In 2017, mountaineer Chris Bombardier became the first person with hemophilia to scale Mount Everest. “Bombardier Blood,” bowing on demand Aug. 17, captures the remarkable journey in which he attempts to complete his goal of climbing the Seven Summits — the highest mountain on each continent — while raising awareness of the blood disorder.
The film’s shoestring budget of $200,000 meant the production couldn’t bankroll an entire team to make the climb to the top, so Rob Bradford and Joshua Sterling Bragg, the DPs for writer-director Patrick James Lynch’s documentary, knew they would need to entrust Bombardier, a novice with a lens, to handle the camera for the toughest part of the shoot.
Bragg compiled a “cinematography bible” that considered what kind of shots to use on which part of the mountain. He turned to the matter-of-fact style of Renan Ozturk, a climber and DP on mountaineering films “Valley Uprising,” “Meru” and “Sherpa” for inspiration. “We didn’t want to sensationalize things,” Bragg explains.
The manual was essential, since base camp at Everest doesn’t have a reliable internet connection; more than 1,000 people share the same bandwidth. In the event of unplanned incidents, the DPs discussed possible alternative shots with Bombardier. Still, it would be up to the climber to decide if he wanted to keep rolling “since you never know what’s going to happen up there,” says Bragg.
Bradford accompanied Bombardier as far as base camp, serving as a producer as well as cinematographer there. He grew up hiking trails in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, but base camp at Everest was almost three times higher than the Blue Ridge summit. “Walking backward is something cameramen do all the time; setting up a shot on the side of a 30-degree piece of ice while trying to hold a tripod steady was a challenge,” he says.
Bradford also got shots like the one of Bombardier injecting himself with the medication that allows his blood to clot normally — essential to help heal any microtears that occur naturally in muscles exerted by strenuous physical activity.
Like all Everest climbers, Bombardier made a number of “rotations” up the mountain to acclimate himself to the reduced oxygen levels at high altitude — base camp elevation is roughly 17,600 feet above sea level, still more than 11,000 feet below the 29,000-foot summit. He climbed twice to successively higher levels before returning to camp to rest for the final push, an arduous weeklong journey.
Bombardier filmed each climb, gaining much-needed experience. On the first rotation, he accidentally captured footage in time-lapse mode, which meant that in playback, everything looked sped up, like a silent comedy.
Deciding on the right equipment to use required extensive research. “I knew the camera was going to freeze over every night and we’d need something that could take a beating,” says Bradford. They chose the GoPro5 for Bombardier’s ascent. (Bradford shot with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at base camp.) “We needed it to be simple,” explains Bradford. It was more important for Bombardier’s focus to be on his climb than on the subtleties of camerawork. Ease of use would be particularly handy since the freezing cold wouldn’t allow him the dexterity to fiddle with anything too extensively. For sound, they relied solely on the camera’s built-in microphone.
Bombardier had two cameras — one attached to his helmet or chest, the other that he could hand off to his guides to grab shots of his climb. “Chris would carry the GoPros up with him during his rotations and bring them back down for me to review and back up at base camp,” says Bradford, who worked to ensure the footage was captured in the best possible manner to expedite the editing process. On the rare occasions when Bradford did establish an internet connection, he would download stills from Bombardier and upload them to Bragg. Sending video was out of the question.
Before the climb began, Bragg set out to capture footage that would show the scope and scale of Bombardier’s accomplishment. He took drone shots of Bombardier around his hometown of Denver and followed him on local hikes. He used wide shots of him with his parents and, later, with members of the hemophiliac community in Nepal. Ultimately, each member of the community signed the flag Bombardier hoped to plant on the Everest summit.
“We wanted the audience to remember,” Bragg says, “how small he was in comparison to the world.”