Breaking barriers and dreaming big – Nims Purja
© Stefan Voitl
Mountaineering

The Nims Purja paradox

A conversation about humble beginnings, dreaming big and always believing that anything's possible with Nims Purja, the Nepalese mountaineer who breaks boundaries for a living.
Written by Josh Sampiero
13 min readPublished on
“I'm Nimsdai, born in Nepal. I joined the Gurkhas when I was very young. I was the first-ever Gurkha to pass the selection for United Kingdom Special Forces selection. I served with UKSF for 10 years. In 2019, I decided to give everything up and climb all the 8,000m peaks within seven months.
“This is what I do. I'm here to break boundaries: that's my job. Human performance and endeavour: that's my job.”
I'm here to break boundaries: that's my job
This is Nirmal Purja, usually known as Nims, and some of the things he’s done really defy belief. Like climbing two of the world’s tallest peaks – back-to-back, with no sleep. Or tackling Everest while on “vacation” from his former job in the special forces. In his own words, he’s here to break boundaries, and those boundaries are really high up.
The mission he began in 2019 was grandiose in every respect: climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000m mountains, a feat first achieved by the legendary Reinhold Messner in 1986. The last climber to do it took more than seven years. Nims wanted to do it in six months. To do that, he’d need to skip the weeks-long period of acclimatisation and recovery that normally lets people climb only one or two such mountains a year.
The name he gave to this ambitious undertaking raised eyebrows from the start. What he called ‘Project Possible’ seemed anything but. Yet he achieved his goal of climbing all those mountains in just 189 days (you can watch his 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible documentary on Netflix, out now). To get a better understanding of the kind of person who even attempts such a thing – keep reading.
Nirmal Purja seen in oxygen mask asending Gasherbrum II.
Nims takes a breather atop Gasherbrum II
“Above 8,000m is called the death zone,” explains Nims. “Because from there, the oxygen is so thin that the human body is literally dying. That's my playground, and that's where I operate.
“But this sport is about being yourself, being honest, being happy. We have so much stress on this kind of extremely risk-taking sport that when you come down, we just want to have fun.”
Fun probably isn’t the first word you would associate with what Nims does for a living. Extremely difficult and dangerous is more what comes to mind. However, if you were to spend any time with him, one thing would become immediately clear: this guy is happy with where he’s at – but he’s even happier when he’s in the middle of a multiple-day mountain-climbing sufferfest.
The young Nims was never afraid of a rumble in the schoolyard. "I don't take shit from anybody,” he says. "Even at a young age, I was fighting, I was scrapping.” The presence of two older brothers, both of whom made it to the elite military force known as the Gurkhas, may have helped that tendency – but there was not much of a question. The fight was in him from the start, even if climbing mountains wasn’t.
Although Nims was born in Myagdi District, in the foothills of the Himalaya, it would take him a long time to return to the mountains in the backyard. At school in the Chitwan district in the Nepalese flatlands, he put up with education mostly so it would give him a chance to play sports – and he mostly did sports because he knew it would help his chance of getting into the Gurkhas.
Nirmal Purja is pictured during his ascent of K2 in the heart of winter on January 16, 2021.
Achieving the seemingly impossible
When someone achieves their life’s dream at a young age – and for Nims, it was to honour his family by serving in the military – you shouldn’t be surprised when that person suddenly needs a new dream and a new goal. Leave the obvious mountain climbing metaphor by the wayside here – it’s important to understand what kind of soldier Nims was, and actually, still is. Competition for Special Forces is fierce and selective – and most of the time, the tryouts and subsequent training takes care of the selection on its own. Over 90 percent of applicants don’t make the cut. The Special Boat Service, where Nims served, is for the elite. There’s no question this is one of the hardest jobs in the world.
I left my one dream job for another dream job to change the world in a different way
“I broke that barrier of being the first Gurkha to be in the Special Boat Service,” says Nims. “It's crazy because it's like a real James Bond. One minute you're flying out of the plane, second you're diving, third, you are in the war. It's always action. That was my dream job, but I left my one dream job for another dream job to change the world in a different way.”
