“Project Possible” is what Nimsdai “Nims” Purja chose to name his mission to climb the world’s 14 highest peaks within seven months, in response to all the naysayers. The disbelief was, perhaps, understandable: what Nimsdai Purja was planning to achieve in months had last been completed over the course of seven years, six months and 10 days, by Korean mountaineer Kim Chang-ho in 2013. Purja would eventually smash the record in six months and six days.
Between 23 April and 29 October 2019, Purja climbed Nepal’s Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Manaslu; Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I and II, K2 and Broad Peak; and Tibet’s Cho Oyu and Shishapangma. Despite his best efforts, he had to begin without all the funding in place for even the first phase of climbing, and with the news that Shishapangma was closed to climbers for the year.
The third son in a family of five that was struggling to make ends meet in Chitwan in Terai—Nepal’s hottest and flattest region—Purja had neither climbed over 8,000 metres nor swam competitively while growing up. And yet, backed by the pride that his father and brothers had all served in the Gurkha regiment, Purja kept upping challenges for himself. He became the first Nepali to be selected for the UK Special Forces’ elite Special Boat Service, which, among other things, requires every member to dive and swim in combat. Mountain-climbing is expensive, and Purja first trekked to Everest Basecamp in 2012, at the age of 29. On his first ascent of Everest in 2016, he’d been able to rescue an Indian climber because of his decision to use oxygen support above 7,400 metres; it became a practice that helped him continue to save lives although it also brought criticism for not being the purest form of high-altitude mountaineering. By the time Purja announced his mission in 2018, he had unwittingly set his first mountaineering world-record by summiting Everest, Lhotse and Makalu in five days, an achievement that led to his becoming a cold-weather warfare specialist and a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Little wonder then that his memoir, Beyond Possible, published this November by Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette India, has all the makings of a blockbuster. One of the most riveting details comes late in the book, when Purja reveals that even before he set foot on Annapurna last April, he got a tattoo on his back of all 14 peaks, with the DNA of his family mixed in the ink as a way to take them on his journey and as a reminder to bring his A-game. Purja always pushes the envelope, and that’s what makes Beyond Possible a taut, action-packed and inspiring read that is compelling for mountaineers and armchair travellers. Excerpts from an interview:
You’ve gone from a year of very intense travel to this year, when most of the world has been under lockdown. How has 2020 been for you?
The whole year, I was quite fortunate to write the book Beyond Possible, it took about nine months since December. Once you write a book, it’s out there in black and white, so I’ve probably read this book a million times and tried to get it right, so a lot of energy was brought into it.
In Beyond Possible, you often mention the importance of disguising pain and the role of silent suffering as strategy and defence, whether at the battlefield or on a mountain. But writing a book is completely different: you bare yourself, you talk about mistakes, accidents and the emotional toll. What was it like putting that on the page?
It was tough and completely alien to me but the basic principle of how I operate in life is the same: I give 100%, I am committed and I work hard for it. As soon as you do that, the result doesn’t matter, you would at least be able to put your hands on your chest and say, “I gave everything I had,” and that gives you peace.
You set out on the mission with very clear objectives: to set a world record that would illustrate that imagination is our greatest power, to spotlight the Sherpa community, to bring glory to SBS and to highlight the floods and melting glaciers in the Himalayas due to climate change. Looking back, what do you think was its biggest impact?
The biggest impact was that the mission showed the world that nothing is impossible. I was born in a very poor family, an underprivileged kid in Nepal. It was quite tough: I had no flip-flops, I was literally barefoot, living in a room with a chicken farm next to it. So, from a really tough upbringing to joining the Gurkhas, to becoming the first ever Gurkha to pass the selection for the UK’s Special Forces, SBS, to climbing all the 14 highest peaks in 6 months. It shows the world that you don’t need to have an opportunity always, you don’t need to have rich parents or any of those things. As long as you work hard, believe in yourself, give 100% to the now and have a positive mindset, you can achieve the impossible.
Were there unexpected benefits?
Not really, to be honest it was more of a hassle, because being that popular isn’t really my thing. I was used to operating covertly—of course doing amazing stuff in a James Bond kind of job, but it was discreet. I enjoyed that but now, when you are so famous that people recognise you… of course, there are advantages and disadvantages, so hey, it’s okay. I have always been the same: super ambitions since I was a kid, working hard towards my next project, I always seek the challenge in my life. Of course, now being an influencer, I feel a lot of personal responsibility towards the community and society, and I would absolutely use the power of communication and words to support people who can’t speak for themselves, so the responsibility has definitely gone high up.
