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.Read More »
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.
7 years ago, life decided to throw an unexpected curve ball my way and how I chose to respond forever altered my path. I was asked to shoot a documentary in the Himalayas about a man named Dr. Sean Egan who was attempting to become the oldest Canadian to summit the world’s tallest mountain. At the time, I was running a small video production company that specialized in corporate, weddings and training videos. The only problem was that I had never even slept in a tent!
I essentially grew up with a video camera in my hand making short films with my friends, shooting punk rock shows and producing skateboarding videos. That evolved into working as a news cameraman at the age of 19, entertainment journalist for Much Music (Canada’s MTV) then eventually an actor/model (please don’t ask!) followed by filmmaker of all things related to music videos and independent short films. I had a strong background in bodybuilding a(held a world record in powerlifting) and I had a reputation for being a jack of all trades in the video production business. I could shoot, cut, direct and produce. In the spring of 2005, I got a call out of the blue (with two weeks notice) to shoot a Mt. Everest documentary. Why me? Because not only could I do it all and I was incredibly strong and fit.
To make a very long and emotional story short (there is a film and tons of videos on youtube about FindingLife) my dear friend Sean, the subject of my documentary, tragically died during the production. He never made it home, n’or did he succeed in reaching the summit. Shattered, I felt incredibly lost and powerless. What made Sean so incredibly unique (apart from his charming Irish personality) was his purpose for climbing Everest and the message he carried with him about the importance of being fit, healthy and happy in life. I decided to trust my instincts, follow my heart and chose to retrace his footsteps up the world’s tallest peak to complete the documentary we started making together. For the next 5 years of my life, I climbed Everest three times, two of which I turned back 500ft from the summit and then eventually reached the top of the world with his spirit at 29, 035ft in May of 2012. It was the most difficult, emotional and life altering 5 years of my life.
What makes my path quite different from many others out there is that I use my expeditions and filmmaking to create positive change in the lives of communities across the world and in the lives of youth in Canada. For example: while most people are busy climbing in these incredibly harsh high altitude sub zero environments, I climb, shoot, cut, grade, score and broadcast in near-real time. Seldom is there power, internet or infrastructure. My edit suite is often comprised of a yellow tent, a headlamp and a -40c sleeping bag. I sleep with my batteries, battle exposure and potential frostbite while handling my cameras and continually increase my chances of high altitude edema by three fold by working so hard in low oxygen environments.
While most are resting and concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other, I’m focused on creating moving pictures. It’s strenuous, incredibly taxing mentally, physically and emotionally and flat out dangerous! In the same (short) breath, it’s exhilarating, meaningful and nothing short of living a dream each and every time. The expedition I am most proud of was my final and successful Mt. Everest climb where my 2 man team and I (in addition to 4 Nepalese Sherpas) created a webisodic series which was produced on location in Nepal and broadcast it back via the web to 20 000 Canadian students while climbing to the top of the world.
Now imagine this: As a high altitude filmmaker, every time you decide to roll camera, you’re expending energy that you need for your summit climb. When you do decide to roll, you need to be conscious of how much time/energy it will require to catch up to the group or the subject you’re following. This is exhausting at altitude. If you manage to catch up to the subject(s), you’re likely out of breath and unable to stabilize the camera due to your breathing. If you’re ambitious and want to get ahead of the group to create a shot of the entire group coming towards you, you need to manage that energy as well. You’re carrying your heavy camera gear in addition to all of the gear that everyone else is carrying. You’re wearing crampons (spikes on the bottom of your boots) and you risk tripping and falling down the mountain while destroying your equipment. In addition, you worry about storytelling, audio, interviews and the grandest of challenges, backing up all of your footage and recharging all of your batteries while everyone is sleeping peacefully after their arduous day. The lack of rest and exhaustion you experience hinders your body’s ability to properly acclimatize and lessons your chances of a) being safe and b) summiting the mountain. The beautiful part of the deal (sarcasm) is that the more you worry about all the things that can go wrong the greater the toll the altitude takes on you and again, the less chances you have to success. They say the worst thing to do is run around at altitude. That’s exactly what you do as a cameraman.
