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CTV Amazing Person Nomination

CTV Amazing Person Nomination

After returning from the summit of Mt. Everest, I was nominated by CTV for an Amazing Person Award for my work with youth as an adventure filmmaker. It was an honour to be recognized for the challenging work of bringing meaningful experiences into the classroom to inspire youth to challenge themselves, learn to give back and discover who they are. I had a great conversation with Kimothy Walker that day and forgot the cameras were even rolling!

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Into the Death Zone – Life and Death on Mt. Everest

Into the Death Zone – Life and Death on Mt. Everest

It’s 9 p.m. on May 20 and we’ve been in the death zone, the world above 8,000 metres, for just over five hours. Life is not meant to exist here. In the death zone, we are all transient beings. I lie in my sleeping bag with a new oxygen mask strapped to my head, devouring each artificial breath of life as though it were my last.

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Everest – In Time-Lapse

Everest – In Time-Lapse

Experience the beauty of Mt. Everest at night in time-lapse.

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Everest – A time lapse film: How I did it

Everest – A time lapse film: How I did it

I’m honestly blown away at how many people have connected with my video, Everest — Time Lapse Short Film. My goal was to bring to life the majestic beauty of the Himalayas and draw attention away from the negativity that has surrounded Everest in the past years. I wanted to remind people of the infinite possibility that the tallest mountain on Earth symbolizes in each of us.

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Life design – Are you designing yours?

Life design – Are you designing yours?

Life design – Are you designing yours?

This morning I rode shotgun in a helicopter and flew though the Himalayas.  I trekked through the trails in the Solo-Khumbu, encountered yaks, donkeys, suspension bridges, porters, stunning mountains and beautiful children.  I smiled at every man, woman and child I came across, captured the day’s events with an arsenal of cameras, a steadicam, a track and a trip-pod.

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What on Earth am I doing in Nepal?

What on Earth am I doing in Nepal?

As the plane landed on the tarmac in Kathmandu, I couldn’t help but ask myself that very question: What on Earth am I doing in Nepal? After all, wasn’t I just here in November? And haven’t I been here 7 times already? And didn’t I summit Mt. Everest back in 2010? Yes. To all of the above. But let’s just say that destiny came knocking as it often does and I responded favourably.

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Challenges of shooting in the Himalayas

Challenges of shooting in the Himalayas

Majestic mountains, stunning vistas, limitless time-lapse possibilities, Buddhist temples, beautiful children and the highest mountains on planet Earth! This is but a glimpse of what you experience while trekking through the Himalayas to Mt. Everest basecamp. With a DSLR camera in hand: the possibilities are truly infinite.

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Gratitude – An incredible year for FindingLife

Gratitude – An incredible year for FindingLife

It’s been an incredible year for FindingLife and the feeling that best encapsulates our organization is gratitude. Gratitude for the unbelievable support we’ve received from teachers, students, sponsors, partners, communities that we have met abroad and of course all of you reading these updates.

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Learning to fly

Learning to fly

In June 2013, I decided to face my greatest fear – flying. I feared not the uncertainty associated to the sportof PAragliding, but rather how much I would grow to love human flight and the infinite possibilities associated with combining with my passion for filmmaking, flight and mountaineering.

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Battling 90km/hr winds with a Canon5D and reaching Europe's highest peak

Battling 90km/hr winds with a Canon5D and reaching Europe's highest peak

Imagine being dressed in a down parka, ski goggles, thick gloves, plastic boots, crampons (spikes under your boots) and barely being able to stand on your own two feet because 90km/hr winds are attempting to blow you off the side of a 17, 000ft ridge. In that moment, you feel as though life is unfolding at 120 frames per second. Your team-mates, who are unrecognizable other than by the color of their jackets, are simply trying to survive and make it to the summit. As a filmmaker, you have half the level of oxygen that you would at sea level which hinders your ability to think and move. Snow is blowing in all directions and your job is to operate a Canon5d and capture every exciting moment. In the midst of the chaos of trying to determine whether to carry on or turn back, all of a sudden your Canon 24-70mm lens hood goes flying off the side of the mountain and disappears somewhere beneath the clouds. You freeze and think, “this is insane!” Then you quickly make a decision and point your camera in the direction of the next dramatic moment. “Think ‘story’ Saikaly, and make sure you get all the pieces you need for the final edit.  And don’t die in the process!” That is the dialogue I often have with myself at high altitude. This is the nature of my job as a high altitude filmmaker.

 