It’s hard to say where and when the seed to become a mountain climber got planted in his mind. But whatever the inspiration was, when Nims got his first taste of the high alpine, he was addicted – and it was clear that the world’s tallest mountains were in his future. On his first venture into the high alpine on Dhaulagiri, he wanted to remain undercover. They kept a low profile, ditching climbing gear for casual clothes like shorts and sandals. It got to the point where people were asking who they were just because they looked more than a little clueless.
For his first Everest summit, some years later, the modus operandi hadn’t changed. With only a couple weeks of military leave, he went to the bank and fibbed about needing a car loan so he could pay the fees to climb. He arrived at base camp late in the season, with little time to acclimatise, and told everyone there he was a medic back in London. After his summit, he didn’t post pictures or share the news – in fact, he kept it well under wraps. Never mind the fact that he was now the only currently serving Gurkha to summit Everest – he’d done it without official approval.
This shot was taken as Purja fixed lines to the summit of Everest
This shot was taken as Purja fixed lines to the summit of Everest
Not that following the rules has ever really slowed him down. Word got around about what he’d done, and the reaction was more impressed than annoyed. But that was only going to be the case as long as he kept having success. So in case you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true, it’s worth sharing a story that Nims himself is in no way reluctant about telling – when he overestimated himself on that first climb up Everest.
Upon arriving up Everest’s Camp II, Nims decided to push himself 150m higher just to test his reaction to the altitude. The reaction was not good, and he found himself with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.
It’s worth talking about what can go wrong at high altitude. Forget falling off a rock or sliding down ice or snow (although that can happen too), simply being there is dangerous. Humans like oxygen in their air, and the higher you go, the less there is of it. At Base Camp, you’re breathing 50 percent of the oxygen than you are at sea level. At the summit, your body (and brain) is getting 33 percent of the oxygen that you’re used to.
I think the biggest thing is about discovering your body, your limitations
For mountaineers, the thing about bringing people to 8,000m is that you’ve got to have immense self-belief to attempt something like this, yet be incredibly humble to survive.
Despite the simplistic name, decisions made at that altitude are rarely straightforward. There’s no ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’, merely ‘less risk’ and ‘degrees of significantly more risk’.
As a mountaineer, Nims has to occupy both ends of the mental spectrum: full trust and belief in himself and decision-making abilities, and the capacity to know when the mountain is, in his own words “simply bigger than you are”.
When he got that little kick in the teeth by ascending too quickly on his first attempt, it wasn’t really a setback, it was more… part of the process.
“I think the biggest thing is about discovering your body, your limitations, and what you can do and what you can't do,” he says. “That's when you have the baseline and you operate from there. For me, as I said, I didn't climb mountains since I was a kid, I was only into this field for like four or five years at that point and I'm still discovering more stuff about my body. That's what I was investing in.”
Nirmal Purja at the top of Mount Everest in 2019.
Nims summits Everest in 2019
Until recently, the high-altitude climbing world had never been about speed. Expeditions took months, as climbers acclimatised their bodies to the altitude. Recently, things have gotten faster – much faster. Nims wasn’t the first person to pioneer this arena – other alpinists have started pushing acclimatisation periods by sleeping in hyperbaric chambers at home to simulate low oxygen environments, while others are simply training harder and more often. Although Nims isn’t doing either of these things, he still exhibits an incredible ability to both deal with and recover from high altitude.
Sometimes people assume that to achieve the things this mountaineer has, you need to be fearless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nims would be the first to tell you that a healthy fear is what keeps him alive, in the knowledge that you cannot overcome every situation that may arise at 8,000m.
For Nims to do what he does, he has to understand fear. But this is where it gets really curious. When asked the simple question, ‘Can you tell us what’s next?’ Nims declines – and not because of secrecy.
“I cannot (say) because I'm scared of my goal – in a way that if I say it, I have to do it. It's going to be something that, again, like what I did, when I said, I'm gonna climb 14 8,000m peaks in seven months, people were laughing to me, people were like, ‘How is this possible?’ The general public couldn't even imagine that it's possible, but it seems possible to me, so I'm in the process of thinking of a different project right now in my brain, where, again, people are gonna be like, ‘Wow, is it possible?’"