When it comes to shooting in low oxygen environments, it’s really a calculated science of fitness, mountaineering experience, technical knowledge and ability at sea level, your ability to adapt to what you can’t control and of course, mother nature’s mood! Oftentimes at altitude you’re barely able to walk 20 steps to relieve yourself after a day of climbing due to exhaustion, so imagine how much mental and physical strength it takes to get a simple shot on a tripod. And of course, it’s this hard when the weather is good, imagine when the weather is bad. And then of course, that’s the best footage. Conflict, drama, man vs. self vs. nature is what it’s often about.
In 2010, after my successful climb to the summit of Everest, I decided it was time to make the plunge into the world of DSLR filmmaking. I was quite nervous as my Sony-HDV Z1U had served me incredibly well in cold and unpredictable environments. The Z1U was light enough and weatherproof enough that it could withstand the worst of conditions. (See article about burying it in the snow for 5 days at 17, 000ft on one of the coldest mountains on Earth). For the early part of my adventure filmmaking career I had 2 Sony Z1U’s and a small Sony A1U. Since 2010, I now carry an arsenal of cameras and toys which regularly go where I go including everything from a 5d, 7D, t3i, a mixed kit of primes, an array of 2.8 lenses all made by Canon, a Glidetrack, a Glidecam, multiple Go Pro’s, Zacuto add on’s… you know, everything we all use as DSLR filmmakers including an H4N and shotgun mic. I bring the 2 extra bodies as I am often time-lapsing at night and in the event that one falls into a crevasse!
If someone was to ask me how to get into the adventure filmmaking business I’d tell them this: To be taken seriously, you need a successful track record as an adventurer first. I had a fair amount of filmmaking experience, but I had never even slept in a tent. I essentially had to prove myself as a climber. That included climbing 5 of the 7 summits of the world and 3 Mt. Everest expeditions. In the beginning most of it was self financed and I pretty much ruined my financial life. Few understood what I was doing as it made no financial sense at the time. I essentially used the money from selling my condo, car, personal belonging and small video production business, in addition to ridiculous loans in excess of 50K to develop my ‘resumee.’ It then became about creating pretty pictures and telling compelling stories with dramatic narratives in these environments. From there, I started trying to get my work out there through word of mouth (the circles are small) social media, media garnered from my expeditions and any television support I could get. Of course, in addition, your work always needs to speak for itself.
At the end of the day, I climb because it’s a platform I can use to make a difference. What started as a documentary shoot, evolved into a life changing experience and a non-profit organization that I run called www.findinglife.ca. My team of volunteers and I have run many successful expeditions around the world. Throughout the expeditions, Canadian kids has been so inspired that they’ve raised funds through school outreach campaigns during our expeditions and together we’ve built a well, a school and classrooms for disadvantaged communities in Kenya with charitable partners in different parts of the world. I recently established a production company called FindingLife Films and an Adventure Film School. Both of these businesses (I prefer social enterprises) were essentially established as part of a sustainable model to support my non-profit activities. As a non-proft organization that doesn’t charge for its services, it’s incredibly difficult to make all of this happen year after year, but I do it because it matters, I do it because I am making a difference and I do it because… well, I love it and it’s my calling.
As filmmakers, we’re gifted with the ability to reach and touch people through our craft where it counts the most; by way of emotions. My hope is that more filmmakers out there realize the power of their craft and exercise the ability they have to affect people into action and create positive change.
I’m currently typing this out in London, England. I’m in transit on my way to Russia where I’ll be climbing the highest mountain in Europe and shooting an all Arab expedition up Mt. Elbrus. I’m 100% DSLR on this one and I’ve got wayyyyy too much gear with me. 75KG worth including my climbing equipment! I’m nervous, excited and I can’t wait to get above the clouds!
