Reaching New Heights

Chris Bombardier ’07 inspires others and breaks barriers with his record climbs.

By Ryan Mueksch

You can measure height, but you can’t measure heart.

The saying represents Chris Bombardier ’07 well.

At 5-foot-6, he has been living in what many would consider an underdog role—not because of his physical appearance, but because of a chronic medical condition.

Born with Hemophilia B, a rare bleeding disorder in which the blood doesn’t clot normally, the odds of having a “normal” life were not in his favor.

But for Chris, that was just fine. Because at 32 years old, what the Aurora, Colorado native has accomplished is far from ordinary.

Chris Bombardier '07 cross the Tyrolean Traverse Being physically active has always been a part of Chris’ nature. He began playing baseball at 4, and although he had to be careful, he never let the disease hinder his ability to play at full speed.

Still, Chris knew the risks. As a hemophiliac, even a minor injury could progress into major internal bleeding, especially into his joints and muscles.

Hemophilia can be treated with injections of a medication that replaces the protein in blood, but any bleed can have serious consequences, even after treatment.

As Chris entered high school, in order to continue playing baseball, he began a routine treatment regimen called prophylaxis. The preventive measure helps hemophiliacs maintain enough clotting factor in the bloodstream to prevent  most bleeds.

If he were to get hit by a pitch or cut himself sliding into a base, he could experience severe pain that would need to be treated immediately to stop the bleeding into his joints or muscles.

“With those bleeds, it starts out as an achy pain and gradually gets worse,” Chris explains. “It becomes a stabbing pain where any time you move, it feels like someone is trying to stab you in that muscle area. It’s the most intense pain I’ve    ever felt in my life.”

Still, Chris did more than just manage to get through the high school baseball season; he excelled.

After receiving a suggestion from his high school coach to visit colleges in Nebraska, Chris elected to make Doane one of those stops.

“I fell in love with Doane right away,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful campus and I was able to meet a bunch of the baseball players. They were very welcoming. I knew right after that trip that Doane was where I wanted to go.”

He and his mom, Cathy, sat down with then-Head Baseball Coach Jack Hudkins and Director of Student Health Kelly Jirovec (affectionately known as “Nurse Kelly” to Doane students) to discuss how he could play college ball.

 “I had never worked directly with a student who had hemophilia,” says Jirovec, “and in my 21 years here he’s the only student we’ve had at Doane who had hemophilia.”

“I’ll be honest,” adds Hudkins.

“It scared the heck out of me.”

Jirovec discussed precautions Chris would have to take so he’d have no restrictions on the field.

He felt comfortable in his ability to self-infuse. He knew that, with support from Jirovec and the athletic training staff, he was in good hands.

“I always admired his grit and determination,” says Assistant Athletic Director Cody Vance ’82, who drove the team to road games. “Honestly, the kid didn’t look like a player. He was short and thin—but man, he was tough. He was a tough kid and a tough player.”

Although Chris did not have many scares with his hemophilia while he was at Doane, there was one instance that caused everyone to hold their breath.

During a game against Hastings College in his freshman season, Chris pulled a muscle in the field, diving for a ball. The internal bleeding was so severe he had to be carried to the van for the ride back to Crete, where Vance carried him into the emergency room.

“Any time I sat up or laid down, I felt a pain in my hip like someone was trying to stab me,” Chris recalls. “It was incredibly painful for a long time because it takes a long time for the blood to get reabsorbed into the body.”

The injury caused Chris to be on crutches for three weeks.

Despite some setbacks, Chris never let that discourage him. He played baseball all four years and earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology degree from Doane in 2007.

Chris largely credits his time at Doane for his ability to grow as a person and learn how to manage his hemophilia independently, with the aid of Jirovec when needed.

Chris Bombardier has climbed six of the Seven Summits“I considered Nurse Kelly to be like a second mom,” he says. “She was always there when I needed someone to help me with my hemophilia. She’s a big reason why I’ve been able to manage my condition on my own now. I owe a lot to her.”

