Since the Nepalese Nirmal Purja climbed all eight-thousanders in record time, he has been the superstar of alpinism. But there are gross inconsistencies in his descriptions.
A contribution by Dominik Osswald
not far from Mount Everest lies the lobuche, a slightly over six thousand meter high, shapely mountain with a pronounced peak, technically not particularly difficult to climb. Every year many tourists stand on the Lobuche. They want to get their first taste of mountain air and longingly look over to the really big ones: Everest, Lhotse, Makalu. The eight-thousanders are within reach, maybe one day ...
In the Beta show on Actiontalk TV, we discuss the inconsistencies surrounding Nirmal Purja
This is how the career of what is currently the most popular mountaineer in the world began, Nimal Purja. At the age of 29 he stood on the Lobuche, down in the valley he had strapped on crampons for the first time in his life. "Every step made me stop and think - at times I was afraid," he writes in his recently published book "Beyond Possible". "Sometimes falling to your death seemed like a very real possibility." Arriving at the summit, his fears have vanished. Purja senses that he is destined for more.
Two years after the Lobuche he climbs with the Dhaulagiri his first eight-thousander, in 2016 he stood on Everest for the first time. In 2017 he announced a project that sounds like pure utopia: Purja wants to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders - in record time. At that time, 38 people had climbed all fourteen eight-thousanders, the fastest time was around seven years. Purja gave himself seven months.
Everything is possible
Conquering the fourteen highest mountains requires a lot of luck in addition to mountaineering skills. Some who aim for it die in the process. Others need decades and then can no longer count the deceased companions on one hand. But Purja was undeterred. On April 23, 2019 he started his «Project Possible». Six months and six days later he stood on the Shishapangma, his 14th eight-thousander. Now Purja comes in one breath with Reinhold Messner mentioned.
Nobody calls him by his full name anymore. There is only talk of Nims, his nickname, or Nimsdai, which means "Brother Nims". Nimsdai is a superstar the likes of which mountaineering has never produced. He embodies the message: "Anything is possible if you believe in yourself enough." From the mouth of a man who has redefined what is possible, this is no longer a truism.
Millions of followers admire him on social networks. They freak out when they see the man who has the eight-thousanders tattooed on his back as a sign of his deep connection to the mountains and who addresses strangers as “brother”. It creates a feeling of togetherness. May our dreams come true.
Netflix was there quickly: «14 peaks. Nothing Is Impossible» is the name of the film documenting the sensation. It landed in the top ten most streamed films on the platform worldwide. You can see Purja in a blizzard, on peaks, dangling from a helicopter or parachuting out of a plane - always smiling, thumbs up. He says: "I'm the Usain Bolt of the 8000s." And: "Giving up is not in my blood." But the film only begins to help you understand how Nirmal Purja became the hero he is. Or at least pretends to be.
He was born in 1983 and grew up in the Nepalese plains. There are no mountains in Chitwan, instead there are jungles and elephants. Purja wants to become a soldier in the coveted Gurkha unit in the service of the British army. He only manages the entrance exam at the second attempt. But then he joins the Special Boat Service, an elite unit of the British Army, and is deployed in various combat zones. "Fear played no role in my life, not even in Afghanistan," he writes in his book. He is shot once and then doesn't understand why his wife Suchi is worried. "What the fuck? Why are you calling?" Because he is Nepalese, he is often asked in England if he has ever climbed Everest. It bothers him when he has to say no to the question, and that also motivates him.
When Purja climbed three eight-thousanders in just five days in 2017, he said: "What do I have that other mountaineers don't have?" He likes to express himself in superlatives in his book and is not stingy with self-aggrandizing sentences: “Boom! Boom! Boom! Every step is done with power." – «Brother, I thought, you're a badass at height.» And so the book doesn't really help to make the Purja phenomenon understandable. You can only follow him if you accept that you are reading the story of a superman whose superpowers need no further explanation. If you don't make this deal, you'll soon become skeptical.
A different reality
For example, when Purja describes a heroic rescue that he claims to have made on Everest in 2016. Fact-checking is difficult. But at the end of the research, a different reality emerges. Purja writes that he was alone on the descent when he found a young woman 450 meters below the summit, apparently left to her own devices, doomed to die. He radios camp 4 for help.
«Guys, this is Nims. There's a woman stuck here, Seema. Can you help?" A voice answered immediately. 'Look, Nims, you know us, last night we rescued that climber from the South Summit and now we're screwed. Can you take them to Camp 4 yourself? We can help her from here. If we come back up, one or two of us might die."
"Sure, no problem," I said.
According to his account, Purja is able to bring Seema to Camp 4, where she is taken over by the rescue team. she survives. In the base camp, he says, journalists want to know who the unknown savior is, they want to interview the hero. But Purja writes that he refused. He doesn't want his army superiors to know that he was on Everest during his vacation. He asked that his name not be mentioned anywhere.
In fact, in 2016 there was initially little media coverage of the rescue of a Seema, and no mention was made of Nirmal Purja – in accordance with his wish. According to the Himalayan Database (HDB), it must be Seema Goswami act, she is the only Seema who was on Everest in 2016.
Details about her rescue only made it to the media in 2020, when it became known that Goswami had made false statements about her Everest ascent. To this day, she maintains that she reached the summit before she was rescued. The claim is considered by the Nepalese authorities to be implausible and the summit certificate was revoked. Regardless, it is clear that Goswami fell into distress on May 20, 2016 at an altitude of 8200 meters.
However, according to the Himalayan Database and everywhere else where his first Everest success is dated, Nirmal Purja summited Everest on May 13, 2016 – a week before Seema fell into distress. Accordingly, the two could not have met. When asked whether there was an error in the transmission of his summit date, Purja did not answer. His PR agency initially promises to look into the matter, but then provides no answers.
