Every so often a story emerges in the world of mountaineering that is so big that it makes it into the popular press alongside stories about Brexit, Brexit and even Brexit. Last week was one of those weeks.
A Nepali climber and former soldier in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army called Nirmal Purja completed his quest to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m peaks in the staggeringly quick time of 189 days. He called his challenge ‘Project Possible’, and it was staggering because the previous record for climbing all fourteen in the shortest time – held by the Korean climber Kim Chang-Ho – was 7 years and 10 months. Nirmal Purja therefore beat it by 7 years and 3½ months.
The mainstream press were unanimous in their praise. Nepali man shatters speed record for scaling the world’s tallest mountains headlined the Washington Post.
‘I don’t think we will see it again in our lifetime,’ said the New York Times, quoting his sponsor.
The BBC pointed out that he not only achieved a record, but he stopped his climbs to save people’s lives along the way. ‘During his climbs, he rescued four other climbers – three of whom he called “suicide missions” – and has, in his own words, “bled from every angle”,’ their article said.
The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine even nominated his team for the Extra Mile Award alongside fundraisers, mountain rescue workers, campaigners and volunteers who have spent whole lifetimes promoting the great outdoors. The Project Possible team were cited for “willingly risking their lives and putting their world-record project on hold to make multiple life-saving rescue attempts on various 8,000m mountains”.
On the face of it, this was a straightforward story of someone smashing a record to smithereens and doing some good as they went along. But if you dig a little deeper, there is another side to it. Alongside the unqualified praise, Nirmal Purja’s achievement has attracted fierce criticism.
Leading the charge were British and Polish mountaineers. Krzysztof Wielicki, the first man to climb Everest in winter, described it as a performance and organisational feat without much importance. Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, said that ‘It isn’t exactly alpinism as I understand it. He is of course supremely fit and determined but I find it hard to get enthused by what he’s done. I think for most climbers, speed records aren’t that interesting. What excites most climbers is the creativity and artistry of taking on a steep or unknown route.’
Meanwhile, Sir Chris Bonington also waded in. Sir Chris is best known for organising the siege-style expeditions that made the first ascents of the south face of Annapurna and south-west face of Everest, but he is more highly regarded among elite mountaineers for his lighter, exploratory expeditions.
‘What he has done is quite extraordinary, but it isn’t mountaineering. Real mountaineering is exploratory — finding new routes up to big peaks … I don’t see this as a major event.’
These men are being churlish, surely – why do they have such a problem with what Nirmal Purja did?
At the root of the controversy is an argument about style. Within the broad church of mountaineering is a smaller subset of climbers known as ‘alpinists’ who like to climb in a certain way. Alpinists travel fast and light, carrying all their equipment with them in a single push. They eschew support from anyone other than their immediate climbing partners, and set great store in a more exploratory style of mountaineering, climbing hard technical routes that have never been climbed before.
Nirmal Purja completed his ascents in a very different style. Helicopters took him from base camp to base camp on each peak. He arrived during peak climbing season (if you’ll excuse the pun) when routes had been pre-prepared with fixed ropes for those on commercial expeditions. He chose the easiest and fastest standard routes on each peak. He also committed the cardinal sin (in the eyes of alpinists) of using supplementary oxygen. This reduces many of the difficulties presented by extreme altitude, and many alpinists consider it cheating.
Are these criticisms valid? Well, if you ask me, this is an age-old problem of alpinists being unable to look at things from outside their bubble. It’s not that they are wrong, it’s just that they are judging by a different set of criteria. To put it another way, they are comparing steak with bananas.
Mountaineering means many things to many people. Most people don’t care about such esoteric things as clipping into a fixed rope or treading the same route as other people, or the means of transport between each peak. In any case, Nirmal Purja never made any pretence about completing the challenge in alpine style. In an interview with ExplorersWeb, he was unapologetic about his use of oxygen.
‘You cannot plan a single mountain in isolation,’ he said. ‘I have to consider the whole phase: the weather, the features of the mountain and the conditions. I have to get back down, so that I can reach the next mountain … You can always go again without oxygen if that is what is so important.’
It may not have been much of an achievement for those who consider the rules of alpinism as sacrosanct, but it was undeniably an achievement in other ways.
