© Nirmal Purja
Nirmal Purja just climbed 14 mountains in six months and stunned the world
Until October 2019, the fastest-known time for climbing all 14 of the world's 8000-metre mountains was eight years. An upstart Nepalese mountaineer has just done it six months. World, meet Nims Dai.
At around 2pm on the 23rd of April 2019, Nepalese climber Nirmal Purja summited Annapurna, one of Nepal’s eight 8000-ers (8000-plus-metre peaks), and the deadliest mountain in the world.
Since the first ascent of Annapurna by French mountaineers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal in 1950, some 191 climbers have summited successfully while 61 have died trying. For every 100 people who came back, 34 didn’t.
But that’s not what’s impressive about Purja’s (who goes by ‘Nimsdai’, or ‘Nims’, for short) ascent. What’s impressive is that Annapurna was just the beginning of a much more audacious plan — a world record-breaking mission to summit all 14 of the world’s 8000-ers in just seven months.
When word of Nims’ plan, dubbed ‘Project Possible’, began to spread around mountaineering circles, nobody took him seriously. And on paper, it’s not hard to understand why.
For a start, Nims, an ex-British Special Forces soldier, was pretty new to the mountaineering scene – nobody knew who he was. Then there’s the small fact that the previous fastest-known time for conquering the 8000-ers was seven years, 10 months and six days, and was set by South Korean Kim Chang-ho in in 2013.
Before Chang-ho, the previous fastest time, set by Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka, was seven years, 11 months and 14 days (though it's worth mentioning that neither Chang-ho or Kukuczka were aiming for speed).
Still, Nims’ 14/7 proposition didn’t just sound absurd, it sounded like a fantasy — he might as well have told everyone that he was going to swim to the moon.
But on 29 October 2019, Nims finally conquered Tibet's Shishapangma (8013 metres) after a long battle with Chinese authorities to obtain a climbing permit. It was his 14th and final mountain, and it signalled the completion and success of Project Possible.
All told, Nims completed the project in just six months and six days door-to-door, and broke a further six world records along the way. Having started as a no-name climber, Nims – accompanied by a dedicated team – earned his place in mountaineering history in record time.
But Project Possible didn't exactly get off to a roaring start.
Part 1: Adapt and survive
With his summit of Annapurna successful, Nims returned to basecamp. Word had spread that another climber, a Malaysian by the name of Wui Kin Chin, had been lost for more than 36 hours.
Everyone assumed Chin was dead — exposure to altitude and extreme weather for that length of time does not tend to yield a happy ending — so Nims and his team settled in for the night, celebrating their summit with a few hard-earned drinks before turning in at around 3:30am.
At 6am, a helicopter flew into basecamp. A Sherpa jumped out and ran in to Nims’ tent to tell him that they’d spotted Chin waving from the mountainside, about 7500 metres up. He wasn’t dead. Nims got into the chopper and flew to where the climber had been spotted and, just as the Sherpa had said, Chin was still waving. Conditions were such that there was no way the chopper could get close, so any rescue attempt would have to be undertaken from below, and on foot.
We were running like Usain Bolt at altitude, brother.
Chin had summited Annapurna but grown lethargic and collapsed on the descent. His Sherpa left him with what little oxygen he had, and returned to Camp 4 to try and rustle help. Allegedly, not one of the 30 climbers at camp that day were willing lend a hand.
As soon as Nims saw Chin waving, he knew his only choice was to attempt a rescue. “Imagine you’ve been exposed to extreme altitude and weather for nearly two days,” Nims tells RedBull.com over the phone from his home in Southampton, England. “Then you see this chopper and think you’re about to be rescued…then it flies off. I just put myself in his position. We got back to camp, and we got ready.”
The rescue team, comprised of Nims and his most trusted climbing companions — Mingma Sherpa, Gesman Tamang and Gyalzen Sherpa — were dropped by helicopter just below Camp 3. On summit day, from the same spot, it took the team 18 hours to cover the distance. On this day? Four hours. “We were running like Usain Bolt at altitude, brother,” says the 36-year-old.
They found the climber — who was conscious but suffering severe hypothermia and frostbite — and got him back to Camp 3 by 6am the following day. Chin was taken straight to Kathmandu hospital, where his wife was waiting for him, before being transferred back to Singapore. The 48-year-old, who spent close to 40 hours stranded at 7500 metres without water, food or oxygen, eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died in hospital on the 2nd of May, 2019.
Given his tight timeframe, Nims’ involvement in the rescue of Chin presented some logistical problems. The extra time he spent on Annapurna meant he’d missed his weather window on Dhaulagiri (8167 metres), the next mountain on his list, and would have to wait another week to summit.
