How I became an adventure 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 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{c0d616ec23a1ea78237269fee999fd3e756e1235669a36003e38faaff0a7a27b} 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!

Elia Saikaly



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