How a Nepali climber with a “freakish physiology” stormed the world of high-altitude mountaineering

Ex-Gurkha Nirmal ’Nims’ Purja recently joined an elite club of mountaineers who have climbed all of the highest peaks on Earth. But even in such highly-honed company, there is nothing typical about him.

Published 12 Jan 2021, 13:56 GMT, Updated 16 Jan 2021, 13:56 GMT
Displaying his DNA-infused tattoo, Nims Purja surveys Kashmir's Gasherbrum massif from his basecamp.

Displaying his DNA-infused tattoo, Nims Purja surveys Kashmir's Gasherbrum massif from his basecamp. 

Photograph by Nims Purja

EMBLAZONED across Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja’s back are tattoos of the world’s 14 highest mountains. This Nepali climber had the image inked onto his skin in advance of his attempt to summit the so-called death zone peaks – all those that rise above 8,000 metres – in record time.

It’s no ordinary tattoo, though. Mixed in with the ink is the DNA from the hair of Nims’s parents, brothers, sister and wife. It’s called an Everence tattoo.

“The reason I had that is so I could take my family on a spiritual journey where they would never be able to go,” he tells National Geographic.

Enmeshing the genes of his relatives with his own may sound slightly unconventional, but Nims insists there was also a talismanic reason for this unusual body art; “a sobering reminder, a voice of reason” to ensure he came home in one piece after climbing all 14 eight-thousanders, as they’re known. “I knew if I pushed too much while climbing, I might die,” he adds. “And I needed to be reminded I had to get back home for the family. I was looking after my mum and dad at the time, and I’m a married man. I had so much responsibility. I didn't want to make a stupid mistake on the mountains.”

Nims during his military service on deployment in the desert. 

Photograph by Unknown photographer

A former Gurkha and special forces soldier for the SBS (Special Boat Service), Nims received an MBE in 2017 for outstanding achievement in extreme high-altitude mountaineering – and for his proclivity for rescuing fellow climbers injured at desperate altitudes – including one in 2016 on Mt Everest. He embarked on his record attempt in April 2019, climbing Annapurna I first. In May that year he conquered the other Nepali mountains Dhaulagiri I, Kangchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. July saw him standing atop the Pakistani mountains Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, K2 and Broad Peak. Then in September he climbed Cho Oyu and Manaslu. Finally, in October, he completed the final peak, Tibet’s Shishapangma. All in all, it took him six months and six days, meaning he broke the existing record time by well over seven years. 

Why anyone would set themselves such a challenge, in such a short time, is the immediate question that springs to mind. Ignore the old clichés about people climbing mountains because they are there. In any case, in advance of Nims, over 40 mountaineers had already completed all 14 eight-thousanders.

Nims insists that neither money nor fame were ever incentives for him. One major motivation was his desire to champion the Nepali Sherpas – those unsung heroes of the Himalayas whose exploits are routinely eclipsed by fee-paying foreign climbers. “The Sherpa guide had been making the impossible possible for years, though for the most part, their work was rarely celebrated,” Nims explains. “The disparity in respect pissed me off. I wanted to highlight the skills of Nepal’s climbers.”

His other motivation was to highlight the “deteriorating environmental health” of the Himalayas due to climate change. “I started seeing it with my own eyes,” he says.

Nims Purja on top of Dhaulagiri in bad weather. Unlike Everest, which has been commercialised to the point of relative familiarity, many of the mountains on the 14-strong 8,000m list see far fewer ascents, adding unpredictability to an already extremely dangerous proposition. 

Photograph by Nirmal Purja / Project Possible

“For example, on my first ascent of Ama Dablam in 2014, at Camp 1, we could melt snow for drinking water. Four years later there was no snow, so we had to carry gallons and gallons of water. It was so heavy and painful to climb with it. That’s when I realised, ‘Oh my God! This is serious.’”

Quantifying danger

With 14 mountains to conquer, Nims’s mission – which he named Project Possible – might easily have been reduced to a box-ticking exercise; a sort of high-speed Munro-bagging in the Himalayas. Indeed, so pressed for time was he while pursuing his record, that on some of the summits he hung around for only a few minutes.

