In less than a month, Nirmal Purja has climbed six of the world’s highest mountains, participated in three rescues, and inadvertently landed at the center of the Himalayan climbing season’s biggest controversy. And oh yeah, he also took that photo of climbers queued up at Everest’s Hillary Step that’s been all over your social feed.
Purja is the Forrest Gump of this Himalayan climbing season, and he’s just getting started.
When he took that photo early in the morning of May 22, Purja, who goes by Nims, was already on his way down from the summit of Everest and on his way to neighboring Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak. He reached its summit that afternoon, barely 10 hours after touching the top of the world. The next day he choppered to the world’s fifth-highest mountain, Makalu, and climbed it too.
Purja is on a mission to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in seven months, a record-setting quest he calls Project Possible. He will now take a breather before tackling K2 and four other Karakoram monsters in the traditional summer season, then finish the last three Himalayan peaks during the fall weather window.
If successful, he will chop seven years and a few months off Kim Chang-ho’s record for climbing all of the world’s 14 highest peaks, though the two feats hardly bear comparison. Chang-ho climbed without oxygen and started his Everest expedition at sea level, traveling 60 days to the base camp by kayak, bike and on foot. Purja climbs the standard routes with the aid of supplemental oxygen and an all-star team of Sherpas. It’s a different game.
Born in Nepal, Purja spent 16 years in the U.K. military, earning selection to the Gurkha Regiment and later transferring to the elite Special Boat Service. He climbed Everest for the first time in 2016, during a month-long leave before an overseas deployment.
In 2017 he took part in the British Gurkha Expedition to Everest, demonstrating a preternatural talent for linking high summits. He climbed Everest twice during that trip, and then tagged Lhotse and Makalu for good measure. In just over five days, he’d climbed three of the world’s five highest mountains. His time for the Everest-Lohtse double was just over 10 hours. (This week he lowered that triple-summit record to 48 hours and 30 minutes, though in the heavy traffic his time from Everest to Lhotse was five minutes slower than in 2017.)
Purja’s Project Possible mixes homegrown Nepalese climbing excellence with a decidedly Western knack for self-promotion. The British have raised the humblebrag expedition to an art form, and Purja plays to that script with a high-profile record attempt linked to charity causes. The project aims to raise money for injured veterans and Nepalese children, though at the moment it’s uncertain whether he’ll raise enough to finish the remaining eight peaks this year. He’s already mortgaged his house in England, and his GoFundMe is currently less than a third of the way to its goal of £300,000 ($380,000).
Purja has built a large fanbase, especially in Asia, but Nims fever has yet to catch on in elite mountaineering circles. One reason may be his reliance on supplementary oxygen. Purja made a video explaining that he “promised myself to climb with oxygen” after rescuing a female Indian climber from the death zone on Everest in 2016.
“The rescue was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I was never tired like this, even when I smashed those world records climbing Everest, Lhotse and Makalu in five days,” he says. Purja doesn’t name the climber, but says her team left her for dead at 8,450 meters. “If I was there without oxygen, knowing myself, I would probably be dead trying to rescue her or I would not be in a position to save her life,” he adds.
But reliance on oxygen cuts both ways.
Purja and his team reached their first summit, Annapurna, on April 22 and stopped to rest at Camp 4. Late that afternoon, Nima Tshering staggered into camp and announced the climber he was guiding, a Malaysian doctor named Wui Kin Chin, was in trouble high on the mountain. Purja says he wanted to climb to Chin’s aid, but couldn’t because his team was nearly out of oxygen. “I held my team and some of the strongest members for the rescue of Dr. Chin at Camp 4. We were waiting for oxygen to get dropped off at us by helicopter so we could start searching,” he says.
Chin had evacuation insurance with Global Rescue, but that company said sending oxygen was the responsibility of Chin’s outfitter, Seven Summits Treks. The two companies and the helicopter service reportedly squabbled over money, and the oxygen didn’t come. Purja sent his men down the mountain. “I was told that the rescue company denied the emergency help and I couldn’t hold my team any longer at the extreme altitude, risking their life,” he says.
Purja and his team got back to base camp at around 10 p.m. “Of course, because we had summited we had a few friends waiting for us, and they gave us whiskey and we drank until, like, 3:30 in the morning,” Purja told National Geographic.
In a statement, Global Rescue noted that Chin’s “actual location and grid coordinates were unknown,” and that none of its contracted helicopter companies would fly above Camp 4. But Chin’s wife got on the phone from Singapore and found one that would do the job. The chopper flew at first light the next morning, and spotted the doctor not far below the summit. Amazingly, he waved. The rescue was back on.
On two hour’s sleep and less than two days after summiting Annapurna, Purja and his team prepared for a long-line rescue. Suspended below the helicopter by a rope, they flew one-by-one to Camp 3, where they unclipped and began climbing. They reached Chin and brought him to an elevation low enough for him to be evacuated by helicopter long-line.
Despite the infighting, the rescue felt like a triumph. Dr. Chin was flown to a hospital in Kathmandu, and then on to Singapore. Purja and his team had moved on to their second objective, the seldom-climbed Dhaulagiri (8,167 meters) when word came that the doctor had died and the controversy came into the open “Did Red Tape Fatally Delay the Rescue on Annapurna? Explorer’s Web asked.
There was plenty of blame for the trekking company, Global Rescue and the aviation operator, but no one faults Purja and his Project Possible team. They carried out a difficult rescue, putting themselves and their ambitious record attempt in jeopardy.
Annapurna is statistically the most dangerous of the 8,000-meter peaks, a distinction that gives it the nickname “Killer Mountain” and generally keeps the crowds at bay. That also meant that Purja and his team had to set the route themselves, a process that took nearly three weeks. Purja says he “almost had to climb the mountain four times” to prepare the route before summiting April 22.
Dhaulagiri brought more of the same. Project Possible was the only team on the mountain’s south side. They spent nearly three weeks there too, before summiting May 12 in hurricane-force winds.
Next was Kanchenjunga (8,586 meters) the world’s third-highest mountain. Purja, Mingma David, and Geshman Tamang topped out on May 15 and immediately became involved in another rescue during the descent. Indian climbers Biplab Baidya and Kuntal Karar were stranded above 8,200 meters unable to move, due to a combination of altitude sickness, hypothermia, and snowblindness.
Purja first came across Baidya and his guide, both of whom had run out of oxygen. “We gave them our spare O2 and started the rescue mission. After descending 150 meters we found another climber (Karar), who was left behind by his guide and his team. . . . I gave him my own O2 and continued with the rescue mission,” Purja posted on Instagram.
After giving their oxygen to the stricken climbers, Geshman and Mingma began to develop symptoms of altitude sickness. Purja sent them down, expecting help from other teams to arrive soon. It didn’t, and both Indian climbers died on the mountain. Purja, who is 0-3 on rescues this season, vented his frustration. “There were many climbers, approximately 50 on Kangchenjunga this season. Both lives could have been saved if someone from those many climbers had came forward to help. The Project Possible team needed help to save lives but got none.”
Despite the physical and mental toll of those failed rescues, Purja continued to the Everest massif and completed three more summits in just over 48 hours. He’s now climbed six of the world’s highest mountains in less than a month. The next stage of his project is to climb the five 8,000-meter peaks in the Karakoram this summer, including K2 and Nanga Parbat. If he’s successful there he’ll tackle the last three peaks, Manaslu, Shishanpangma and Cho Oyu, in the fall.
Purja has never doubted himself, and after his stupendous run of summits this spring his Project Possible feels, well, probable. Stay tuned.