Nirmal Purja, better known as Nims, first conquered Everest while on “vacation” from his position in the British special forces. Growing up in Nepal, the iconic mountain was virtually in his backyard, yet it wasn’t until he’d already achieved his military aspirations that he set his sights on climbing greatness.
“Because of what I did and where I came from, people just assumed I’d climbed every mountain in my country,” Nirmal Purja tells Men’s Journal. But instead of climbing peaks, he’d spent his youth pushing the limits of his physical capacity, earning a place with the famed Nepalese Gurkhas soldiers. From there, he became the first Gurkha to be selected for the Special Boat Service, where he ran cold-weather warfare operations within their mountain cell. “I loved my job, but I had leave built up and rather than spending it on a beach, I decided to go into the Himalayas.”
It was there that Purja found his next calling and a supernatural inclination for extreme mountaineering. Purja left the SBS to pursue his goal of climbing all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters, which he accomplished in a record six months and six days. The mission was eventually named Project Possible, and director Torquil Jones used footage from the expeditions to make the Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible.
We spoke with Purja about his military career, the challenges of this epic task, and how he makes seemingly unfathomable feats possible.
Men’s Journal: What drove you to join the Gurkhas?
Nirmal Purja: My father was a Gurkha, as well as my brothers, and I appreciated the attitude I saw coming from them after they joined. The Gurkhas go through a huge selection process with thousands trying to get in, and only 25 people make it at a time. People come from all of the villages around Nepal to be part of it. I wanted to be one from the time I was a kid, and I would train hard early in the mornings, running like 25 kilometers before everyone else woke up. I felt a lot of pride when I got in, but I didn’t want to stop there, I wanted to join the special forces and become the first Gurkha in the Special Boat Service.
What did you end up doing in the SBS?
I was head of the Cold Weather Warfare unit within the Special Boat Service. My job was to do extreme climbs, learn about new technology, and create new ideas on how to operate in those conditions. I was then tasked with teaching those skills to the troops that would be sent into the mountains. The job had taken me everywhere, doing sensitive missions in all kinds of terrain.
How did you get into mountaineering?
I didn’t climb my first real mountain until I was an adult. Because of what I do now and where I was born, people assume I was raised in high altitude. That was not the case though, I grew up in the most flat part of the country, at about 500 meters. I had never tried anything like that before. I had to convince my sherpa to let me try Ama Dablam. When I first mentioned it he laughed because lots of people who’ve climbed Everest have given up on that mountain.
Speaking of Everest, I’m guessing that mountain always called to you growing up in Nepal.
I was asked about Everest a lot when I was in the special forces, people assumed because I was born in Nepal I had climbed it already. But I hadn’t, so it was on my list. I had four weeks of leave and I didn’t feel like a beach vacation. I convinced my wife to let me climb Everest. I emptied my savings and took out a loan so I could afford to make the trip. I wanted to do it solo and I pushed myself too hard. I was carrying too much gear and got altitude sickness. I meditated to the point where I was feeling better, but didn’t make it up, because I got involved with a rescue. There was a climber who got left behind by the rest of her team. I decided I would rescue her on my own. It took me 90 minutes to take her down to Camp IV. I went back and summited Everest, and four days later I was back in operations, kicking in doors.
Climbing mountains like this is a huge undertaking. How difficult was it to balance that with your active military career?
That was difficult, as was getting permission to do the climbs, because command saw it as a needless risk for someone in their force. I loved my work, but I still wanted to do more. I had a lot of days of leave built up. I decided to go to my command and tell them I wanted to use this time off to climb the five highest mountains in the world. I wanted to do all of them in less than two months. But I couldn’t get the clearance from my special forces command, because they thought it was crazy and too dangerous.
They were aware people die making attempts like this, and they didn’t want to be responsible for that happening to me. Their decision was to not allow me to leave, and that put me in a difficult situation. I’d already served 16 years in the British military and I only had to put in six more years to get my full pension. That’s a big deal for us who’ve put the time in. But that didn’t stop me. I wasn’t really motivated by the fiscal elements of the job, never was. So I decided to leave.
Once you decided to leave the special forces, how did the 14 Peaks project evolve into its present state?
I couldn’t get this idea out of my mind, and it kept growing. It became conquering 14 different 8,000-meter peaks within seven months. Those numbers, back to back, felt right to me. I named it “Project Possible” because so many people around me were saying it wasn’t going to be. I don’t blame them, because it wasn’t just impossible at the time, it was beyond most people’s imaginations. I saw something in myself around that time though, that made me think I’d be able to accomplish it. And once I did, there was this need that I had to see it through.