“When you have a lifelong chronic health issue, a lot of kids wouldn’t go far away from their parents,” Jirovec says. “Chris didn’t have the normal safety net of having Mom and Dad being here at the drop of a hat. He had to learn how to be on his own a little more than a student from Nebraska had to be.”

Back in Colorado after college, Chris realized he could make a difference by getting involved in the hemophilia community.

“The mental difficulties of dealing with hemophilia is something I’ve tried to share more with my community,” he says. “Growing up, I just wanted to be the same and be like all of my friends. Hemophilia unfortunately made me feel at times like I didn’t    fit in or that I had to prove that I wasn’t this weak person.”

Chris was doing everything he could to learn more about his condition, raise awareness, and develop relationships with other hemophiliacs.

In 2007, he began working as a researcher for the University of Colorado Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center, looking at new ways to monitor bleeding and clotting disorders.
Now that he wasn’t playing baseball, Chris was also looking for ways to stay active. He began spending time with his Uncle Dave, who took him rock climbing and mountaineering.

On a bitterly cold winter day, they had just reached the peak of a mountain at Arapahoe Basin near Keystone, Colorado, when Chris had a moment of clarity.

“The view was just stunning. I think that was the moment that everything just clicked, that I could have that physical and mental challenge I used to get from baseball but now you add in these incredible views. That was the moment I fell in love with the outdoors.”

Chris’ life hasn’t been the same since.

In May 2011, while working in the research lab at the University of Colorado, Chris was offered the chance to go to Kenya to set up a hemophilia lab and clinic. Without hesitation, he jumped at the opportunity.

The trip allowed him to pursue what have become his two biggest passions: mountaineering and helping others who have hemophilia.

The interactions Chris had with the Kenyans who had hemophilia was eye-opening.

“Being in Kenya, it shocked me that this is what hemophilia could look like,” he says. “It made me realize how fortunate I am to have the medicine and treatment that I do have. That was the moment everything changed, that I could be climbing for a bigger reason and a bigger cause.”

When Chris learned of his trip to Kenya, he contacted his uncle about the possibility of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Dave, who had climbed Denali before, felt confident in Chris’ ability to make the climb—even with his hemophilia.

The two hired a local outfitter to climb with them and were on the mountain for six days.

On June 3, 2011, Chris became the second known person with hemophilia to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

“It was nerve-wracking because I had never climbed a mountain that big, but I fell in love with it,” he says.

mountaingraphic-edit-web.jpg

That’s when another light bulb moment hit.

Although Chris wasn’t the first hemophiliac to summit Kilimanjaro, he knew that summiting six of the other seven summits had never been accomplished by someone who had hemophilia.

Now with a defined mission to raise awareness and money for hemophilia treatment across the world, what better platform to raise awareness than a pursuit to reach the top of the world.

“I want people to see that just because you have hemophilia, that doesn’t mean you’re a fragile or delicate person,” Chris says. »

“You can accomplish a lot, despite having hemophilia. I want to show people that if you take care of yourself, you can chase any dream that you want.”

Says his wife, Jessica: “I kind of liken when he first set the goal of climbing the Seven Summits to someone saying they want to go to school to become a brain surgeon. Like that’s awesome, that’s a lofty goal, but let’s take it one step at a time and see how we get there.”

Sure enough, that’s what they did.

Chris summited the highest mountain in South America, Aconcagua, in February 2013 and Europe’s highest, Mount Elbrus, five months later.

“I want to share with those that have hemophilia that the world is a lot different than what it has to look like,” he says.

In July 2014, he conquered Denali, and in March 2015, Carstensz Pyramid.

His climbs have been documented on a website called “Adventures of a Hemophiliac” and on a Facebook page by the same name.

With all but Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Mount Everest—literally the biggest peak of all—under his belt, Chris needed to find funding. He worked with Patrick Lynch, who owns Believe Limited, and is also a hemophiliac who creates educational programming through film. Lynch decided to document the historic journey and draw attention to the disparity in hemophilia care in developing countries, especially Nepal.