Nims made tracks for Dhaulagiri anyway, and wound up summiting on the 5th of May at 6pm, weather be damned. “The wind speed was 60-70kmph,” he says. “We totally missed the good weather, but we had to smash through it anyway to keep on track for the other mountains.”
The team descended all night, got back to basecamp at 8am, packed up, took a chopper to Kathmandu at 3pm, landed at 5:30pm and celebrated with friends, were back at the airport by 6am, and arrived and Kanchenjunga (8586 metres) basecamp for summit number three at 11am. Phew.
Part 2: The boy in flip-flops
Nims didn’t grow up wanting to climb mountains. He grew up wanting to be a Gurkha in the British military, like his dad and his brothers before him.
He was born in Dana, a small village in Nepal’s Myagdi District, and grew up in Chitwan. “It’s the flattest part of the whole country!”, he laughs. He was good at school, but says he never wanted to be a pilot, a doctor or anything like that. “Being a Gurkha was my only dream. It was the only thing I wanted to do.”
His dream came true when he joined the Gurkhas in 2003, at the age of 18. He spent six years with them before moving into the Special Boat Service (SBS) — the special forces unit of the British Royal Navy.
The unit is predominantly made up of Royal Marines Commandos, and specialises in classified undercover raids. Along with the SAS, the SBS is regarded as the most elite unit in the British military. “I went from this village boy rocking around in flip-flops to getting into the British Army’s most elite unit and flying around in mini-submarines,” says Nims. “People should look at that…and never forget to dream.”
Normally, people would take two months to climb these kinds of mountains ... It was at that point that I realised I’m good at altitude.
Nims fell in love with the mountains in December 2012, during an expedition to Everest Base Camp. “I enjoyed the trail…but it was just the view,” he says. “I got a taste for what it’s like to stand on a peak and have this view.” He managed to convince his guide to teach him how to climb “for real” (‘training’ in this instance involved learning how to use crampons on grass) and he successfully summited the 6119-metre Lobuche East with his guide shortly after. It was his first peak.
From then on, Nims would use any leave he had from the special forces to climb 8000-metre peaks. He made tracks for Dhaulagiri in 2010 and climbed it in 14 days, from Kathmandu and back, without any prior acclimatisation. “Normally, people would take two months to climb these kinds of mountains,” says Nims, matter-of-factly. “It was at that point that I realised I’m good at altitude.” He talks about climbing these mountains so casually that you'd think he just took the dog for a walk.
Nims made it into the special forces mountaineering troop in 2014 and became the head of extreme cold weather warfare as an instructor. Three years later, he was one of the lead instructors for the Gurkhas when they attempted to climb Everest for the first time (though it was their second attempt).
But Nims was harbouring a secret: he had, in fact, already climbed Everest. “I didn’t tell anyone because I wanted them to have the whole celebrity thing, and to keep the morale high as the whole team climbed,” he laughs. “But the story can come out now — the Gurkhas know, it’s all done.”
This particular Everest expedition was made all the more difficult by bad weather, but thanks to some line-fixing heroics from Nims, the Gurkhas summited Everest on the 15th of May 2017 for the first(ish) time.
Nims and his team went back to Kathmandu and “partied for a week”. Then Nims went up Everest again, again in extreme weather. “There’s a photo on my Instagram where my face is burnt from the wind,” he says. “There were only 4-5 climbers on the summit. It was really tough.”
After Everest, Nims summited Lhotse, stopped in Namche Bazaar to party for two days, then summited Makalu — all in five days. “If it wasn’t for the party, I would’ve done it in three,” he says.
Clearly, Nims’ physiology enables him to operate at obscenely high levels, for obscenely long times, in obscenely severe conditions. What his body is capable of is almost impossible for most people to compute — even he can’t provide a straight answer.
He says he only eats “food you’d find in any kitchen” and doesn’t eat anything “weird” like energy gels or protein supplements. It’s not a special forces thing, either — he says his pals from the forces might take a month to recover from Everest, whereas he’s good to go again the next day. “Without measuring Nims in a laboratory it’s hard to say if his physiology is exceptional or not,” says Ash Routen, who holds a PhD in exercise science and is an expert on expeditionary travel. “His ability to recover seems exceptional, but until we get some data on this, how he does it is at the moment pure speculation.”
In any case, it was after these rapid ascents that Nims realised he had “so much to give in the mountaineering world”, and the idea for Project Possible was born.