Most obviously, it was inconceivably quick. Nirmal Purja titled his challenge Project Possible for a good reason. When he first announced it, before he had climbed a single peak, most people, myself included, considered it ridiculous. And for most people, it would be.
But not Nirmal Purja. He believed it was possible, and he had it well planned. First of all, there was the cost and the logistics. In this, he had the support of controversial Nepali operator Seven Summits Treks, specialists in organising expeditions to the 8,000m peaks.
Seven Summits Treks already had commercial expeditions running to many of the peaks that Nirmal Purja was climbing, including Annapurna, Kangchenjunga, Everest, K2 and Manaslu. There would already be base camps and fixed routes in place when he arrived. They have their own fleet of helicopters. They could ferry him between the peaks, and he could just turn up and climb.
Nirmal Purja has been generous in his praise of those who have supported him. In the same way that a Tour de France winner needs a team of support riders (domestiques) to keep them in the lead, he needed other climbers around him. These included 30-year-old Mingma David Sherpa, who climbed nine peaks above 8,000m with the Project Possible team this year, and Gesman Tamang, who climbed seven.
‘United we conquer ! Here is to The A-team: Mingma David Sherpa , Gesman Tamang, Galjen Sherpa, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa and Halung Dorchi Sherpa … Together we have been through so much,’ he posted on Facebook after his ascent of Shishapangma.
There were other barriers that are not so easy to overcome. Climbing an 8,000m peak takes a lot out of you. Most people need days, sometimes even weeks to recover from an ascent. But Nirmal Purja ticked the peaks off so quickly that he barely had time for a snack, let alone a good rest.
For example, he reached the summit of Dhaulagiri in western Nepal on 12 May, descended 3,000m to base camp, caught a helicopter to Kangchenjunga in the far east of Nepal, then climbed another 3,000m to the summit, reaching it on 15 May. He climbed Everest and Lhotse, joined by Everest’s South Col, on the same day (22 May), descended 3,000m to Everest Base Camp, caught a helicopter to Makalu Base Camp, then climbed up to the summit of Makalu on 24 May. How on earth he recovered between these climbs, I have no idea.
Then there is the weather and conditions. To climb an 8,000m peak you have to be lucky with the weather. This means high winds, extreme cold, and a surfeit of snow creating avalanche risks. It’s perfectly normal to spend weeks on an 8,000m peak without getting a suitable weather window.
How on earth could Nirmal Purja hope to have favourable conditions on all fourteen peaks? The answer lay in the very speed that was the defining feature of his challenge. In short, he made his own luck. Because he climbed so quickly, he was able to take advantage of tiny weather windows that would be too short for most people. He only needed a few hours of good weather to sprint up and come back down again.
His supreme confidence also played to his advantage. For example, this year on K2 it was looking like another one of those seasons when nobody would reach the summit. Teams had been there for weeks waiting for a suitable window. The season was winding down and many climbers had already gone home. Then Nirmal Purja and the Project Possible team arrived. There was no way they were going to let the mountain defeat them. They blazed a trail to the top, and many other climbers who had been waiting there for weeks reached the summit in their wake.
There is another way that Nirmal Purja has been groundbreaking. He has shown what a Nepali climber can do when they have the support and the sponsorship that better-known western climbers are able to attract.
I have repeatedly written about how Sherpa mountaineers are in a different league when it comes to climbing at extreme altitude. Although Nirmal Purja isn’t actually a Sherpa (he’s a Magar), I believe that many other Sherpa climbers could do what he has done were they to have a similar level of support. But they haven’t. The difference is that Nirmal Purja has the superstar status that has enabled him to be the first. Hopefully he has forged a path that will enable other Nepali climbers to achieve the recognition they deserve.
Some alpinists have been more generous and balanced about Nirmal Purja’s achievement. These include two great Italian climbers, Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb all fourteen 8,000ers, and Simone Moro, who was the first to make winter ascents on four 8,000ers.
