Everyone was ready to quit K2, until Nims arrived.
For better or worse, this year was supposed to be the commercial coming out party for the world’s second-highest mountain. An unprecedented number of guides and their clients had made their way to advanced camps on the Abbruzzi Ridge, and the forecast called for days of exceptionally good weather.
But as the caravan approached the crux of the climb (K2 is considered the most difficult of the world’s high peaks because the toughest climbing comes near the summit, in the—wait for it—death zone) they encountered chest-deep snow and unacceptable avalanche risk. It seems the weather up high had not been so fine as in base camp. One by one, the teams turned around.
Headlines the next day proclaimed an end to the K2 season. 2019 would be a “zero year,” which suited climbing purists just fine. The longer the so-called Climber’s Mountain can hold out against the horde of oxygen-sucking carpetbaggers, the better.
The impasse also seemed to signal the end of Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja’s mission to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in just seven months. Nims has been a veritable Forrest Gump of the Himalaya this season, knocking off six 8,000ers in Nepal—including Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in just over 48 hours—leading three rescues and snapping perhaps the most-shared photo in mountaineering history.
The second phase of Nims’ Project Possible mission also started well. His objective for the summer season were the five 8,000ers in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, and he knocked off Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I, and Gasherbrum II in rapid succession. He planned to tag Broad Peak next, then double back to the toughest nut, K2. It was a good plan, in part because the trail to the summit would already be blazed by the commercial outfits.
When the summit teams turned around on July 19, though, that plan went out the window. Project Possible looked very much the opposite—if not impossible, then exceedingly unlikely.
That too suited the purists just fine. No one doubts Nims’ strength or the heroism of his rescue efforts in the Himalaya earlier this year, although there have been some rumblings about insufficient details and photos from some of his summits. Nims climbs with supplemental oxygen, with a premium on speed and plenty of hype. To many, that’s just not good style.
One could say Nims is what happens when a client is every bit as strong as the very best climbing Sherpas—who happen to be on his team—and uses every bit of technology at his disposal, including plenty of canned air and a fleet of helicopters to shuttle between Himalayan peaks (in the Karakoram he walked, due to military flight restrictions).
Nims is Nepalese, a member of the Gurkha ethnic group renowned for their service in the British military. He served in British Gurkha Regiment and later the elite Special Boat Service, but after 16 years in the service of the Queen he gave up his pension and mortgaged his home in the U.K. to take his shot at climbing history. He enlisted one of the strongest Sherpa teams ever to support that dream, and the exploits of superdomestiques like Mingma David Sherpa and Geshman Tamang this season would be the talk of the mountaineering community, if not overshadowed by Nims’ unprecedented run of summits.
Nims has always cast his Project Possible mission as a testament to the power of positive thinking. Now it was up to him to put that philosophy to the test. In K2 base camp, Nims huddled with the remaining teams and guides from Seven Summit Treks to make a plan. Rather than tagging Broad Peak while others blazed the trail to the top of K2, Nims would lead the rope-fixing team through the chest-deep snow, all the way to the summit. With the combined forces of Nims, his lieutenant Geshman, and top Seven Summits climbers Lakpa Dendi, Lakpa Temba and Chhangba Sherpa, there was still a chance to make the summit of K2 this season.
The five men started for the summit at about 10:30 p.m. on July 23 and fixed ropes through the night. They reached the summit just before 8 o’clock the next morning. The dam was broken. In the early hours of July 26, at least 19 more climbers reached the summit of K2, including some who did so without supplemental oxygen.
As those climbers followed his path to the top of K2, Nims was already on top of Broad Peak, the 11th of his planned 14 summits. The project continues this fall, when Nims will attempt Manaslu, Shishanpangma and Cho Oyo. Don’t bet against him.