On October 29, when Nirmal “Nims” Purja stepped onto the summit of Tibet’s 26,335-foot Shishapangma, he wrapped up a record-shattering odyssey to climb all of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in a single season. Purja climbed the planet’s 14 highest mountains in six months and six days, obliterating the previous fastest time of seven years, 10 months, and six days.
“Nobody thought it could be done, but I always believed it was possible,” Purja says. “I had to go through so many unplanned problems, but I always kept believing that I would break the record.”
The accomplishment is rare in any time frame—only 40-odd people in history have climbed all 8,000-meter peaks. But doing them so quickly is a physical and logistical feat without precedent. So why haven’t you heard of Purja? Unlike similar exploits in the Himalayas by most Western mountaineers, the story got precious little bandwidth in the U.S. A few major news sources, including one of the country’s top climbing magazines, skipped over the exploit completely. One reason why is that Purja, from southern Nepal, didn’t have a big brand behind him ready to push out press releases and social media posts. Purja’s feat, called Project Possible, was largely a DIY affair. He essentially bootstrapped himself to the top of each peak, making his accomplishment all the more intriguing.
“Climbing one 8,000-meter peak isn’t a big deal,” says Conrad Anker, one of America’s best-known alpinists. “Climbing them all in such rapid succession is truly incredible.” Anker says that few people could withstand the physical toll of so much climbing at altitude. “After a six- to eight-week season on Everest, for just one summit, I’d be drained for months,” he says.
Purja climbed in three phases. During the first one, in spring 2019, he climbed six of the 14 peaks in a single month, including Mount Everest. During phase two, in July, he ticked off five more mountains, including what is widely considered the most difficult, Pakistan’s K2, in just over three weeks. Brutal weather on that mountain had stymied all attempts the season before, but Purja opened the route in 2019 by fixing the ropes to the top himself. Starting in late September, he completed a sweep of the last three mountains, summiting them over 37 days, a stretch that would have been quicker had it not taken special permission from China to climb the final peak, Shishapangma.
Purja’s near hang-up on Shishapangma hints at the massive logistical challenges of the undertaking. Each summit required permits, gear, support teams, transportation, and luck with weather and timing. And there was a large budget to manage, too: Purja said the third phase alone cost $100,000. Though the Bremont watch company came on board as a sponsor following the first phase, Project Possible was largely run on a shoestring, with the majority of the costs crowdsourced and Purja squeezing his climbs between jobs as a mountain guide. He sandwiched the ascent of 26,864-foot Cho Oyu into a three-day window in the middle of guiding clients up Manaslu, the eighth-highest peak in the world. And rather than celebrate after Shishapangma, he returned to Ama Dablam within days to guide more clients to the 22,349-foot summit.
“To get this off the ground, I had to take a second mortgage against my house,” says Purja. “More than the climbing, the money was always the biggest challenge.”
Unlike most Nepalese climbers, Purja is from the country’s lowlands, not the high mountains, and he started climbing only 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 Brigade of Gurkhas, a band of Nepalese soldiers within the British Army, before moving up to the British special forces, where he served for a decade, until 2018.
“Building a public persona, telling your story, and developing sponsor relationships all take time. And obviously, patience isn’t Nims’ strong suit,” says Freddie Wilkinson, an American alpinist who has written extensively about climbing. “Take his three-week linkup of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, and Kanchenjunga. Most professional mountaineers would dine out on that with a book, a documentary, and a couple of years of slideshows.” Purja instead completed three more peaks, including Everest, in nine days.
The truth is that the importance of Purja’s accomplishments—and its attention in the media—often hinge on the audience, including the sport’s old guard. While climbing an 8,000-meter peak is still considered a triumph by most people, it’s unremarkable in climbing circles. The cutting edge of the sport lies in exploration and first ascents without oxygen. Mountaineers also place a high value on self-supported expeditions, whereas the majority of people who climb 8,000-meter peaks, including Purja, use Sherpas to carry gear, fixed ropes, and supplemental oxygen. “What he has done is quite extraordinary, but it isn’t mountaineering,” Chris Bonington, the British alpinist, told The Times. “Real mountaineering is exploratory…. I don’t see this as a major event.”
Despite those purist attitudes, Purja has plenty of supporters in the mountain world. The Italian climber Simone Moro, who has previously decried the industry around 8,000-meter peaks as “high-altitude tourism,” commended Purja. Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, also saluted the Gurkha climber, writing that Purja demonstrated “a great capacity for economic management, leadership, logistics organization. And obviously, exceptional physical resistance.”
There’s also an important cultural component to Purja’s accomplishment. While Himalayan alpinism has been dominated by Westerners and Sherpas, a mountain people, the fact that Purja is a soldier from the flatlands made many underestimate him—and then overlook his accomplishment. “Western mountaineers stereotype local guides as strong, silent, simple people. But Nims is brash, outspoken, and complicated,” says Wilkinson. “I think he has the opportunity to be a transformative figure for the mountain people of Nepal.”
Purja is certainly working hard at such a legacy. Even as he manages speaking engagements and a documentary film about Project Possible that he hopes will help pay off the debt he racked up, he already has his eyes on the next prize. Nepal has kicked off a tourism campaign for 2020 aimed at boosting visits. As part of that effort, Purja hopes to put up a new route this year on the Nepal side of Cho Oyu and bring more climbers to his country, inspiring even bigger ambitions than his.
“I’m just a poor guy from a small village in Nepal. I barely had money for sandals before all of this,” he says. “I hope my story will help everyone to remember that you should never stop dreaming big.”
Nims Purja + Project Possible: By the Numbers
190: Days it took to complete the feat (2,674 days faster than the previous record)
2: Number of freeze-dried meals Purja tried and disliked. He fueled himself entirely on dal bhat, the Nepali national dish of rice, lentils, fried meat, vegetables, and naan.
42: Climbers other than Purja who have summited all 14 8,000-meter peaks.
380,469: Total cumulative feet of elevation that Purja climbed.
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