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I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in the airport lounge in Atlanta in 2008, on my way to Russia to climb the highest mountain in Europe, when I looked up at the monitor and read the headline “War erupts between Russia and Georgia”. I could hardly believe what I was seeing on television.Read More »
We live in a world of certainty-dependency. We are dependent on knowing all of the answers, the outcome, the timelines and the return on our investments. Now, don’t get me wrong, certainty is a great thing, especially when it comes to family, children, money, investments, our health and so on. However, not everything in life needs to revolve around certainty. Not everything in life should be measured by what we can see and what we can scientifically or mathematically predict.
What I’ve learned is that if you feel the need to control everything in your life and you choose to play it safe at all times, you are missing out on one of life’s greatest teachers: Uncertainty. Because therein lies the field of all possibility. It’s where the magic happens and where your ultimate potential exists. What scares you the most is what will ultimately become your greatest teacher.
Last summer, I felt I needed to chase the unknown and the four letters that came to me were: P-E-R-U. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know how — I just knew. I also trusted that the answers would reveal themselves when I arrived. And that was enough for me.
I fired off an email to my travel agent, booked a flight that very same day and a few short weeks later found myself in Peru living one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I hired a local French-speaking Peruvian guide and visited temples and lost cities, walked and climbed amidst buried Inca civilizations, shot time lapse photography under an ocean of stars, spent evening after evening sipping wine and feasting on Lomo Saltado (a local delicacy), capturing life through my lens, wildlife extraordinaire, local community projects, historical ruins, visiting spiritual hotspots, developing friendships with local people, trekking in the Sacred Valley and of course, I visited the ruins of Machu Picchu.
I could write for days about the energy I felt and the richness of every moment spent in the Sacred Valley. Imagining life before the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire is inevitable with such vibrant and genius architecture surrounding you at every turn. I can articulate every vibration of my soul as I walked upon the sacred sites of the Land of the Incas and experienced the splendor and stupor of Machu Picchu.
The inability to comprehend how or why this ancient city existed, while imagining what it must have been like for them to hide it during the Spanish invasion, leaves your imagination stimulated for a lifetime. I could attempt to spell out the beauty of this country, describe through words the emotions I experienced and the revelations I concluded, particularly as I climbed to the summit of an ancient Inca watch point before sunrise in the darkness of the night… but I won’t. I’ll leave it for you to experience for yourself so you too can feel the awesome power and energy that Peru has to offer.
Today, nearly one year later I am returning to the beautiful land of the Incas to scout a new project for my not for profit youth organization FindingLife. I will also be developing the June 2013, FindingLife Film School workshop and some of the exciting adventure based activities that we are offering. Of course, as always it will all be documented on video to share with all of you. From there, it’s unknown territory as my itinerary takes a 180 degree turn as I head towards the jungle city of Iquitos where I’ll be working on another special documentary project. And finally, I’ll be greeting 5 brave adventurers who will be joining me for a week in the Amazon. I am excited and somewhat nervous about the the unknown nature of this adventure, but as always, my belief is that unknown and the uncertainty is what makes life so incredibly exciting. Not knowing the outcome keeps us open to all that is possible. Sometimes to possibilities we never even imagined. Excited to see what happens next!
See you in PERU.
EliaRead More »
“Don’t you hate seeing posts on Facebook of THAT GUY posting all of his vacation pictures online? Like… How annoying? Is it because secretly you’re wishing that it was you?” Those were the words that came through my car’s FM radio last week. It was an ad for a travel company selling all inclusive packages to Mexico. They’re hitting us exactly where it hurts – On The Social Media Network – Facebook.
Yup, it certainly got my attention. Not because I wanted to go to Mexico for a week, but rather because I hoped that I wasn’t THAT GUY! This blog is written for you everyone. The wanna-be traveler, the adventurer, the mom, the dad, the sister, the crazy young kid, student or soul searcher. Here are a few thoughts and ideas for you to keep in mind the next time you try to convince yourself that you CAN’T travel the world and live the greatest adventures of your life.