Part 3: Let’s talk about oxygen
Most people who summit Kanchenjunga — the third highest mountain in the world, and the third on Nims’ list — do so by taking one camp at a time, sleeping, then moving on to the next camp. But Nims’ tight schedule meant he had to summit directly from basecamp.
Having come direct from Dhaulagiri, Nims and his team were so sleep-deprived that they would literally fall asleep if they stopped. “It was dangerous,” he says. “We overcame it by making it a race. We went so fast that it was impossible for us to sleep.” The team summited Kanchenjunga in just 22 hours and 30 minutes.
Then came the rescues.
Now, in the mountaineering world, much is made of style. For purists, mountaineering isn’t about peaks for the sake of peaks – it’s about how you get there. Where some climbers might take the easiest and most established routes, use bottled oxygen and employ the help of Sherpas, summits without bottled oxygen or fixed lines that take new or unusual routes tend to be held in higher regard by such purists. Chang-ho and Kukuczka’s 8000-er completions, for example, were largely completed without oxygen (completely, in Chang-ho’s case), and many of Kukuczka’s ascents used original routes.
Throughout Project Possible, Nims has used bottled oxygen (though he says he only takes it from the high camps, around the 7500-metre mark), fixed lines, and Sherpas. Nims’ ultimate goal was to complete the project without oxygen, but he changed his mind when, in 2016 during pre-deployment leave from the special forces, he encountered a female climber on Everest who’d been left by her team and was in need of rescue.
Nims, who had oxygen with him at the time, completed that rescue in one hour and 45 minutes. If he didn’t have oxygen, he knows he wouldn’t have been able to just leave her there, and it’s almost certain that they would’ve both perished during the rescue attempt.
I understand people get phased out by that kind of problem, but it was hard to deal with. I was just disgusted with those people who didn’t come to help. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
This scenario came into play again during Nims’ descent on Kanchenjunga when, at 8450 metres, the team found a Sherpa and an Indian climber who’d run out of oxygen. Just 100 metres below, Nims found another climber from the same party who was suffering from HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). The Project Possible crew handed over their oxygen, leaving them with none. “To put this in perspective, coming off oxygen at 8450 metres is lethal,” says Nims. “Practically no one can do this. If you climb without oxygen, your body acclimatises and adapts. Coming off the oxygen at those altitudes is suicidal for 99.9% of people. Your body’s not ready for it.”
But the Project Possible team had no choice. After radioing for help for over 10 hours, Nims realised that nobody else was coming. “There were more than 40 people at Camp 4,” he says. “Solo climbers, alpinists, whatever they want to call themselves — nobody came to help.”
By this point, Gesman had started developing frostbite, so Nims sent him back down to camp. One of the climbers being rescued was talking to his wife via satellite phone. “He was totally conscious, just talking,” says Nims. “We were only about half an hour from Camp 4, and his oxygen ran out. He was dead within 15 minutes. He died in our arms.”
Ultimately, Nims and Mingma began developing symptoms of HACE, and neither of the Indian climbers made it off Kanchenjunga alive that day, despite superhuman efforts from the Project Possible team. Nims didn’t stick around for long at Camp 4. “I understand people get phased out by that kind of problem, but it was hard to deal with,” he says. “I was just disgusted with those people who didn’t come to help. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I went down to basecamp directly, called a chopper and flew away. I just wanted to be alone.”
“We conducted that whole rescue without oxygen, and that happened to him in just 15 minutes. He died. I’m sick of people asking me why I climb with oxygen. That’s why. That’s why it’s important for me.”
After Kanchenjunga, Nims climbed Everest (8848 metres), Lhotse (8516 metres) and Makalu (8481 metres) in a 48-hour window — he even managed to take a viral photo of the queues on Everest along the way (he was trying to break his own speed record on Everest, which he’s climbed multiple times previously, but he got “stuck in traffic” for 7.5 hours).
All in all, he climbed Nepal’s six 8000-metre peaks in just 31 days, with four unplanned rescues along the way. And phase one of Project Possible was complete.
Part 4: Nothing ventured, nothing gained
The project has been likened (by one Reddit user) to “the moon landing for mountaineering” and, by the time he finished phase one, Nims has amassed a sizeable following across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and become a mountaineering personality in his own right.
Even so, funding for Project Possible has been difficult to come by since the start. Before phase one, Nims struggled to get any brands or companies to sponsor him because they literally didn’t believe it was, in fact, possible. For four months, he’d wake at 4am, work on his Instagram, get the 7am train to London, have three or four meetings, get home by 7pm, send more emails, rinse, and repeat. “I was never in bed before 12,” he says.