There are moments when you very honestly talk about considering death as an ally or release on the mountain. What’s your advice for when you feel like quitting?
The pain is temporary. If you give up, it always stays in your chest. saying, “Had I given my 100%, I could have been successful.” So for the peace of your mind, don’t give up because it’s not going to last that long. Nothing is permanent in life so why give up and then regret it throughout your life?
You were diagnosed with asthma in your schooldays, and that would deter many from a career in mountaineering.
That, and tuberculosis. It’s very simple: your body is controlled by your mind, not the other way around. What you believe, you do. If you believe you can run 20km, you can. If you believe you can’t do it and you want to come half-way—you are already losing the battle. The power of the mind is so amazing, just to give you an example: if you have two patients with a similar illness, of the same age and kind of body structure, the one with a positive mindset who believes she can do better, will heal better. So I completely ignored that, I always thought I didn’t have nothing, and my brain overruled it so I don’t have any of that now. You should try this, it’s like deep meditation; the power of belief and mindset is unlimited, it’s unimaginable. My meditation could be something on which I focus deeply. When I’m climbing, I have to focus on how I’m climbing literally every step. When you are that focused, you experience the power of meditation. When I go speed-flying on a small paragliding canopy, I’ve got to focus, and that becomes a meditation for me. I forget so many problems, because if you don’t focus on the moment, you die.
You’ve been inspired by the journeys of Usain Bolt and Muhammad Ali. Were there also books or movies that helped cultivate your mindset?
As a kid, I always believed that I could do something, and it’s about how you want to live your life. Sometimes you watch a movie, and there are always good takeaways from whatever you do in life. When I was a kid, I watched the famous movie Rocky IV, and sometimes when I was training, I was like, “Come on! (hums the theme song)”. And my brothers were in the Gurkhas. Most of it, I developed as I grew older.
Do you ever miss military life?
Now, not really because I’m still out there doing extreme sports. I’ve still got a few friends from the military but I’m a completely different person now, I’m living a completely different life, and this is also another key message to people: Gone are those days when you have to be stuck in one job. Nowadays, you can try one thing, experience it, and then move into another thing and experience that. Life is too short to just be doing one thing, I guess, so try many different things and live it.
What was your favourite climbing experience? And how does Everest compare?
A lot of people ask me, “What’s the hardest climb?” I’d say, if you remove all the Sherpas, all the manpower, Everest would still be the hardest climb; I dare you to climb through the Khumbu Icefall. Among all, my favourite was Annapurna, because it was so, so dangerous, and K2, because of the test of it, and how the vibe was at that point with everybody giving up, and then me and my team went there and made the impossible possible for everybody else on the mountain.
Any suggestions on being a better mountaineer?
The Sherpas, the Nepalese climbing community, have always been at the frontier of the 8,000ers. It’s just that justice was never given, that’s a core reason why I did this huge project last year, to climb all the 14 peaks. Hopefully things will change, and with the power of communication these days, it makes things a lot easier; gone are those days when you can get away with not giving credit. People need to be more respectful towards the talent and as long as we all do that, everybody’s happy.
I loved reading the parts featuring your wife, Suchi, and that you talk about what it took on her part, too. What are your keys to a good relationship especially given the high-risk situations and long periods away?
The biggest thing is that your partner always plays a vital role in life, whoever you are; without having strong support and backing, you cannot be successful. I am so thankful I have such a beautiful wife who was super supportive and let me do what I love doing. I think in every couple’s life, if you restrict a person from doing what they love, then that person is not going to be happy and if that husband or wife is not happy, it’s not going to be a happy family. It is a balance. Life is a compromise and you’ve got to find balance, you’ve got to give your 100%. As long as the other person sees that you are trying and making an effort and not completely ignoring things, they will be happy because that is all we can do.
Where do you and your wife like holidaying?
We’ve been to Bali, the Maldives, Paris, we did loads of water sports in Thailand.
What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?
I am not the kind of person who would lay on the beach for days; I do go for an hour or two but for me, it’s always about exploring different things, experiencing something. Laying out on a beach for two weeks’ holidays, you’d experience the same thing: the warmth of the sun. If I do extreme sports or a rafting adventure, then I learn something.
What’s next for you?
K2, it’s the only 8,000er that has never been climbed in winter. This is the last and greatest, so I am going to go and do it this winter.