He baulks at this suggestion, however. “No. It is not like that, because every 8000-metre peak is completely different. It’s not like ticking off Munros. If you go with that attitude, you simply die.”

It’s not exaggerating to say that death stalked Nims and his companions all throughout the project. Above an altitude of 8,000 metres, mountaineers call it “the death zone”. Here they must run a sniper’s alley of falling ice, collapsing crevasses, altitude sickness, exposure, frostbite, retinal haemorrhages, blizzards and winds powerful enough to sweep them off the mountain.

“It’s not like ticking off Munros. If you go with that attitude, you simply die.”

Nims Purja

In the run-up to Project Possible, Nims suffered a pulmonary edema – an accumulation of fluid on the lungs that can be life-threatening. During the expedition, on one occasion he slid uncontrollably down the upper slopes of Nanga Parbat, very nearly to his death. On two other occasions – on Annapurna I and later Shishapangma – he was engulfed by avalanches.

Here is his description of his close shave on Annapurna in his new autobiography Beyond Possible. “Avalanche! And it was a big one. A large chunk of Annapurna’s north face had sheared away and an eruption of white was billowing down the mountain at an unstoppable speed. Acting on instinct, I ran for the nearest [tent] and dived inside. Sonam and Mingma bundled in behind me, zipping up the door. And then god-knows how much snow smashed over us at full force, hammering and tearing at the tent. For several seconds the fabric and fibreglass seemed to buck and wrench without breaking. I expected to be swept down the mountain at any second, all of us tumbling over one another, until suddenly, unexpectedly, everything became still again. We’d survived.”

Physicality, and fear

Nims admits he has a rather unorthodox relationship with fear – a state of mind he learned to adopt while serving in the Gurkhas and the SBS. He says the pride he felt for those institutions overshadowed any concerns he had for his mortality; a similar attitude served him well on the Himalayan mountains.

He is also unfeasibly fit. “My freakish physiology,” he calls it. Tested at an artificial altitude training centre in London, experts told him he had fitness similar to that of an elite endurance athlete. Nims believes his combination of natural Nepali physiology, special forces training and an ability to recover quickly allow him to steal a march on other climbers. “Once I’d started climbing into the Death Zone, I found it relatively easy to move quickly at great heights, taking 70 steps before pausing for breath, whereas other mountaineers were only able to make four or five.” 

The Myagdi District of Nepal, near Dana, where Nims Purja was born – in the shadow of the Himalayas he would later climb.  

Photograph by Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

By his own admission, Nims (short for Nirmal) had a very humble upbringing in rural Nepal. He was born in July 1983, in a village called Dana, in the Myagdi district of western Nepal. At around 1,600 metres above sea level, in Himalayan terms, it was hardly a high-altitude childhood. Besides, at the age of four, he and his parents moved downhill to the flattest and warmest part of Nepal.

His father, a soldier in the Gurkhas, and his mother, a farmer, were from different castes – a union that caused their respective families to cut them adrift, both socially and financially. “We came from a really poor family,” Nims says. “As a kid I remember I didn’t even have flip flops.”

But he had three much older brothers, all of whom also served in the Gurkhas, and every month they would send a portion of their military wages to fund Nims’s education at an English-speaking boarding school. The youngster was just five years old when he moved away from home – thrown very much in at the deep end. “Everybody slept in a hostel, where the older kids held the power and the teachers beat the children if they ever stepped out of line,” he remembers. “I had to learn how to survive in such a tough environment.”

He quickly excelled in kickboxing, a weapon which allowed him to stand up to the school bullies. Incredibly fit for his age, he was also very strong in athletics. It was this fitness, and encouragement from his older brothers, that helped him when he eventually worked his way through Gurkha selection in 2002. Six years later he became the first Gurkha ever to pass the even more gruelling selection process for the SBS. In this latter unit he specialised as a trauma medic.

Nims Purja approaching the summit of Everest, with Lhotse (right) and Makalu (left) beyond.

Photograph by Pasang Sherpa

Service and sacrifice

Although Ministry of Defence regulations forbid him from divulging too much detail, there are certain incidents from his time in the special forces he can reveal. He says he served in all the major theatres of war that Britain was involved in, his main responsibility to patch up the bullet and bomb wounds sustained by his fellow soldiers.