Human protein products manufacturer Octapharma sponsored the film, and Chris left for Nepal on March 26.Chris Bombardier drags sleds from Camp 1 to Camp 2 on Denali

The first week, he visited hemophilia patients in their homes, getting a glimpse of what hemophilia looks like for them in such poverty-stricken areas.

After forming some close relationships and providing education to these hemophilia patients, it was time to begin the climb.

Chris and his wife, Jessica, plus Save One Life founder Laurie Kelley, and Believe Unlimited’s Rob Bradford, traveled for nine days to Mount Everest’s base camp, which, at 17,500 feet, is higher than any point in the continental U.S.

After five days of allowing their bodies to acclimate to the elevation, they had to wait until the weather improved before setting out for the four stops between base camp and the summit.

“We had to wait at base camp for 16 days for a better weather window,” Chris says. “That was really challenging to wait for that long.”

Now 37 days into the expedition on the mountain, it was time for the summit push.

On the first day, Chris went from base camp to Camp 2—eight hours of climbing.

The following day was a rest day.

Day three of the summit push was a trip from Camp 2 to Camp 3—seven hours of climbing, and the first need for oxygen tanks.

On the fourth day, they made it to Camp 4, at 26,000 feet.

The same night the group arrived at Camp 4, they left for the summit at 11:00 p.m.

“That was one of the hardest days ever,” Chris recalls. “If you take two steps too fast you lose your breath. You have to get in a rhythm of taking a step, then two deep breaths. It’s really tedious and monotonous, and extremely challenging along the way.”

Hillary Step is the last obstacle to reach the summit, he says, and from » there, one can look all the way down to Camp 2, 9,000 feet below. After climbing for nearly 10 hours, Chris was doubting he would be able to make it.

“It just seemed like too much,” he says. “My Sherpa, Tashi, turned to me and said, ‘You’re not done. You can do this. You have a purpose.’ He got me moving. That was the biggest thing I needed at that moment.”

Slowly but surely, the two got through Hillary Step. It had now been 11 hours of climbing, through the night, since leaving Camp 4.

“I saw this whole group of people standing over a ridge and I turned to Tashi and said, ‘Is that the summit?’ He said, ‘Yes. We made it.’

“I just gave him this huge hug. I couldn’t believe it. It was the most emotional experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

On May 22, at 9:59 a.m., Chris made history. He had become the first hemophiliac to summit Mount Everest.P2090574-edited-web.jpg

“It was the most amazing view I have ever seen,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words. It was super powerful.”

As if the moment wasn’t special enough, Chris was able to share the news with his wife.

“Chris and I were somehow able to speak to each other through Facebook video chat through Rob’s phone, through the radio at the communication tent at base camp, through the radio at the summit,” Jessica says. “I felt like my stomach fell out of my body, it was an incredible moment. I was relieved, exhausted, and exuberant all at the same time. The rush of emotions is hard to describe.”

Ryan Waters, a professional mountaineer and good friend of the Bombardiers, was with Chris at the summit.

“It’s already hard—mentally and physically—to climb these mountains, but adding on the infusions and the reality that he could be hit by a falling object or a rock or piece of ice, he could sustain trauma that would be life-threatening. For me, it’s inspiring to see someone with a bleeding disorder be able to accomplish something like that.”

With only one of the seven summits left to conquer, Chris will continue to work to raise awareness and money for hemophilia care, most importantly, for those with limited care in impoverished countries.

His goal: to see every person who needs medical care with hemophilia in the world receive necessary treatment.

With every step he takes on the mountains, breaking down stereotypes surrounding people with hemophilia, Chris hopes they can be one step closer to his goal.

“Being persistent about your goals can lead you in an amazing direction,” he says. “I want people to look at my story and see that whatever your passion or dream is, you can accomplish it.”

For more photos and videos of Chris's travels, visit his website:
adventuresofahemophiliac.com

 

 

 

 

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