Nims didn't waver. Having already left the special forces in order to fulfil his dream — sacrificing a £500,000 pension in the process — he remortgaged his house and got the full equity release. He poured £55,000 into the project, rustled up a little more financial help from some of the friends he’d made in the special forces world, and set up a GoFundMe. Phase one began with around 75% funding, and Nims worked with a commercial climbing company, Elite Himalayan Adventures, along the way in order to fund the rest. “It’s been one financial risk after the other,” says Nims. “I always say this project has been ‘horrifically amazing’.”
For phase two, which would see Nims travel to Pakistan to tackle Nanga Parbat (8126 metres), Gasherbrum I (8010 metres), Gasherbrum II (8035 metres) and K2 (8611 metres), he secured a title sponsor in Bremont, the British luxury and military-grade watch company, and Osprey Europe. Nims had shown the world what he could do during phase one, and now the world wanted a piece.
I just want people from anywhere to see this and see the vision. I’m a village boy, born on a farm… This isn’t just my project. This is for everybody.
Once the funding was in place, Nims knocked off phase two of the newly-minted ‘Bremont Project Possible’ in 23 days. If you think that sounds fast, that’s because it is — by this point, Nims held six world speed records. Aside from thinking he was going to die on Gasherbrum I, and doubting his ability for the first time on K2 — where adverse weather meant 90% of climbers had given up their expeditions — everything went relatively smoothly.
Next came phase three, and Cho Oyu (8201) and Manaslu (8156) fell within days of one another in late September. And despite initial problems securing permits to climb Tibet's Shishapangma, which has been closed all season, Chinese authorities eventually yielded, and Nims conquered his final ascent on 29 October 2019.
Part 5: The big picture
If you ask Nims how he’s able to climb mountains through horrific weather, on arguably less than zero sleep, and when he’s at his lowest ebb, that’s what he’ll say. “Mindset. I have climbed when others wouldn’t even dare to come out of their tents. It’s about maintaining that mindset, and about making decisions. The reason I’ve been successful so far is because of the decisions I’ve made.”
He compares climbing to swimming, and says that if someone’s drowning, the first thing they’ll do is try and grab whoever’s closest. “You see the same thing in the death zone — people just trying to survive,” he says. “I never get like that. It’s just about sticking to the plan, not getting phased out, and seeing the big picture.”
Through its GoFundMe page, Bremont Project Possible has received donations from thousands of people around the world. And while the project began as a personal mission for Nims to test his limits, he now says it’s about them. “I get lots of messages from the Gurkhas, Royal Marines, young officers, and people saying that what I’m doing is amazing,” he says. “But I just want people from anywhere to see this and see the vision. I’m a village boy, born on a farm… This isn’t just my project. It’s for everybody.”
One man who saw the vision is Reinhold Messner, one of the most revered mountaineers in the history of the sport, who in 1986 became the first human in history to summit all 8000-ers without oxygen (over a course of 16 years).
Nims met Messner – a hero of his and one of the inspirations for his mission – on Nanga Parbat during phase two. “He looked into my eyes and said, ‘You can do it’,” recalls Nims. “He told me to my face, and he hadn’t even seen my climb. When he did the 8000-ers, the whole mountaineering community was against him, but he proved the concept. He did it when the world couldn’t see his vision.”
While it might’ve been the view from Everest Base Camp that made Nims first fall in love with mountaineering, it’s the perspective he’s gained from those mountains that have kept the love alive. “Looking at my background — what are the chances I’d get into the special forces? They’re the best of the best," he says. "Maybe 10 or 11 people get in out of every 200. So you do that, and you go through the ranks, and you can sometimes think you’re invincible, or superhuman…”
He trails off.
“But you know what? When I go into the mountains…those mountains tell me I am no-one.”
With the project complete, Nims is already thinking about what’s next – he plans to head straight Nepal’s Ama Dablam (6812 metres) to begin guiding with Elite Himalayan Adventures. “I have to make a living now, brother!” he laughs. Then he wants to buy his parents a home in Kathmandu, where his critically-ill mother is receiving hospital treatment (his father, who is half-paralysed, is back home in Chitwan). “They don’t have many years left,” says Nims. “I just want them to live together.”
After that? He’s considering spending a little more time at home. “My wife and I haven’t really had much time to ourselves recently,” reflects Nims. “It’s been a pretty hectic few months.”
Nims completed Project Possible on 29th October 2019 – completing his goal of summiting all 14 of the world's tallest mountains in a world-record-shattering 189 days. In the process, he also tallied up another six records.
Bremont Project Possible:
This story was updated on October 29th to reflect Nims' completion of Project Possible.