kg’s of gear to our humble little basecamp at 5200m. We also hired PK’s nephew Kusang who will help us load up our ABC. From there, we are entirely on our own.

*Editor’s note: (Tenzing is 7916m and Hillary is 7681m – which actually puts them almost on par in altitude with some of the lower 8000ers such as Broad Peak, 8050m. That’s high for unclimbed territory.)

Pythom: What’s the plan for the upcoming ascents in terms of time, schedule, camps etc?

Elia: Goal #1: Put in our C1/ABC at 6000m. From there, establish a camp 2 in a strategic position that enables us to choose to climb either Mt.Hillary or Mt.Tenzing based on the terrain, which we can only assess once we arrive. Out feeling is that we’d like to attempt Mt. Hillary first, but it’s impossible to tell until we arrive and scout with our own eyes.

Given that we are one man down, our expedition leader, if we have a chance to even attempt one mountain, we would be more than thrilled. We lost three weeks here after the evacuation, so we tread carefully and realistically.

(Editors note: the climbers latest expected to overnight in C1 on Hillary.)

Pythom: What’s your biggest fear right now and your best case scenario?

Elia: Biggest fear for me is the unknown terrain in general and the crossing of the potentially heavily crevassed glacier connecting camp 1 to the CWM that binds both mountains.

I’m not a highly technical climber, so I’ll be constantly monitoring and checking in with my comfort levels. The other fear of course are avalanches. It’s been raining for weeks down low, so we can only imagine what that translates into up high.

Part 2, Final: Elia Saikaly talks about the tech he uses, how he landed Discovery, and how to get the story out in today’s fast-paced information climate.

Elia Saikaly on Facebook



Unclimbed is an 8-part web series and 1hr broadcast on Discovery. Watch episode 1 for more background on the team.


ExWeb Special: 2015 Everest and Himalaya Technology Roundtable

The future of adventure film and television: Elia Saikaly – real time, short and fast