The greatest challenge I face in the mountains is the altitude, the exposure and the extreme cold. Combine survival with proper focus, exposure and framing (in addition to ensuring that your camera doesn’t flake out on you) is extremely difficult on the easiest of days. The best example I can illustrate in terms of how you feel at extreme altitude is this: MOST seasoned climbers can barely pull out a tiny consumer point and shoot camera to snap a photo during the moments that matter. This is consistent amongst most who dare to set foot above the clouds. So imagine working with a finicky DSLR with all of the add ons. It isn’t easy!
I was AMAZED that the Canon 5D ‘survived’ the conditions we faced. I was convinced that the 90km/hr winds, coupled with the sub-zero temperatures, would have surely shut the camera down. And if not, I was certain that my ‘live-view’ mode would cease to function. To my surprise, it functioned flawlessly throughout the entire climb. Way to go Canon! The following was my summit day set up.
MAIN CAMERA SET UP
-Zacuto Z-Finder w/anti fog (Zacuto Z-Finder w/anti fog is brilliant btw!)
-Sennheiser MKE-400 (with a wind sock)
-Vari-ND Filter
-Kata bag
-10 batteries in a small pelican case (hand warmers kept them warm)
-ME-66 shotgun mic (with a Lithium battery)
-Zoom H4N and headphones (with 2 Lithium batteries)
-GoPro Hero 2
ADDITIONAL  EQUIPMENT
Canon T3i
Canon 70-200mm lens
Tokina 11-16mm
5 extra batteries
Small Manfrotto tripod
*I also had the sense to hire a local guide named Igor who helped me carry some of this gear.
It’s extremely difficult under these uncontrollable circumstances because as a one man show you need to:
A) Look out for your own health and safety which includes being able to navigate on steep slopes with crampons while ensuring you are strong enough mentally and physically to not succumb to altitude sickness.
B) Ensure you shoot as much of the action as possible without falling off the side of the mountain and dying!
I chose the cowboy studio rig because I knew I could leverage and lean on the  the icy slopes for added camera stability without worrying too much about wrecking the stabilizing rig. I also knew that the Cowboy studio rig could rest on my shoulder which would permit me to remain hands-free to use my ice axe while climbing. The downside to the rig is that because it rests on your chest, and because it’s very hard to breathe due to the minimal amount of oxygen, your heavy breathing sometimes translates into unnecessary camera movement. Hence why I leveraged the icy slopes for added stability. Needless to say, I shoot a ton of low angle shots as a result.
The biggest challenge I faced on summit day was the uncontrollable spindrift (blowing snow) and keeping up with the team’s pace. You have to remember that no one is willing to stop at any time (as climbing is a race against the weather) so I had to be stronger and faster than everyone else. This is a pure mental game because your body is literally shutting down the higher you climb. Every shot I take, I recalculate the time it will take me to catch up and the amount of energy required to do so. It’s a bit crazy and totally run and gun style, but it works if you’re fit and healthy, which I usually am. I have 15 years of bodybuilding and fitness training under my belt which gives me a huge advantage.
In terms of focus and exposure, that’s a whole other challenge in these extreme environments. Climbing above 17,000ft is definitely one of the instances where “there is more to life than shallow depth of field”. I used a vary ND filter and shot between f11- f22, often at higher shutter speeds for effect. When I was getting reactions or ISO’s of climbers I would open up to f4-5.6 if it made sense. We’re in the mountains, so the background is important. Being closed down also makes focusing easier. Remember, the snow is blowing in all directions and I’m wearing thick gloves. The Kata bag doesn’t help much in terms of being able to reach the focus assist or live mode button, but it does keep the camera intact. Somehow, I manage. Oh ya: The light meter was completely untrustworthy because everything is white, so I had to eye-ball it. Zebra’s would have been nice here.
As the drama escalated and the weather transitioned from bad to worse, I was constantly asking myself: Will we make it? Will we turn back? Can I feel my toes? How are my fingers? Selfishly, I wanted to stand on the summit, but I constantly reminded myself that I was there to follow the team, not to summit the mountain. There was a moment where I asked the team leader whether he thought we were going to make it. He replied “Inshallah.” I found that amusing considering Vern is originally from Alaska. It was truly a life or death scenario. Any mistakes by any of the fatigued climbers and they could have easily fallen into the abyss, just like my Canon lens hood! In our guide’s 25 ascents of this mountain, this was by far the worst conditions he had ever seen.
150m below the summit we decided to take one final rest stop just below an exposed ridge. Rather than shooting, I decided to look after myself. I devoured 3 Kit-Kat bars, 2 packs of GU energy gels and consumed a half litre of Gatorade under 90 seconds.Yummy! I was ready for the summit.
The last 150m were tough as we climbed directly into the wind towards the top of Mt. Elbrus. I pulled out my GoPro Hero 2 and captured some extreme close ups of the climbers’ feet as they marched towards the peak. I then continued to literally run ahead with barely enough time to shoot the first climbers standing on top of Europe. Most of the team members were huddled on the ground using their ice axes as leverage to avoid getting blown off the mountain. It was slightly chaotic as I tried to orchestrate (while yelling over the raging winds) isolated photographs of each climber and all of their respective summit flags. They lasted  minutes on the summit. I had hoped to use my H4N and ME-66 mic to get some quality clips, but no one had the stamina or patience to remain exposed except me. It was exceptionally emotional on the highest peak in Europe as many of these team members had never walked in crampons. It was an incredible achievement for them.The highlight was capturing a fiercely determined Saudi Arabian woman
named Raha Moharrak’s final steps towards the top. What she accomplished that day is unheard of in her society and it was a privilege to have been able to capture it forever on digital media.
The crazy part of all of this is that once everyone left and I took a few moments for myself on summit, I realized that I was only half way there. I still had to get down.
So here I sit in a small hotel in Russia waiting for my flight, using Plural Eyes to sync my interviews waiting for my flight home. A grand adventure, a meaningful story and an epic tale of survival of a team from the Middle East who went against the greatest of odds and triumphed in the end. Am I tired? Exhausted! I’m also extremely grateful. Time for a shot a vodka and Shashlik platter – Russian Style!
The take away message for all of you is that life should be exciting, adventure should exists in all that do, challenge should be embraced, your work should be your passion and your dreams should materialize constantly. Don’t ever settle for anything less! Because IT IS POSSIBLE if you believe it.
I’d like to thank Moe Althani and Reach Out to Asia for making me a part of this adventure! We’ve got a great little film on our hands.
Over and out.
Elia Saikaly
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