“MISSION ACHIEVED!” Nirmal “Nims” Purja proclaimed yesterday on his social media feeds, signaling the successful completion of his project to climb the world’s 14 highest mountains in less than seven months. He reached the summit of Shishapangma at 8:58 a.m. Tibeten time with Project Possible teammates Mingma David Sherpa and Gesman Tamang, officially wrapping the mission in six months and six days.
Headlines around the world proclaimed some variation of “Record Smashed!” and noted that the next-fastest climber needed nearly eight years to reach all 14 summits. The climbing press has been more circumspect. Climbing writer Ash Routen’s take was headlined “Purja Completes 8000’ers — But The Debate Begins.”
In fact, the debate has been smoldering since Purja knocked off six Himalayan summits in rapid succession this spring, including Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in just 48 hours. It flared again in July, when Purja’s team broke a logjam on K2 and it became clear that his outrageously ambitious mission was not only possible, but probable.
This week a well-known mountaineer questioned whether Purja—or anyone else—reached the true summit of Manaslu this month. Others complain that Purja has yet to share photographs and GPS tracks from all of his climbs.
No one debates Purja’s preternatural abilities. The Nepali-born former British soldier climbed his first high mountain, Everest, in 2016, and now has 20 8,000-meter summits to his credit. This year he was a virtual Forrest Gump of the Himalaya, participating in four rescues and snapping an instantly iconic photograph of climbers queuing high on Everest.
He’s also been a bit of a lightning rod for criticism, based chiefly for his liberal use of supplemental oxygen and reliance on standard routes. “It is completely ignored that Nirmal Purja is using bottled oxygen,” said German high-altitude ace Ralf Dujmovits. “It’s a performance that looks spectacular, but is not spectacular.”
To say that Purja smashed a record once held by the likes of Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka doesn’t just rub climbing purists the wrong way. It’s simply not true.
Lost in the hype around Purja and his individual records are the contributions of the men who climbed with him.
Messner climbed without oxygen and Kukuckza used the bottle only on Everest, climbing the other peaks by new routes or in winter. So Purja didn’t break their record for climbing the 8,000ers without oxygen, a distinction currently held by the late Korean climber Kim Chang-ho, who finished his collection in seven years, 11 months and 14 days. Purja set a completely different mark. Calling the comparison apples to oranges doesn’t come close. The accomplishments aren’t in the same fruit basket.
Messner himself cares little for records, but admits to following Purja’s project with great interest. The duo met in the Karakoram last summer, and Messner applauded the younger man’s attitude and commitment, noting that Purja mortgaged his house and gave up his military pension to pursue the project. His climbing speaks for itself, Messner told Corriere dello Sport in July. Purja climbed at “an infernal pace, even for those, like him, who use bottled oxygen,” Messner said.
Purja’s remarkable feat calls to mind Eliud Kipchoge, who this month became the first human being to run 26.2 miles in less than two hours and then proclaimed, “Anything is possible.” Kipchoge himself compared his run to the moon landing, but even he didn’t call it a marathon world record. Nobody did. Kipchoge ran in the slipstream of a rotating cast of world-class runners, on a flat course with a pace car and those controversial spring-loaded shoes. It was not a marathon in the traditional sense. Like Purja’s Project Possible, it was a barrier-breaking testament to human potential, and a powerful demonstration of teamwork.
Lost in the hype around Purja and his individual records are the contributions of the men who climbed with him. In his role as Project Possible superdomestique, Mingma David Sherpa knocked off nine 8,000-meter peaks this year and became, at 30, the youngest climber to collect the world’s 14 highest summits. Gesman Tamang topped out with Purja seven times in six months. He was on the breakthrough rope-setting team on K2, the rescues on Kanchenjuga and Annapurna, and the finale yesterday on Shishapangma. A half-dozen other stalwarts were with Purja on three or more peaks this year. All are Nepalese, and—it’s worth noting—all came down safely.
Purja is savvy enough to keep his own name at the top of the marquee, but 16 years as an elite military operator with the British Gurkha Regiment and Special Boat Service has taught him to trust his own leadership and to appreciate what tough and resourceful people can do when united in a common goal. So when heavy snow halted all progress on K2, Purja took on the role of a grizzled sergeant, rallying Tamang and a handful of Sherpas from other teams to the summit.
The effort is Nepali through-and-through, with a strong dose of western-style ambition courtesy of Purja’s long tenure in the British military. It’s ironic that his service with the Gurkhas, so deeply rooted in Britain’s colonial past, should pave the way for a purely Nepalese mountaineering accomplishment. After all, no modern sport is more thoroughly steeped in colonial ways than high-altitude mountaineering, with its well-heeled western climbers relying on legions of native helpers. If you’ve ever wondered what the best Sherpa climbers could do if unburdened by clients, Nims Purja and his team have given you your answer. As Messner himself put it, they “have demonstrated the fact that Nepalese climbers no longer have much to learn.”
Top Photo: Nims Purja on the summit of Everest, May 2019