'I felt we just had to go get this one for Nepal so that future generations can feel proud'
Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja created history along with nine other Nepali climbers who made the first-ever winter ascent of K2 on January 16, 2021. He earlier completed all 14 of the 8,000-metre summits in six months and holds a number of record-breaking climbs.
Terence Lee, Editorial Advisor at nepalnews.com caught up with Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja for an insight into this record creating and breaking climber who goes beyond possible.
What inspired you to start climbing? How did it all begin?
I was born in the western part of Nepal but grew up in Chitwan, the warmest and flattest part of Nepal. I never dreamed or aspired to climb mountains.
It was in December 2012 when I was 29 years old that I came to see Everest for the first time. That’s because I was with the British Special Forces, and when I said I was from Nepal, people always asked if I had seen Everest. It became a bit embarrassing and so I decided to trek around Everest.
I fell in love with the mountain and I wanted to climb from that day. I asked if I could climb Ama Dablam and my guide said, ‘are you joking’. He told me it was a very technical mountain and so eventually we climbed Lobuche East. After that I was hooked to climbing.
As a child I was just an ordinary boy in flip flops with dreams of joining the British Gurkha. I became the first Gurkha to join the British Special Forces and I have seen the world and done some crazy things that people would not think off. All that made me feel invincible. But climbing brought me face to face with the awesome power of nature and that humbled me and gave me a perspective to life.
When you climb you live your life on the edge. It is so extreme, so tough and you face the possibility of death. When you know you can die the next moment, you live life a million times better. This feeling of being alive is what makes me do these expeditions.
How difficult was it for you to give up the dream to be a Gurkha and the success and financial security you already had?
It was a very tough decision. It was not just about being a Gurkha but also a member of the Special Forces. You work there on a different level and do a lot of amazing stuff. There is a lot of pride in that.
But after serving for 16 years and with my pension of over a million pounds, just 6 years away, it was very difficult to give up financial and job security. But my heart wanted to climb these 14 peaks in 7 months. Of course nobody believed it was possible.
Now that I have done it and people know me, it’s very different. But at that point it was a huge gamble. What if I had failed, I risked everything even selling my home. My family was of course very upset, my brother who also serves in the British Gurkhas was sad but for me, but I had set my heart on this.
You know when your purpose is bigger that yourself, you can always do bigger things. These feats I have achieved are testimony to this.
Tell us about Project Possible, the mission to summit the 14 peaks in seven months? What were the challenges like?
The biggest challenge was funding because before that I was with the Special Forces and before 2019 I had no Instagram or Facebook and even though I had climbed Everest and had 3 world records nobody knew who I was.
Then when I came up with this idea, people thought I was mad, as I was nobody and had no idea about climbing one 8,000-metre peak leave alone 14. It was very difficult and a logistical nightmare but we persisted.
What about your core team that has been with you throughout all this?
What people don’t know is that I selected this core team. There was a goal for each of us. I can tell you they were getting paid more than any other western expedition paid, I enabled them to climb new mountains that they had not climbed, which meant new experiences and build their portfolios and they are my brothers. It would not be possible without them and that’s something people need to also see.
It’s all about being able to lead and being fair. When team members feel it is fair they will work hard to achieve the impossible.
You created history with the winter ascent of K2. What pushed you to this?
I wanted to do the winter ascent of K2 because that’s the last of the great and hardest mountains to climb in the world.
I planned to go next year because I knew that if I did, I would probably make a million pounds in sponsorship. My book ‘Beyond Possible’ is doing very well and has sold over 20,000 copies just in England and is now being translated into 5 different languages and as people know more about me it would be easier to get brand sponsorships.
But then I realised that there was huge competition with more than 14 international climbing friends also attempting K2.
I felt this is the last mountain waiting for us to put our name on it. Nepal is home to the most of the 8,000 metre peaks and Sherpas have always been at the forefront. I felt we just had to go get this one for Nepal so that future generations can feel proud. One had to be in the name of our people and our country. So I rushed it this year and in two months with the team we made it happen.
What were the final moments before summiting K2 together as Nepalis?
We came from Nepal and we Nepalis always have a big heart. This project was for Nepal and not just one person. Everybody worked hard, everybody loves Nepal, and so we decided that we would all take the final steps together.
We wanted to show the world that if we unite and if our purpose is bigger than ourselves we can achieve anything. We have sent the world a clear message that it is not about self alone. If you unite you can achieve much more.
At the end of the day we will all die. One day we have to go, so why all this rivalry and jealousy when we can unite. Right now there is this pandemic and the world has to unite to fight it and then there is global warming which is a huge threat to mountaineering.
We have to unite to fight these issues. Yes, there are bigger and more powerful countries, and more powerful leaders and entrepreneurs in the world, but we all need to unite to save this planet.
We are from a small country and we are nobody but we wanted to send a message to the world that anything can be achieved by working together.
With this historical first climb, have Nepalis and Sherpas proved they are the best climbers and not just those who help others climb peaks?
This was the only all Nepali expedition, there were no foreign clients or expedition leaders, it was just brothers who have been working hard together for years and we did it together.
I know our climbing friends all over the world are happy for us and they feel that justice now has been done.
The message of our success and unity is a message to the world. We Nepalis are very humble, kind and hardworking. We have earned our respect and in terms of big mountains.
What does your success mean for Nepal as a destination for climbing?
I hope much more people come to Nepal for the mountains. I also hope the government is able to facilitate and bring more people to experience the mountains. It’s not enough to have Visit Nepal programmes and talk about it. We also need to make it happen and have people who can serve as ambassadors from other countries help in spreading the message. There are so many powerful people who love Nepal we need to channel that.
My message to extreme sports lovers, climbers and mountaineers is to come and experience Nepal. My advice to the government of Nepal is to make it more open as mountaineering is a free sport. People can now climb and fly or paraglide down mountains. So let’s be open to that.
We need to be more open and welcoming with a lot of events in Nepal.
What’s next on your to-do list?
I have loads of responsibilities and I hope that fame and money never buy me. I pray I do not become that person. My life is a testimony that I am here for a bigger purpose. I’m here for the people and to make the country better. Let’s see what I can do next.
What about climbing and breaking records? What’s next?
I will always keep surprising everyone. Just wait and watch… I’ll always have a surprise in store.