Climbing Everest With a Fractured Fibula, One Step at a Time
This article on climbing Mt. Everest is an installment of the Men’s Journal Everyday Warrior series, which features advice, key interviews, and tips for living a life of consistent impact, continuous growth, and continual learning.
Editor’s Note: We do not condone or recommend performing high-risk adventures while injured.
Sometimes life hits us when we least expect it. Everything is in order, everything seems to be going just fine, then BAM. We take a hit. Overwhelmed and paralyzed with fear, it’s easy to be crippled by inaction. But what if there was a more effective way to respond? I was recently on assignment at Mt. Everest, where my job was to document an expedition to the top of the world.
At the ripe age of 43, I’m realistic about the fact I don’t heal like I did in my twenties. Expeditions take a toll on your body. Extreme altitude kicks your butt, as does hauling a heavy pack across dangerous terrain while slinging a camera uphill. To maximize my performance, I build in a number of rest days in Kathmandu to adjust to the major time zone difference from my home in Canada (ahead 9 hours 45 minutes). The recipe for success is simple: Show up rested and fit, remain healthy (body, mind, and emotion), manage your stress, have a solid plan, remain humble, make good decisions, and you’re off on the right foot.
Off on the wrong foot
While walking back to my hotel through the narrow alleys of Kathmandu, I was side-swiped by a motorcycle. It felt like someone smashed my fibula, the bone just below the knee, with a hammer. I limped back to my hotel. By the time I reached the stairwell leading to my room, I knew something wasn’t right.
After FaceTiming my physiotherapist and going through the standard RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, elevation), I knew I needed help. Bailing on the expedition was not only going to cost my client a lot of money, it was going to seriously disappoint my team and let everyone down. That was not an option.
An x-ray at the clinic revealed no injuries. I insisted something was not right so the orthopedic surgeon recommended an MRI. Three hundred dollars later, the results revealed a fracture in the head of my fibula. I returned to the Nepali surgeon with the results and after hearing him say, “Your expedition is over,” I politely looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, I’ve spoken to my team and they’ve explained to me that it’s a non-weight bearing bone. Plus, I’ve been to the summit of Everest four times. Given it’s fractured just the right way, why don’t we focus on a solution rather than the problem?” He looked at me, incredulous, but nodded.
By this time, the lead guide of the expedition arrived and I leveled with him, saying, “Don’t panic, but I was hit by a motorcycle and have a fractured fibula. I can manage the situation.”
Kenton Cool, a British climber and friend, aiming for his sixteenth summit of Mt. Everest, replied, “I trust you.”
Understanding the risks
I reassured him that if I could get to basecamp without issue, I could climb to the top of Everest. I informed my clients and assured them they had nothing to worry about. While I knew the risks, I also knew the terrain extremely well. I was more concerned about the trek to Everest than I was the climb. The likelihood of injuring myself on the rocky terrain in the lowlands outweighed the more predictable ice slopes on Mt. Everest. After 10 expeditions, I know the classic South Side route in Nepal like the back of my hand.
My plan was to rely heavily on my Nepalese camera support crew and my assistant, Pasang Kaji Sherpa. I kept my pack light and had no issue handing over my camera to my local film crew to conserve energy. They understood the situation and were happy to support me. I also relied on a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, two knee braces, and painkillers. Should my body truly say no, I was prepared to throw in the towel. I didn’t want to put my life at risk nor the life of anyone else.
Making the climb
I made my way from village to village and trekked while filming from the base to the top of the world. Cautiously, I did my job while navigating the terrain. Trekking 900 vertical meters to a viewpoint outside the village of Pheriche gave me the confidence that I made the right decisions. I listened to my body closely, made adjustments when necessary, and took it one step at a time.
By the time I reached basecamp at 17,500 feet above sea level, I began to experience classic symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Minor headaches and poor quality of sleep is common while adjusting to altitude. The more concerning issue for me was the cocktail of anti-inflammatories and pain killers wreaking havoc on my stomach. They were causing indigestion and severe stomach cramps. I decided to pivot in response to the discomfort and eliminated the meds from the plan. The rest of the journey was executed with a knee brace and will power.
I was lucky that the bone fractured perfectly. Had it been my knee, this expedition and assignment would have been over. The mountains have taught me that how we respond determines our outcome. It’s the same in life. When things go wrong:
- Remain calm
- Assess the situation
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
- Take control of the situation
- Formulate a plan
- Calculate the risks
- Be transparent with your team
- Be responsible and honest while carrying out the plan
- Don’t be afraid to admit defeat
I knew I was riding a thin line, but I also knew my craft and the mountain extremely well and trusted my experience. I was realistic and ready to call it quits long before exposing myself to dangerous terrain. Everest typically takes 6 to 7 weeks to summit due to the long acclimatization process. Our team summited in 4 weeks as planned and I filmed the journey with my right-hand man, Pasang Kaji Sherpa. I have an incredible local team to thank for supporting me every step of the way.
Life throws curve balls at us and it’s important to avoid the fear-paralysis when it happens and be prepared to respond. Lean into your experience and focus on the solution, not the problem. There is always a way through.
Elia Saikaly is an award-winning adventure filmmaker based in Ottawa, Canada. He has participated in over 25 world-class expeditions, including ten to Mt. Everest. He is the only Canadian to summit the world’s tallest mountain five times. In 2021, he reached the summit of K2, the 2nd tallest mountain on Earth.
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