Meet the Climber Setting Speed Records on the World’s Highest Peaks

Nims Purja during Project Possible Climb
Courtesy of Bremont / Project Possible / Nims Purja

On Oct. 28, after achieving the summit of China’s Shishapangma, Nirmal “Nims” Purja set a new speed record for climbing the world’s 14 tallest peaks. He did it in 189 days, or six months and six days. The previous record was set in 2013 by Korean climber Kim Chang-ho. It took him seven years, 10 months, and six days. Before that, Polish alpinist Jerzy Kukuczka completed all 14 in seven years, 11 months, and 14 days in 1987.

For Bremont Project Possible, Purja’s all-Nepali team climbed via the standard routes, used supplemental oxygen, and sometimes used helicopters to transfer between peaks—aspects which have drawn criticism. According to climber and guide Adrian Ballinger, whose team followed Purja’s team up K2 for the first summits of the season, summiting the 14 tallest peaks in the world in just six months meant the Purja had to accept risks other climbers would not.

“Nims’ 14 peaks in six months took incredible tenacity and an almost unbelievable ability to recover quickly from one big day to the next,” says Ballinger. “What sticks with me though is the risk he had to be willing to take. There are not 14 perfect 8,000-meter peak summit days in six months. Not even close. To accomplish the goal, Nims had to accept marginal, and often downright bad, conditions and still make summit attempts. This dramatically increased the risk of things going wrong. Nims was willing to take those risks.”

They did back-to-back climbs in the “death zone,” or high altitudes where reduced oxygen strains the body, with no rest in between. They had to go for the summits despite horrendous weather conditions. Using supplemental oxygen allowed them to complete rescues of four of the 14 climbs, often giving up their oxygen to help fellow climbers.

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Purja and his team were the only ones to climb Shishapangma this season. China had closed the peak due to “unsafe conditions” during a time of political protests in the country. After getting a special permit to climb the peak, Purja’s team endured 75-kilometer-per-hour winds and an avalanche on the way to Camp 1. His team also broke trail and set the ropes on K2, making the first summit of the season and allowing the few remaining climbers to make the summit as well.

Purja credits his persistence to a decade of service in the U.K. special forces and a total of 16 years in the army (he was a Gurkha, an elite Nepali division of the British Army). His all-Nepali team included Mingma David Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, Gesman Tamang, and Halung Dorchi Sherpa, along with Dawa Sherpa who acted as a base camp manager. At 30, Mingma David Sherpa is now the youngest person to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks.

And Purja is still climbing. While guiding on Ama Dablam and taking time to honor fallen soldiers by placing a wreath on the summit on Nov. 10, Remembrance Sunday, Purja answered some of our questions about Project Possible.

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What do you want the world to know about what you just accomplished?

The world doesn’t know even 95 percent of what happened on these climbs. I climbed mountains without ropes. I climbed mountains doing rescues. I guided people. The story is huge. What I want to tell the world is wait until the feature film comes out in 2021. Everything I have done is backed up in video evidence, because that is who I am.

When I came up with this project, no one could imagine that I could do it. Now I have done it, critics and all. There were critics when Messner did his 14 as well. There are critics everywhere. I think that is human nature, and that is a bit sad that we go to the negativity. If someone who has seen me climbing has a negative comment, I will probably take it. But if someone just sitting at his desk has a negative comment, I will never be phased because I am bigger than that.

Of the 14 8,000-meter peaks, which was the most challenging and why?

Out of the 14, there were so many incidents. On Shishapangma, we climbed in really horrendous weather conditions with winds up to 75 kilometers per hour without ropes. Then there was the rescue that I did on Kanchenjunga. I had climbed Dhaulagiri in four days without sleep and went straight to Kanchenjuna, from basecamp to the summit at 8,450 meters. I had to give my oxygen to rescue a climber who had run out of oxygen. We conducted a rescue for 11 hours without O2 from 8,450 meters. That was very hard, but I knew my body well.

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Nims Purja appearing on "Good Morning Britain" this past August; Nims Purja 14
Ken McKay/ITV / Shutterstock

You all set the ropes on K2 and then climbed it—the first people of the season after almost everyone had given up. What was your impression of K2?

K2 was the only mountain where I doubted my ability, to be honest. I looked at the videos from my Sherpa who I really admire. He had fixed lines on K2 twice before. I knew it was a bit dangerous and all. I’m the guy who has learned from his experiences, you know? When I wanted to join the U.K. special forces, the whole of the navy, air force, and army came to do this selection process. After six months, only four to five people completed it. If I had listened to all the thousands of people who had failed in the process of the selection I would have never tried, so that’s my ethos on that.

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You took the photo that went viral of the crowds on Everest last season. What do you think should happen to make climbing Everest a better experience?

In terms of Everest, my argument to the government of Nepal, or anyone, has always been that the mountain is not only for the rich people. The category should depend on the ability and experience of the climber. It’s good that the Department of Tourism has taken my advice and all. So hopefully soon the permit will not increase, but we will be asking for prior experience on a 7,000-meter or 8,000-meter peak before you come to Everest.

Before 2017, I could not even have imagined this project. Now it’s the truth.

Your quest helps people everywhere feel like they can achieve their dreams. What encouragement can you offer?

The whole project has inspired our generation and will inspire the future generation. Nothing is impossible; you are only limited by your imagination. Before 2017, I could not even have imagined this project. Now it’s the truth. Many years ago, when people looked at the moon from the Earth, no one imagined that it was possible to get over there. And it happened. I am so glad and humble to show the power of the imagination and possibilities.

What are you doing now?

Right now I am guiding on Ama Dablam. It is one of the most beautiful mountains in the Himalayas. I am here guiding, but I am also here for Remembrance Sunday. I spent 16 years in the army, 10 years in the special forces. We used to remember our fallen comrades in a military style. Now, since I am a mountaineer, so I want to continue to remember my friends who I have lost in wars. I want to remember those who gave their today for a better tomorrow.

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