Ottawa’s Elia Saikaly stood on the summit of Mount Everest for the third time on May 22. He says it will be his last trip to the top.
Elia Saikaly / Postmedia
Ottawa climber and filmmaker Elia Saikaly says his third time standing on the roof of the world will be his last.“It’s a really messed up thing to be in a position where you have to walk over a dead body,” Saikaly said in a phone call from Kathmandu, three days after reaching the summit of Mount Everest.“Do I think I’ll go back? I don’t think so. Not after this season … It was pretty horrific.”More than 800 people have reached the 8,848-metre summit of Everest this year and at least 10 people have died on the mountain. By the deadly standards of the world’s highest mountain, that’s a pretty typical year. But for Saikaly, whose team had the summit to itself when he last reached the peak in 2013, the crowds and the chaos this year were just too much.
Hundreds of climbers make their way to the summit of Mount Everest on Thursday, May 23. Photo: Elia Saikaly.
“Death. Carnage. Chaos” was how he described it on his Instagram account, @eliasaikaly.“People are stepping over a body. You look around and see how people are dealing with that and you realize that people are not dealing with reality because they can’t. It’s just so confusing. So they just carry on. It’s when you get back down that you start asking yourself the question: Is it worth it? What is this whole industry about?”Saikaly was there to film an expedition of four Arab women — Joyce Azzam and Nelly Attar of Lebanon, Nadhira Alharthy of Oman and Mona Shahab of Saudi Arabia — all of whom reached the summit with Saikaly and a team of Sherpas early Thursday morning.
Elia Saikaly, front, led a team of four Arab women to the summit of Mount Everest. They are: Joyce Azzam and Nelly Attar of Lebanon, Nadhira Alharthy of Oman and Mona Shahab of Saudi Arabia.
They weren’t alone. Some 200 climbers headed for the summit that day, many of whom were ill-prepared, ill-equipped and unfit physically for the challenge. It was, in Saikaly’s words, a “real s–t show.”“Within 20 minutes we saw a climber being brought down in a stretcher. Within 60 minutes, we see a climber being brought down by a couple of sherpas completely delirious. You don’t know really what’s going on but it seems the person has a serious case of acute mountain sickness. But you keep going up, in a huge lineup. And within 2 1/2 hours there’s a deceased climber attached to an anchor. Every single person had to climb over that body. It’s quite disturbing.
Hundreds of climbers attempted to reach the summit of Mount Everest on Thursday, May 23. Photo: Elia Saikaly
Fit and well prepared, Saikaly and his fellow climbers with the guiding company Madison Mountaineering trudged on, passing eight or 10 climbers at a time. They reached the top after about nine hours of steady climbing.“It’s pandemonium up there,” Saikaly said. “A couple of the women pulled their masks off and said to me, ‘Where’s the summit?’ and I had to say, ‘Do you not see the 50 people ahead of us standing there? There were so many people and everyone’s competing for that same spot. I didn’t even bother stepping up there this time.“There’s such beauty on one level. These Arab women crushed it up there. They summited with class, with grace, with dignity. And the juxtaposition with so many people ill-prepared, unfit, disorganized, coupled with the traffic and the deaths. On the one hand it’s your passion. And on the other hand it’s a disaster. You ask yourself, why?”Saikaly, an Ottawa native who studied film at Algonquin College and has been on eight Everest expeditions, has earned a reputation as one of the world’s leading mountaineering filmmakers. And he’s no stranger to death in the mountains. In 2005, he was hired by his close friend, uOttawa professor Sean Egan, to document his bid to be the oldest Canadian to climb Everest. Egan died in the attempt. Saikaly was on the mountain again in 2014 — with his camera rolling — when a devastating earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed 22 climbers, including another close friend.
A climber crosses the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest in May, 2019. Photo: Elia Saikaly.
He came out of “retirement” to shoot the Arab women’s expedition. Unable to find financial backing, he’s paying for the project himself.“I saw a pretty amazing opportunity to tell a story and help them spread their message of tolerance and inclusiveness, to break negative stereotypes.”Everest drains the energy of even the best climbers. Saikaly does it all while filming. Supported by several sherpas, including his close friend and partner Pasang Kaji, he lugged five cameras and 20 batteries to the summit.“It’s not to brag, but I wish that people could see what I do up there,” he said. “You can’t stop anybody. You can’t ask anybody to go backward to do a shot again. You’re 8,500 metres above sea level, you’ve got an oxygen mask on. You’re risking your fingers every time you touch the camera. You’re pulling the battery out after every shot. You’re jumping up on the knife edge ridge to get the shot … But that’s my jam. That’s what excites me. The story excites me and motivates me and gives me the strength to carry on.”Saikaly returns to Ottawa on Sunday. He hopes to release his film, Dreams of Everest, this firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter.com/getBACALSO IN THE NEWSOttawa deputy chief embroiled in ‘crisis of confidence’ that’s shaken Durham Regional PoliceRunner in critical condition after collapsing during Sunday’s Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend runThis 20-year-old Montreal student speaks 19 languages — and counting