During one mission – he can’t say where exactly – he took a bullet himself, right in the face. It was during a raid on a border outpost. With his colleagues pinned down by enemy fire, Nims took position on the roof of a building, shooting while lying on his stomach. Suddenly he was struck sharply in the face, and thrown from the roof.

“I hit the deck with a thud, and having fallen ten feet or more, my senses took a few seconds to flood back to me,” he later wrote in his book. “I tasted the warm, metallic tang of blood in my mouth. A puddle of red was growing around me on the floor. An enemy bullet had come close to ending me, leaving a nasty wound, slicing across my face, carving my jaw line and lips to ribbons.”

In 2018, after 16 years of serving in the British armed forces, Nims handed in his resignation so he could concentrate on Project Possible. It meant forfeiting his army pension (“a life-changing chunk of money”). He also turned down a surprise invitation to join the rival elite unit, the SAS. To fund his expedition he was forced to remortgage his house.

A supermoon rises over the Kathmandu suburb of Patan – beyond which the world's highest mountains rise. Further to the west, at the time of writing Purja is currently attempting K2, on the China-Pakistan border – in an audacious winter ascent that has already cost him a high camp on the mountain.

     

Photograph by Dutourdumonde / Alamy Stock Photo

Nims believes there is a strong similarity between military operations and mountain expeditions. In both scenarios, death is a possibility; just as soldiers require intelligence on the enemy, mountaineers need advance knowledge of terrain, weather and equipment.

Remarkably though, Nims’s expedition threw up an extra jeopardy that he could never have predicted: at one point, while climbing Cho Oyu in Tibet, a friend warned him that other climbers, envious of his success, were out to sabotage him. “It takes only one push for you to disappear from the mountain for good,” the friend told him.

Mountaineering is a sport not unfamiliar with macho posturing. One climber will denigrate another for riding in a helicopter instead of hiking to base camp, for example. Another will boast of reaching the summit in quicker time, with less equipment. Many climbers belittled Nims’s achievements because he opted to use oxygen on Project Possible. But he dismisses this as natural human jealousy in a very competitive sport.

Finally, on October 29th2019, he summited his 14thand final mountain – Shishapangma. He describes the celebrations in Kathmandu afterwards as like a football team’s homecoming parade. “It was something I’ve never seen,” he remembers. “It was such a hero’s welcome. The cameramen, the journalists, the military band…” He and his team drank the bars dry that night.

Nims Purja (centre, hand raised) arrives back to Kathmandu, October 2019, after completing all 14 8,000m peaks in seven months.  

Photograph by Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy

Despite his need for fitness, Nims considered partying a crucial tactic of Project Possible. He and his colleagues would often “smash back the booze and play loud music” in between climbs. After summiting K2, for example, they partied most of the night, rising early the next day to tackle Broad Peak, with just three hours’ sleep.

Nims says he learned in the special forces that drinking and partying together democratises the team and allows younger members to speak their minds. “Sometimes the least experienced member of the group can have their say and that can be the most incredible idea,” he explains. “But as I get older I may have to change my attitude.”

Nowadays he lives with his wife Suchi (the daughter of a Gurkha) in the Hampshire town of Eastleigh, not far from his former SBS base in Poole. Both geographically and culturally, this rather non-descript suburb of Southampton couldn't be more dissimilar to the mountains and jungles of Nepal, where he spent his youth. But he still manages to get his fix of the mountains as often as he can, thanks to a mountain expedition company he runs.

Inevitably COVID-19 has scuppered many of his plans this year. However, he has made it to the challenge most firmly in his sights: a winter climb of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. It’s the only eight-thousander that has never been summited in winter. Even in summer, it’s a killer, with around one climber dying for every four who reach the top.

At the time of publication in January 2021, Nims had just arrived at Camp 2 on the mountain to find his team's equipment for the summit push destroyed. “We have lost everything,” he wrote on his blog. For most mountaineers, this might be a deterrent.

Nims, however, is now back at basecamp, gathering himself for an attempt later in the season. Some consider K2 in winter to be impossible; for Nims Purja, it's simply the next challenge. 

Update: on 16 January Nims Purja and a team of Nepali climbers succeeded in making the first ever winter ascent of K2.

 

Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks – My Life in the Death Zone (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now.

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