How did you start?
The first mountain we did, Annapurna, was a bit of a selection process for my team. Mingma Sherpa is someone I’ve trusted for a while, and got to know through his uncle, who helped me a lot. I’ve done a few things in this life where I was driven by doing right by the people who helped me get where I am. The Sherpa brothers are legends and have always been in my heart. I couldn’t let any of these people down.
What was the hardest part about accomplishing this epic feat?
The real problem I had was raising the funding and finding support for the trip while it was happening. Climbing the mountains was always the part I looked forward to, but I was working on everything else at the same time, using my social media to drum up attention and support for our team. That was all on top of running the crew and making sure we were going to be prepared for that next mountain. Not to mention shooting the content and footage we were going to use for the documentary.
I have to imagine accomplishing these climbs in such close proximity was also very physically taxing.
I had the physical ability I needed because of my past with the Gurhkas and Special Boat Service. Your fitness has to be in the pocket to do these kinds of feats. Serving in the special forces, you’re required to be incredibly fit. From the beginning, you’re doing drills where you’re carrying 75 pounds while on the move. Every day you’re running up and down the hills of Britain—all over the Black Mountains. You’re running for 30 kilometers every single day, for 30 days. At the end, you go for the endurance test where you’re carrying around 80 pounds, then you go for a 70 kilometer speed march.
What did you learn about your body and physical limits?
There’s so much going on, from avalanches to challenging weather, but it’s about more than having the strength. The first few days it’s about whether or not you have the fitness, but after that it’s about whether you’re able to put one foot in front of the other. That’s when it becomes imperative for you to have a bigger purpose, a reason you’re willing to put that punishment on your body. I get energy from the mission, and the purpose I’ve found in life. Sure it was a physical challenge, but more than that it was a huge mental challenge, and that’s what gets tested during training. That’s what you need out there in the mountains too.
What were some of the biggest risks you had to take?
I’d given up everything for this project. I gave up my job, my pension, remortgaged my house. I vividly remember the rescue in Annapurna, because it was the first part of the mission. By stopping to try to save these climbers, we put everything in jeopardy, but I’d never left anyone behind while I was in the Gurkhas or in the special forces, and I wasn’t about to do it in the mountains either. The morale of the team that was ahead at Dhaulagiri got pretty low, because they were stuck waiting for us. But it couldn’t be helped.
How about the biggest challenge?
Kangchenjunga was the most challenging. I hadn’t slept for six days. I came into basecamp hungover, and made the summit push. On the way down from that attempt, we came across other climbers who needed rescue. We gave up my oxygen to help them. It was Mingma David Sherpa, Gesman Tamang, and myself. We did everything we could to try to help, and we still lost people. Coming off of oxygen at that altitude, which was 8,450 meters, is not easy, even for professionals. Some call it suicidal. Not only were we trying to accomplish this so-called impossible mission, but we were running into situations like rescues that we couldn’t help but put everything on pause for.
I respect your ability to party at basecamp and still be able to break climbing records the next day. How or when do you recover?
I remember waking up at K2… I partied so hard the night before and had no sleep at all. I went for the summit push where 95 percent of the people who tried had given up. I got back down to camp, partied again, then hit the summit of Broad Peak. I am the recovery bro. I think they should send all the scientists in the world, from NASA or wherever, to come and study how we’re able to party then summit like we do.
Do you think having those moments of decompression helps the team when it comes to the climbs?
I’m the leader, but I learned in the special forces you have to be a team member first. And you should know what it’s like to be on the ground, before you’re trying to command the teams on the ground. It’s in those moments, around the fire or sharing a drink at camp, where you learn the true intel—what’s going on with your team members, the struggles they’re having, along with their strengths and weaknesses.
What’s your drink of choice?
Give me a glass of whiskey, whatever’s around. I’m not picky.
Did you have the chance to savor any of the summits along the way?
I accepted this challenge as a mission, as I would accept any military mission. If I took one day longer, I would have needed to do it again. That meant I couldn’t really celebrate getting over one mountain or the next. There was no time for those kinds of moments of victory. Once I was standing on the top of the mountain, my mind would be on the next attempt. I’m already thinking of what the weather is going to be, what kind of reports I’m going to hear, and how to get our supplies. I can remember what it felt like at the end of the 14 peaks though, and the first thing I did when I finished was call my mother.
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