Nirmal “Nims” Purja might be best known for the now-infamous photo he took on May 22 of a traffic jam of climbers high on Mt. Everest, but more compelling than the snapshot itself is the overlooked story behind the image. After snagging the shot en route to his second successful ascent of Everest, Purja went on to summit 27,940-foot Lhotse and 27,838-foot Makalu, the world’s fourth- and fifth-tallest mountains, all within a 48-hour window.
With that summit-tagging spree, the 34-year-old capped the first of three phases of Project Possible, a quest to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in a single season. (The current record is eight years.) Kicking off Phase One on April 23, Purja climbed Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in a month. During Phase Two in July, he ticked off Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, K2, and Broad Peak in just nine days. That leaves only three more peaks, Manaslu, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma, which Purja hopes to summit in a window between late September and early October. If he succeeds, Nims will have climbed all the world’s highest mountains in under seven months, an astonishing record.
Unlike most accomplished Nepalese climbers, Purja is from the country’s lowlands, not the high mountains, and he only started climbing in 2012, summiting his first 8,000-meter peak, Dhaulagiri, in 2014. Instead of spending a lifetime burnishing his climbing skills and credentials, Purja spent six years in the Ghurka Brigade, a band of Nepalese soldiers within the British Army, before moving up to the British special forces, where he served until 2018. Given his lack of climbing achievements and notoriety, Purja has struggled to find support for Project Possible, even as he closes in on completing the historic feat. We caught up with him in London, where he was beating the streets to drum up funding for the final phase of climbing.
Your Everest photo is a flashpoint for how bad climbing has become. What do you think?
The number of people on Everest this year was no different than last year. Everybody happened to climb on the same day. It’s just a question of management. The Nepalese government is working on a plan to require that anyone who climbs Everest must first climb a 7,000-meter peak in Nepal. There are steps that can be taken to improve the situation.
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. I’m thinking weather I should hit K2 this winter or not 🤔. #k2winter2019 . K2 remains the only 8000m peak that still remains unclimbed in winter. . There has been numerous attempts so far but all unsuccessful. . The only problem for me would be the funding. . . . 📸 @mingma_david_sherpa #nimsdai #believer #uksf #bremontprojectpossible #bremontwatches #S300 #14peaks7months #persistence #nolimits #humanendeavour #limitless #selfbelief #determination #positivemindset #beliveinyourself #thrudark #hamasteel #digi2al #everence #summitoxygen #inmarsat #alwaysalittlehigher
A post shared by Nirmal Purja MBE – Nimsdai (@nimsdai) on Aug 4, 2019 at 10:26pm PDT
What made you decide to climb the 8,000-meter peaks in a season?
In 2017, I was on Everest as a lead instructor. The team that was supposed to set the lines for the year was delayed because of weather, but then me and my team were able to do it a few days later, and my whole team summited. That year, I climbed Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu all in four days, which was a world’s first, though I only did it that fast because I had to return to work. That’s when I realized that I had so much energy left and that I do really well at altitude. So I started to think about doing all the 8,000-meter peaks in a season.
Why did you decide to call it Project Possible?
Before I started, when I spoke to anyone about the idea, whether it was people who knew nothing about climbing or gurus in the mountains, the immediate response was, “That’s impossible.” Even though nobody thought it could be done, I always believed it was possible.
It sounds like funding has been almost as difficult as the logistics and climbing?
To get this off the ground, I had to take a second mortgage against my house. I think it has been so hard because I’m basically a nobody in the climbing world. I was in the military for 16 years, so I had no resumé, no public profile, no social media presence. When this guy who no one has ever heard of comes along and says he is going to do this big, crazy thing, it must seem like a risky investment. But after the first phase, when I climbed six peaks but also lead four unplanned rescues in the process, Bremont decided to come on board and support Phase Two. I think they could see that I was going to be able to do it. But with the rescues that we performed on the mountains, I think they also saw and believed in the humanity of my approach.
What has been the most difficult thing you’ve done so far?
Kanchenjunga. [The world’s third highest peak at 28,169 feet.] Not only did I already summit Annapurna, where I organized a rescue operation on the way down, but I had just summited Dhaulagiri and hadn’t had any rest at all for four straight days. Most people climb the mountain in stages, from camp to camp, but we landed at base camp at 11 a.m. and reached the summit of Dhaulagiri 22.5 hours later. On the way down, we met a climber and his Sherpa who had run out of oxygen. I gave them my oxygen, and me and Mingma, my climbing partner, started the rescue operation to save them. That means lowering them down very slowly, and we were doing it without our oxygen because we gave it to them. People ask me why I climb with oxygen, and this is exactly the reason. I can function just fine without it. But this gives me the ability to help others.
There were 40 climbers at Camp 4 below us, and we sent word that we needed help. We kept expecting headlamps, but no one ever came. When my oxygen ran out, the climber expired. After that, I was physically drained, emotionally drained. I cried. Just to see how selfish people are. It’s one thing to climb a mountain, but we can’t forget that we are all people. This rescue, on top of all the climbing, is one of the hardest things I have done in my life.
What’s your favorite moment?
Definitely K2. That’s the only mountain where I doubted my ability. Some of the greatest climbers in the world had given up and gone home because the snow conditions were so bad, and the ones who were still there were waiting to see if we could open the route. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to do it. But then we got a good window and we were able to set the fixed lines, and me and my team became the first people to climb K2 this year.
Do you worry about danger?
You have to think about the risk. It was a concern at K2. But to be honest, I don’t get too phased by the problems in the mountains. I’ve told everyone all along, the only reason I won’t be able to finish would be something environmental. If an avalanche took me out, or something about the weather. But those things are out of my hands, so I don’t worry about them. I think the bigger risk for the project is the funding, but you just have to believe that it will happen and keep moving forward.
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. Keeping it cool on the summit of #g2 . Here’s my guiding partner @elitehimalayanadventures @mingma_david_sherpa filming. Wait and watch the clip till then end 🤙🏼 . Next year, the whole of my team will be guiding on Aconcagua in jan; Everest in April & May; Broad peak and K2 in Jun & July. . Contact @elitehimalayanadventures if you fancy having the experience of climbing with us. . . . @elitehimalayanadventures Exped calling. . . . #nimsdai #uksf #14peaks7months #bremontprojectpossible #silxo #ospreyeurope #antmiddleton #digi2al #adconstructiongroup #omnirisc #summitoxygen #inmarsat #thrudark #gurkhas #sherpas #persistence #nolimits #humanendeavour #limitless #selfbelief #determination #positivemindset #beliveinyourself #elitehimalayanadventures #alwaysalittlehigher
A post shared by Nirmal Purja MBE – Nimsdai (@nimsdai) on Sep 8, 2019 at 5:35am PDT
You have three peaks remaining: Manaslu, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma. How do they compare to what you have already done?
They are the easiest. I hope to start on September 5 and finish on October 22. I am guiding on these peaks during that time; I have to pay for my climbs. So I will do the summits between work. The money is the real challenge. I am on the third phase and I have raised $50K, which is only half of what I need. I’m just an unknown climber. I don’t have funds for PR. So I’m asking for 10 pounds, 20 pounds. It’s mostly by small donation. It has been very hard. Hopefully someone will come up with the support. I believe it will happen.
If you succeed, do you have other big plans?
The biggest prize will hopefully be a documentary. There will also be some books. And I will be guiding. I need to pay off all the debt from this project.
What do you want people to take away from Project Possible?
People should never stop dreaming big. I’m just a poor guy from a small village in Nepal. I barely had money for sandals. You just have to keep believing you can do big things.