Nirmal Purja and team celebrate during K2 summit.
Nims and his team celebrate after summiting K2 in Pakistan
“But I'm not saying that to anybody because even I'm scared of my dreams.”
The lens through which we view professional adventurers has evolved much in the Instagram era. It’s become less about conquering nature than about communing with it; less about the achievement than the experience. It’s more en vogue to drop a paragraphs-long Instagram post about how your experience changed you, than it is to say simply, “We did it!”. Nims will not only tell you what they did, he wants to downplay the achievement – and tell you about the party afterwards at Namche Bazaar.
“When you say you are a Gurkha, people think Everest is in your back garden; you're the very fittest guy, you got this amazing brand. If you can't climb Everest, people are gonna spit in your face. For that reputation, I step up, I knew what I could do, went, fixed the lines with my team. We opened the route for not only my team, but for everybody on that mountain that season.
“After that, I got back down in Kathmandu with my team. We had a massive celebration. Then I went back again, then I climbed Everest, then I climbed Lhotse and I climbed Makalu, so that's world's first, fourth, and fifth highest mountain in five days with partying for two nights at Namche Bazaar. That's when I realised, ‘Oh, I think I can do more here.’ That's when I started thinking bigger because you can only imagine things once you break that threshold and then you can imagine other stuff.”
‘That’s when I started thinking bigger’ – it’s with this line that you understand the most important thing about Nims: he’s a dreamer. The difference is, he’s incredibly good at making his dreams a reality. It’s a relaxed attitude, but Nims can’t hide his pride.
I am always honest to myself. Can I really do this? Or is it just because of my ego?
In fact, he's not shy about his accomplishments at all. If you didn’t know how hard he worked to climb the world’s 14 different 8,000m mountains, you would likely know shortly after meeting him. Other accomplished people are said to simply radiate competency or talent, and Nims does that too, but he’ll also flat out tell you that he’s done some remarkable stuff – despite nobody believing in him. Having seen what he’s now accomplished, it’s tough to reconcile the fact that at one point, people simply looked at what he wanted to do and said ‘no way’.
“I have to be sure about it because giving perfect example on my quest to climb 14 peaks, nobody believed in me. I had no funding. I was my own supporter. I was at least my own believer. That's what pushed me. That's what made me difference.”
As suggested earlier, Project Possible was a misnomer from the start. Of course it was possible, in the way that it’s possible for your neighbour to go the moon or to win the lottery twice. It was just very, very unlikely – and not just because of the climbing, but because of the logistics, and naturally the associated costs. Factor in the permits, people having to eat and sleep in the most remote places on the planet, where dinner (OK, dinner for a month) is routinely delivered by helicopter – and sums add up real quick. In fact, he started with just 15 percent of the budget he figured he’d need to summit every 8,000er – so he went to the bank and remortgaged his house.
By any name or any definition, the scope of the achievement is immense: reducing the record from 2,900 days to 189. In the span of a few months, he etched his name permanently into the history books – and changed the world of mountaineering. He found a thing everybody said couldn’t be done, and did it.
And when you look back at his past and see every step he took to get there, it all makes sense, and you see the kind of journey he’s been on to be able to put all thoughts of pride behind and learn true self-awareness.
“The biggest thing, what I said to you earlier, what the mountain teaches is humbleness. You're not bigger than a mountain at the end of the day. The mountains stand tall, doesn't matter how the weather is, how the storm is, whatever it is. It's so neutral. We are human, we have emotions, we have everything. We have a lot to learn from the mountains.
“For me, when there is a critical moment, should I go to the summit or should I not, I am always honest to myself. Can I really do this? Or is it just because of my ego? Or is it just because I want to prove to the world or just because I want to show it or it's just because I hope I can do it? The answer is, if you're hoping and if there's all that stuff, and if you're not honest to yourself, you pull out. That's the only reason you stay alive, being honest to yourself.”
The paradox is this – humans aren’t humble when they begin to think of climbing mountains. We don’t ascend thousands of metres to feel small – we only feel small when we get there. You don’t assume when meeting Nims that he’s discovered the purpose of life – but what’s immediately clear is that he’s discovered the purpose of his life: he wants to show us what humans can do.