14 Peaks: the quest to climb the world’s highest mountains in less than a year

A new Netflix documentary chronicles the lengths Nirmal Purja went to as he attempted to break one of mountaineering’s toughest records

Another mountaineer might have scoffed. They might have raised a frostbitten thumb over their pack-strapped shoulder at the 8,000m peak in the distance and the set of tracks winding down from its snow-capped pinnacle to their soggy boots and huffed, Can I at least catch my breath? They might have waved off the notion of venturing back to that frozen hellhole to rescue a stranded climber, who doubtless would have been alert to the myriad risks of scaling the world’s 10th-highest point. On top of all that Nirmal Purja had other mountains to climb – and the clock was ticking. Loudly.

But Purja, who goes by Nims for short, isn’t built like the rest of us. For a start, there’s something deep within him that simply won’t countenance the idea of leaving a person in peril. So even though a fresh cresting of Annapurna I, the giant in the Himalayan massif with a notoriously deadly legacy, had wrung him out physically and psychically, Nims was dutifully airlifted back up the peak with his crack team of Sherpas. As the pitch dark night and bitter wind pushed the already freezing temperatures even lower, Nims and his teammates had to slap themselves to stay awake to finish the mission in time for the next helicopter pass – which they made with five minutes to spare.

That stranded climber would have been unlikely to survive if Nims hadn’t been on that ridge, too. But Nims doesn’t make a big deal out of his no-man-left-behind ethos. Mostly, he shrugs. “If I don’t apply that in my civilian stuff, whatever I’m doing, then I don’t think I’m moving forward,” he tells the Guardian from Kathmandu.

The emotional tug-of-war between the greater glory and the greater good is what lies at the core of 14 Peaks – the recently released Netflix documentary chronicling Nims’ attempt to summit the world’s 14 highest peaks (all of which stand 8,000m or higher) in seven months during 2019. For context, the previous record was seven years, and among the first men to set it was Reinhold Messner – easily one of the most accomplished explorers in recent history.

At first this expedition – dubbed Project Possible – doesn’t just sound ludicrous; it feels way too big for Nims, a relative newcomer to mountaineering whose hard-partying, Instagram-influencing reputation would seem at odds with the gravity of his goal. But through the skillful direction of director Torquil Jones, who was behind the exhaustive doc on England manager Bobby Robson, we quickly learn that Nims is no social climber. Rather, the 38-year-old from Nepal is a military veteran with a glittering career as a Gurkha (beginning at 18) and in the Special Boat Service. In December 2012, while on leave, he fell in love with climbing during a trek to Everest base camp, twisting his guide’s arm (figuratively, we think) until he helped him summit the 6,119m Lobuche East peak.

Nirmal Purja after a historic  scaling of K2 in the winter season
Nirmal Purja after a historic scaling of K2 in the winter season. Photograph: Anjum Naveed/AP

That was the beginning of a career built to topple climbing records. But Nims, a self-styled “Usain Bolt of peaks” known to set climbing records hungover, isn’t only looking to distinguish himself. He’s equally driven to win recognition for Nepalese Sherpas, who have operated too long and too faithfully in the shadow of the white western mountaineers reaching for immortality.

It hardly spoils 14 Peaks to reveal that, despite his rarified perch in the mountaineering world, even Nims gets used. “I would be at the front with my team setting fixed lines, carrying probably 30-35 kg, trailblazing around in waist-deep snow at the death zone, and some either European or western climber with nothing to carry would just, like, follow behind,” Nims says. “And at the end, they wouldn’t even say thank you. They wouldn’t even speak openly in their social media about it. And I think if people could do that to me, imagine what they could do to someone older or uneducated?”

The thing that shines through over the course of 14 Peak’s 99 minutes is the smile with which Nims greets rudeness and roadblocks. When his fundraising campaign for Project Possible dead-ends, he takes out a second mortgage on his house – then hits the jackpot when his photo of a traffic jam of climbers on Mount Everest goes viral and lands on the front page of the New York Times. When he trundles into the defeated camp at the base of K2, where other climbers commiserated over their failed attempts to summit the 10th peak on Project Possible’s to-do list, he blazed an apogee trail for everyone else to follow. When China initially denied him access to Shishapangma, the last peak on the list, Nims brought down that great bureaucratic wall by appealing directly to the Nepalese government and bombarding their Chinese counterparts with glowing recommendation letters.

Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja at the summit of the 8,035m Gasherbrum II
Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja at the summit of the 8,035m Gasherbrum II. Photograph: Nirmal 'Nims' Purja - Bremont Pr/AFP/Getty Images

All the while in the background, he reckoned with strife at home (his anxious wife, his ailing mother, an angry older brother who resented his decision to leave the military to chase this fever dream) and that other giant peak – the ever-growing mountain of sponsorship obligations. And then of course there was the documentary shoot he was actively producing, an added responsibility that should justify his decision to scale those peaks under the assistance of oxygen – a point of contention in the climbing community. “In the whole of this project, climbing was the easiest thing I have done,” he says.

You don’t have to be a mountaineering enthusiast to enjoy 14 Peaks. The extreme force of Nims’s infectious personality makes that easy enough. But what’s likely to have you returning to the film time and again is the warmth at the heart of Nims’s Mother Abbess-like mission, a testament to the levels a person can ascend if they don’t let negativity stand in the way of their big dreams.

“It’s about achieving the impossible in life,” says Nims, who went from growing up poor and watching TV through his neighbors’ windows to starring and producing “one of the biggest mountaineering films in the world … that has been translated into 31 different languages. So, you know, you don’t need to go to film school and all that stuff to create this. You just need to have a vision.”

All the same, 14 Peaks will be tough to top.


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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