In ‘14 Peaks,’ Special Operations Vet Smashes Mountaineering Records

December 9, 2021Mac Caltrider
14 Peaks

Nirmal Purja summited the world’s 14 tallest mountains in just six months and six days. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Mount Everest saw one of its deadliest climbing seasons to date in 2019. Eleven climbers perished on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain that year, but for the small community of alpine climbers, the same season also saw some of the most amazing feats in the history of the extreme sport. Nirmal Purja — or “Nims,” as the 38-year-old Nepalese climber prefers to be called — broke six world records over a period of only six months and six days. 

In 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible — a new documentary from the award-winning producers of Free Solo and The Rescue, Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and Anna Barnes — Purja’s record-shattering 2019 climbing season is all caught on video. The Nepalese climber set out to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains in just seven months. For perspective, the same feat took the world’s most respected alpinist, Reinhold Messner, 16 years to complete. Before Purja, the fastest anyone had successfully climbed all of the “eight-thousanders” was seven years.

Nims Purja served in Britain’s elite Special Boat Service before venturing into the world of mountaineering. Screenshot via YouTube.

Purja, who was born and raised in Nepal, honed his near-superhuman endurance while serving in the military. He enlisted in the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas in 2003. Throughout history, the Gurkhas have distinguished themselves as fierce fighters of the British Empire who hail from Nepal. After six years of service with the storied unit, Purja became the first Gurkha in Britain’s history to join the elite Special Boat Service, which is akin to the US Navy SEAL teams. Sailors trying out for the unit experience an attrition rate of approximately 90%. As a member of the remaining 10%, Purja developed the indomitable spirit that would later carry him to the world’s highest peaks.

During a 2011 deployment to an undisclosed location with the SBS, an enemy sniper shot Purja in the buttstock of his rifle, momentarily leading Purja to believe he had been shot in the face. It was while dodging bullets in the SBS that Purja also became comfortable being uncomfortable.

Nims Purja
Nims Purja served in the British Gurkhas before qualifying for the Special Boat Service. Screenshot via YouTube.

“When people tell me they climb for fun, I don’t believe them. It’s not fun. It’s a place where you have to learn to cope with pain because it’s painful,” Messner says in 14 Peaks, providing a glimpse into why Purja excels where other extreme athletes falter.

With only six years of military service left before earning a pension, Purja left the Army to take on the mountains.

“I was told my plan was impossible, so I named it ‘Project Possible,’” Purja says of his ambitious plan to summit all 14 of the eight-thousanders in seven months. “I wanted to show the world what a human could do.”

On April 23, 2019, Purja reached the summit of Nepal’s Annapurna — the first of the 14 mountains — officially kicking off Project Possible. Purja was aided by a team composed entirely of Nepalese climbers: a rare occurrence for the world of high altitude climbing historically dominated by wealthy foreigners.

14 peaks
Project Possible’s climbing team was composed entirely of Nepalese climbers. Screenshot via YouTube.

Following his successful summit of Annapurna, Purja participated in the high-risk rescue of another climber stranded high on Annapurna’s slopes. Purja volunteered to be hoisted by helicopter back up the mountain — a dangerous maneuver — to evacuate the stranger. Following the successful rescue, Purja wasted no time moving on to the next peak: Dhaulagiri.

On May 12, Purja successfully reached the 26,795-foot summit of Dhaulagiri. Just three days later, and still fighting a hangover from some celebratory drinks, Purja summited Kanchenjunga. He reached the top of the third-highest mountain in the world in one stretch, skipping the customary acclimatization stops most climbers rely on. Despite the mind-bending ascent, it was on his way down that Purja ran into the biggest dilemma of Project Possible.

Halfway down the mountain, Purja encountered another climber who was out of oxygen and on the verge of dying. Despite urging from base camp to continue down the mountain, the former SBS operator stayed with the injured climber and shared his own rapidly diminishing supply of oxygen. After hours of waiting in complete darkness for a rescue, Purja eventually ran out of oxygen too, and the vulnerable climber succumbed to the elements. Once the unnamed climber died in his arms, Purja continued his 11-hour descent alone and without the aid of bottled oxygen. 

He successfully descended, though not before developing high-altitude cerebral edema, a condition that causes the brain to swell. Despite the potentially life-threatening illness, Purja took on the next of the eight-thousanders just seven days later. 

On May 22, Purja successfully summited Everest. In the next 48 hours, Purja also bagged Lhotse (at 27,940 feet, the fourth-tallest mountain in the world) and Makalu (fifth-tallest), breaking the world record for the fastest ascent of all three coveted Himalayan peaks. 

Nims Purja being hoisted by helicopter up Annapurna to help rescue a stranded climber. Screenshot via YouTube.

By the end of October — six months and six days after starting Project Possible — Purja had reached the top of all 14 eight-thousanders. During his breakneck race to conquer the world’s tallest mountains, Purja and his team broke six mountaineering records. Two months after completing Project Possible, Purja led the first winter ascent of K2: the second-tallest — and deadliest — mountain in the world.

Some of the most breathtaking footage of the Himalayas ever recorded is in 14 Peaks. The roughly 100 minutes of film have enough vertigo-inducing shots to keep heart rates soaring above 170 beats per minute, even for viewers watching Purja take to thin air from the safety of a La-Z-Boy.

And although his name will now forever be synonymous with greatness, it seems Nims Purja has no intentions of slowing down.

“Giving up is not in the blood, sir,” the 38-year-old operator-turned-alpinist proclaims in 14 Peaks. “It’s not in the blood.”

Read Next: 12 Children and a Flooded Cave: New Documentary Captures Harrowing Rescue in Thailand

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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