First of all, I’ll start with my experience. And please keep in mind that 6 years ago I had never traveled or slept in a tent! In the past 48 months I’ve traveled to Kenya 3 times, Tanzania, Peru, Tibet, India, all across the US, I’ve explored every UNESCO world heritage site in Canada including the incredibly remote Nahanni National Park by canoe, I’ve slept in a hammock under the stars on the Island of Zanzibar and climbed to the top of the world. On each journey I was doing something that mattered deeply to me that was extremely fulfilling. How you ask? I’m going to start by expelling a myth right away: I make a very modest income and by no stretch am I independently wealthy. In fact, because I’ve chosen to donate 80% of my time to running my charity (without pay) I likely make much less money than most people out there. The fact is this: It is all about choices.
Ask yourself the following questions: What kind of car do you drive? What kind of clothes do you wear? Where do you live? How many lattes do you drink a week? How do you socialize? What decisions have you made in your life when it comes to commitments? If you have children or are married how conventional is your way of life? If you’re a student or young adult, are you setting yourself up and making decisions so that you have the freedom to live a life of your dreams? The answer to some of these questions may very well be the very reason why you are not traveling and contributing the way your heart desires.
I guess for me, it started when I was 14. Yes, that’s me! I was introduced to punk rock music. On the surface level it was a bunch of guys with mohawks. Loud music, screaming guitars and raunchy vocals with a message of anarchy and rebellion. That’s what my parents heard anyway. Here is what I heard. Learn to think for yourself. Learn to form your own opinions. Learn to be your own individual. See the system of our society in the West for what it is. Don’t become a victim of mass marketing and trends. Don’t allow anyone to tell you how to live your life, what to become or most importantly WHO to become.
This changed everything for me.
Then in 2005, it all changed again.
I traveled to Nepal and it was as though I was reborn. I learned from some of the ‘poorest’ people in the world that richness is not about what we have, it’s about who we are. I learned the beauty of simplicity. I learned the value of inner peace. I understood that life was impermanent and could be gone in an instant. I learned to treasure the PRESENT, our greatest gift. And to LIVE it.
So how does all of this apply to traveling the world?
I’m suggesting you look at what may be holding you back.
1) Ask yourself – How simple is my life?
2) Have I forgotten how to dream?
3) How much emphasis am I putting on what I wear, where I live, what I drive and how I’m perceived by others? Does this define who I am? Is it how I’ll be remembered?
4) How much of how I live my life is based on other people’s beliefs and expectations? How I raise my family? Where I go to school? How I choose to spend my time? And if none of the above resonates, what is holding me back other than myself?
I’m not suggesting any of the above is unimportant. Because clearly it is in our society in the West. Family life, school, work, careers, fashion etc… Of course it’s important, but so is growth, personal exploration and happiness. What I’m suggesting is that the answer to how to do it, how to travel the world, live the life of your dreams and contribute and serve others at the highest level is hidden within yourself, your choices and what you choose to believe or NOT believe.
We are taught at a young age to have dreams, yet as we age and ‘grow up’ we forget those dreams and we certainly forget to forge new ones. We become very busy and lose sight of what truly makes us happy. MANY of us could be traveling the world and living the life of our dreams with a few simple adjustments.
Once you’ve asked yourself the above questions, ask yourself where you’d really like to be. Then ask, why am I not there now?
I’ve seen families traveling in the Himalayas with their young children giving their kids the greatest learning experience of their lives. I recently met a couple in Peru, 2 school teachers who make a very modest income, traveling with their teen-agers. Young adults in their 20′s traveling 8 countries on a few dollars a day learning more about themselves and the world than they ever could on Google or Facebook. I’ve even seen 60 year-old’s partying in Peru, exploring the world with a new found partner rediscovering what it is to be alive. How? They’ve made choices. Never too young, never too old and certainly never too late.
At the end of the day unless you’re independently wealthy you’ll likely never be able to frequently travel the world unless you make lifestyle decisions that enable you to have the freedom to live your greatest travel dreams. The sunrise over Machu Picchu, swimming with dolphins in the ocean, Yoga in Zanzibar, summiting Kilimanjaro, falling in love, connecting with other people, building a school in Africa and learning about the person you really are…. AWAITS.
Ad Astra everyone.
