Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
Humans start to die above 8000m unless they have a supply of oxygen. Fourteen mountains on the planet rise above 8000m. Even with oxygen, the climbs are steep and dangerous and there is only a short climbing window each season when conditions are suitable. So climbing all of those peaks in a short period might seem to be a bad idea.
Most climbers spread the ascents out over a long period, to allow depleted bodies to recover and to attend to complicated logistics. In fact, until 2019, the world record for climbing all fourteen was more than seven years.
But no-one reckoned on Nirmal Purja. This human whirlwind managed to reduce the time from seven years to just seven months. Nirmal (aka Nimsdai aka Nims)…….has a “freakish physiology” that allows him to move easily and “quickly at great heights” [p3]. He is also a great believer in pushing boundaries and in refusing to be defeated – hence the title. “I wasn’t a sheep waiting to be prodded by the shepherd; I was a lion and I refused to walk and talk with the rest” [p3].
Nirmal is Nepalese and his childhood home was a 12 day walk from Everest, but he was 29 years old before he travelled to base camp for the first time. In the meantime, he had joined the British armed Forces as a Gurkha soldier, based in England. He travelled to many parts of the world and progressed into the British Special Forces. This was a formative period in which brutal training regimes honed his skills and taught him how to push his own limits, the importance of teamwork and dealing with extreme situations. He was also able to receive specialised training in mountain climbing.
The combination of a physiology suited to climbing and a mind trained to overcome adversity proved to be potent. His organisational acumen served him well in managing the logistics and team building needed for tackling high mountains. He soon discovered that his leadership style was to lead from the front and to minimise the size of his teams – which in turn reduced the time and expense of organisation.
After climbs into the death zone on several Himalayan peaks, including the first Gurkha summiting of Everest in 2017, he set about climbing all 14 high peaks in record time. Assembling a small team of Nepalese climbers, this venture became the “Project Possible” of the book title.
Being so driven means that he always seems to be in a hurry and is prone to cutting corners. On Kanchenjunga – the third highest peak – instead of a traditional climb using multiple camps and rest breaks, they decided to “climb and descend the mountain in one hit…. fighting to stay awake whenever we paused for a breather, knowing that death might catch us if we eased our foot from the pedal” [p158]. After summiting, his team helped climbers who were in severe trouble by donating their personal oxygen tanks and laboriously assisting them to descend. The slow descent without oxygen put their own lives in jeopardy.
It is a very personal book in which we are often immersed in his inner thoughts and emotions. A great deal is about overcoming his fears, weariness and difficult conditions; but it also recounts his important relationships – his wife, his parents and siblings as well as his climbing colleagues.
Where do Nirmal’s exploits rate on the mountaineering ladder? In terms of climbing peaks quickly, the records speak for themselves. There is some controversy about how important it is, because he used supplementary oxygen. To a non-mountaineer, this may seem to be a trivial complaint – after all, he and his team still had to trudge every step to the fourteen immense summits, over glaciers, rock, snow and ice and in sometimes miserable weather. But some climbers see it differently:
“Mountaineers have criticised Nims for using supplementary oxygen above 7,500m and fixed ropes. The Everest luminary Chris Bonington suggested Nims’ achievement will eventually be seen as a ‘footnote’ in mountaineering history.
But it has also been celebrated, not least by Reinhold Messner, one of the world’s greatest ever mountaineers and the first person to climb all 14 8,000m peaks. He described it as a ‘unique mountaineering achievement’”. [Source: The Guardian UK, 2 November 2019]
Nims is evidently capable of being in the death zone without oxygen. He says that he chose to carry oxygen for the safety of others and the rescues described in the book bear out the wisdom of doing so. But the criticism is clearly a sore point for him.
In some ways, it is hard to understand why this one aid is singled out, given that modern climbers routinely use a wealth of technological aids and equipment. Fixed ropes, ladders, GPS, high quality clothing, lightweight camping equipment, not to mention traditional equipment such as crampons and ice axes.
It is hard to read a book about mountaineering without the why question popping up. Nirmal spends quite a few words on his motivation throughout the book – some of it consistent and some contradictory.
After all, the whole project is about smashing a record, not just climbing mountains. Appendix 3 sets out the world records and most are repeated several times in the text. “More world records had been broken: I’d finished the Pakistan 8,000-ers, in 23 days; [and] the world’s five tallest mountains ….in 70 days” [p261].
Yet in other contexts, Nirmal variously claims that the climbs are “about my work in enhancing the reputation of the Nepalese climbing community” [p263], ”an inspiring story for generations of people….This endeavour is for mankind” [p264] and “I want to prove the power of imagination” [p264].
“I hadn’t been climbing the 8,000-ers to boost the achievements of Great Britain or Nepal. Nor was I trying to enhance the profile of the UK Special Forces or the Gurkha regiment. My goals went way beyond culture or caste, regiment or country. I was representing the efforts of the human race” [p263].
One of the hardest and most dangerous climbs is K2. As he surveys the distant summit, Nirmal’s response is typically combative – “I’m going to be on top of that. And I’m going to show the world how it’s done” [p236].
“To some people that attitude might have sounded egotistical, or overly ambitious, perhaps even dangerous, but it was never about ego – the mission was bigger than that”. [p222]
Mountaineering is inherently dangerous, but trying to stick to an exceptionally tight schedule and more or less ignoring illness, injury and bad weather, leads Nirmal and the team to some life-threatening situations. Ego seems to be a necessity, but it can become toxic in extreme situations.
This book is an exciting story of an astonishing achievement, pitting a handful of Nepalese people against the highest mountains on the planet. The climbs themselves are well established, but the speed, stamina and logistics of such a compressed time frame is extraordinary.
The compelling image is of Nirmal standing shirtless facing the Gasherbrums, with a tattoo of all fourteen peaks covering his whole back. The ultimate conversation piece.
By Nimsdai Purja
299pp; $32.99 (paperback)