Simone Moro said that he could think of less than ten people who would be capable of repeating Nirmal Purja’s achievement using the same means. Messner agreed that while Nirmal Purja’s style has ‘nothing to do with Jerzy Kukuczka’s,’ (the second man to climb all fourteen, who completed a new route or a first winter ascent on every single one) Purja did not set out to better this achievement. He had never hidden his use of oxygen and helicopters. Instead of moaning about his use of oxygen, Messner suggested that alpinists should instead rise to the challenge by trying to repeat the achievement without oxygen.
But there are other sides to this story too. In setting such store in the style by which Nirmal Purja achieved his goal, other more genuinely controversial factors are in danger of being forgotten.
One of his chief sponsors, Seven Summits Treks have been embroiled in controversy in the last year. They have been implicated in the helicopter rescue controversy that has still not been resolved. On Annapurna, Nirmal Purja became caught up in this story when one of their clients went missing on the mountain. Although it was their client, Seven Summits Treks wouldn’t instigate a rescue until his insurer Global Rescue agreed to cover the cost. Although the climber was eventually found and brought down by Nirmal Purja and other climbers, he subsequently died in hospital. A very public feud followed, and Nirmal Purja unwisely waded in by making critical comments about Global Rescue.
The manner in which rescues have been used as publicity by the Project Possible team is something many people consider distasteful. Rescues happen regularly on the busier 8,000m peaks. These are usually coordinated by the larger expedition companies in cooperation with each another. While some operators do publicise these incidents if rescues are successful and they feel the victims need to be called out, many operators do not publicise them out of respect. While credit may be due, it is more dignified to keep quiet about rescues and let others do the talking.
On Everest, Nirmal Purja unwittingly instigated a much bigger media storm by taking THAT photo of a queue of climbers on the Hillary Step. The photo went viral, appearing in every media publication from Kathmandu to Timbuktu and once again Everest was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The same old stories buzzed around the internet. Everest has become too easy, overrun by tourists who don’t know how to put on a pair of crampons.
Lost in these stories was the fact that Nirmal Purja’s sponsor Seven Summits Treks are one of the worst offenders, providing cheap trips with low levels of support, accepting anyone who would pay the money regardless of their previous experience. Seven of their clients died on the 8,000m peaks this spring season. Instead of being ashamed of this statistic their owner was quoted as saying the clients ‘know they have a 50% chance of returning safely and a 50% chance of dying or being rescued’.
More recently, questions have arisen about whether he reached the true summit of Manaslu, a mountain that is notorious for having a series of summits, some easier to reach than others. Not every climber is diligent about checking which summit they reach. I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago.
This year, ExplorersWeb reported that most people who reached the top of Manaslu didn’t reach the true summit, and Nirmal Purja may have been among them. If this turns out to be true, then he could join the short list of people whose ascents of all fourteen are disputed because one summit is in doubt. This list includes Alan Hinkes, to date the only Briton to have climbed all fourteen. Hinkes reached the summit of Cho Oyu, an enormous plateau, in a whiteout, and wasn’t explicit enough about which point he reached for everybody’s liking.
For most people, stopping a few metres short doesn’t make too much difference (something I’ve written about before) but the argument is that those claiming records have to be more precise.
While Nirmal Purja’s record is not currently in dispute, there are still many details about his climbs that are sketchy. The Project Possible website is light on detail and while he has posted many verifiable summit photos and snippets of information to Facebook, these do not contain full trip reports of each ascent.
I am sure these details will emerge in time, and when they do the importance of his achievement can be more easily assessed. The team from the Himalayan Database will be diligent about documenting the details of some of his ascents. These will be publicly available in the not too distant future, though it won’t include the five 8,000m peaks in Pakistan.
However you choose to judge this feat, and whatever you want to call it – mountaineering, speed climbing, high-altitude peak bagging, or something completely different – there is no doubt that it has been an extraordinary achievement. It was a feat that nobody considered remotely possible, but he did it.
He has raised the bar for something, whatever that may be, and don’t be surprised if he does something else to silence his critics. He has hinted about attempting K2 in winter, the last of the 8,000m peaks yet to have a winter ascent. If he manages that then it would shut a few more people up.
Looking to read more? My latest book Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite explores the evolution of Sherpa mountaineers, from the porters of early expeditions to the superstar climbers of the present day. It contains two chapters on Nirmal Purja’s achievements and what they mean for Sherpa mountaineers.