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Have you ever found yourself asking the question “ I wonder if there
is something more out there for me?” Unsettled or unsatisfied with
your current reality? Constantly feeling as though there is higher
calling, some other path that you could travel, perhaps a more
meaningful reality that you could one day refer to as the adventure
known as ‘your life’?
I remember when it happened to me. It was my very first trip to the
Himalayas. At the time, I was 26 years-old and I was running a video
production company called Reel Concepts.
I had invested 4 years of my life in the business and built it from the ground up. I had my
employees, I was making very good money and I had an impressive list
of clients in the nation’s capital – my home in Ottawa, Canada. Yet
somehow, I felt as though there was something missing.
I’d pursued a career as a musician, actor, model, film-maker and
entrepreneur. Each pursuit was in its own right an invaluable life
experience filled with triumph and failure, both of which shape us all
into the individuals we are today. A decade of commitment to my craft
as a filmmaker led me to being asked by a television producer to
embark on a journey that would forever change my life.
With 2 weeks notice, and absolutely ZERO experience in the outdoors
(including sleeping in a tent!) I found myself in the foothills of the
highest mountain on planet Earth as a cameraman filming an expedition
up the world’s tallest mountain. Life presented an opportunity for me
to explore and I took a leap of faith, trusted the universe and
literally dove off the cliff. I shared the news with my staff and was
on my way into the complete unknown.
I remember being at Everest basecamp in 2005, at an altitude of 17,
500ft above sea level in Nepal. For 2 months it is considered to be
one the highest inhabited places on Earth. Sleeping in a yellow tent
on a glacier that moves at the rate of one meter per day wasn’t
exactly within my comfort zone! The 360 degree panoramic view of the
Himalayas literally took my breath away! However, what truly inspired
me the most were the stories of the people I met. Stories of
adventure! Jungles, deserts and mountains. Experiences that these
climbers, both men and women, had lived that were comparable to a
perfectly scripted Hollywood film. It couldn’t possibly be real life,
could it? My imagination was running wild and being the dreamer that I
am, I wondered whether it would be possible to change my own reality
and live these kinds of adventures. The words that proceeded to come
of out mouth forever changed my life. “I want this. This is going to
become my reality”. I was prepared to do whatever it would take to
reshape my entire life.
Inspired by the simplistic lives of the beautiful people of Nepal, I
decided to simplify my life. I sold my brand new car, my condo, I shut
down my business, cashed in my life savings, borrowed tens of
thousands of dollars and began reshaping my life and career – I wanted
to become an adventure filmmaker and travel the world while making a
difference. I was 26, filled with passion and I was relentless. I
decided to invest everything I had in this little project called
For 6 years I embarked on journey after journey, 5 Himalayan
expeditions, 5 of the seven summits on 5 continents, deserts, oceans,
jungles and beyond. Film after film, experience after experience,
financial investment after financial investment, doing whatever was
necessary to pursue my dream. My life became a series of humbling
experiences, from ‘failure’ to reach summits, not being able to pay my
rent, moving back home with my parents and at times barely able to buy
groceries to feed myself. But every experience, whether positive or
less positive, served as a lesson I could learn from – these lessons
are the experiences of our lives that shape us into who we are. I
learned to embrace them all.
In time… it all paid off. The dream that I had, that few understood
has taken me to the far ends of the Earth and has evolved into a non
profit organization that is truly changing people’s lives. A day
doesn’t go by that I don’t express my sincerest gratitude for being in
the position that I am today.
As Westerners, many of us tend to get caught up in a material world,
we conform to the status quo and we become who others believe we need
to be. We lose the passion and excitement for what it is to live this
incredible gift we’ve all be given called life. We make life decisions
and accept that we cannot change our current reality. The truth is
that we always have a choice. It’s easy to forget that what truly
matters is being happy in life and often that begins with tuning into
what our hearts are really trying to tell us. It can be a terrifying
experience listening to what your heart craves, whether that ‘crazy’
idea or that wildest dream, but let me tell you, the day that you
listen to that inner voice and follow your greatest passion and take
all the right steps in making it your reality, trust me when I say,
you’ll never look back. Be courageous, be inspired, and act.
“Your life, is your adventure.”