The fact that more and more Indian mountaineers are making a pilgrimage to Everest is also due to the fact that in India you gain a higher social status if you can show that you have climbed Everest. So it is not surprising that Seema Goswami claims that she stood on the summit before being rescued.
The outrage about the case was particularly great because Seema's climbing partner Narinder Yadav presented a fake summit picture as proof and was nominated for the highest adventurer award in India. The Nepalese newspaper The Record then published a detailed article about the Everest attempt by Seema Goswami and Narinder Yadav. What is written there about their rescue cannot be reconciled with Nirmal Purja's version.
According to the article, in addition to Seema and her climbing partner Narinder, another Indian woman named Chetna Sahoo was in distress further up the mountain. Two Sherpas from the Alpine Rescue Service (ARS) were sent to rescue Chetna. On their way, however, they first found Seema and Narinder and, in view of their threatening situation, requested reinforcements from Camp 4. Two more Sherpas are said to have ascended from Camp 4 and rescued Seema and Narinder.
"Completely fake and false"
The ARS was led by Mingma David, he would later become the main attendant of Nirmal Purja. The young Sherpa is considered one of the best high-altitude climbers and a key figure behind "Project Possible". When asked if he remembered the details of Seema's rescue, he did not answer.
The rescue of Seema is also featured in a documentary called "Everest Air", however the cameras were only present in the final stages of the rescue when Seema was taken from Camp 2 to Kathmandu. The statements in the documentation nowhere allow any conclusions to be drawn about an anonymous individual rescuer (Purja). Rather, they coincide with the "Record" article - Seema was found and rescued by Sherpas. Purja leaves all inquiries unanswered.
For this, the contact with Seema Goswami succeeds. Due to the negative reporting about her person, she does not want to give any information at first. However, the question of whether she can confirm that Purja saved her arouses her interest. She writes that she knows who Purja is. She has never met him, nor has he rescued her, nor does she know him personally.
Seema seems unaware that she is mentioned in his book. At her request, the relevant section of the book will be translated into Hindi and delivered to her. Her answer is clear: "I call this story completely fake and false", the story is completely made up and false. "Nirmal Purja made up the whole story to make himself a hero."
Faced with this statement, his communications team promises to provide answers within five days. But nothing comes. When asked again, it says: "Unfortunately, Nims is currently out of the country and could not get in touch due to his incredibly busy work schedule." On the same day, however, Nirmal Purja wrote a post on Instagram. In it he refers, among other things, to his book, he says: "It was written with brutal honesty."
The rescue of Seema was one of the reasons why Nirmal Purja received a British order of knighthood, which the Queen bestows on particularly deserving citizens. In several interviews, Purja refers to the feat when asked why he climbs on bottled oxygen. It is now common among top mountaineers to do without additional oxygen, the gas bottle is almost considered doping. Purja replies that in 2016 on Everest he realized how easily he could save lives by taking supplemental oxygen with him. Although it would have been his dream to climb the eight-thousanders without a gas bottle.
In the run-up to the first winter ascent of K2, which Purja managed with nine Sherpas last January, the scene insisted that the ascent should be done without additional oxygen. All first winter ascents of the eight-thousanders were made in this so-called "clean style". Team Nimsdai had a hard time breaking with tradition. Of the ten Nepalese who climbed K16 on January 2021, 2, all top climbers, only one was not wearing a gas mask - Nirmal Purja.
It was a calculated risk, he said afterwards. Although he wasn't optimally acclimatized, "My self-confidence, the knowledge of the strength of my body, my skills and my experience from climbing all 14 eight-thousanders enabled me to keep up with the other team members and also to lead them." This is a typical example of his communication: He packs fait accomplis into well-sounding empty phrases and explains nothing. That he was on K2 without supplemental oxygen remains a mystery to this day, which Purja never elaborated on. Did he only take off the mask for the summit photo?
Purja's statement does not begin to explain how it was possible for him to climb K2 in winter without an oxygen tank. What experience does he refer to when, based on the rescue of Goswami, he has stated often enough that he had previously always opted for the breathing aid? There is hardly a more dangerous place for mountaineers than K2 in winter. The air pressure there is even lower than on Mount Everest, and the extreme cold makes breathing even more difficult. It wasn't even clear if people could even breathe at the summit.
To go without oxygen there of all places is devoid of any logic. Especially if, according to Purja's reasoning, oxygen is used for safety reasons. When asked if there was evidence that he climbed the K2 without an oxygen tank, neither Purja nor his communications agency answered. Nor when asked if there was any explanation as to how he could be so much stronger than the nine Sherpas who accompanied him.
His "Project Possible" is one of the greatest records in high-altitude mountaineering - if not the greatest. The Netflix film documents him to a large extent. Director Torquil Jones stressed that with more than 100 hours of footage, it was difficult to narrow down to just one selection. So it's safe to assume that more of "Project Possible" is documented than was released in the Netflix film. And yet it must be noted that Purja was often reluctant to provide information. Some ascents were only communicated afterwards and via intricate paths. Even today, only the key data of his ascents are known, there are no GPS tracks.
Kindness from Messner
The Himalayan Database (HDB) only has second-hand information. It is considered the most important chronicle of Himalayan mountaineering, has a long tradition and high standards when it comes to documenting expeditions and, in particular, records. In the 2018s, Elizabeth Hawley began interviewing returning climbers and using the information they provided to write detailed reports. Hawley became a cult figure and it was an honor to be interviewed by her. There is a saying that what is not in the HDB did not happen. Hawley died in 94 at the age of XNUMX, having previously handed over the reins to her longtime assistant Billi Bierling.
"I've bumped into Nims a couple of times, and he's always offered the prospect of a face-to-face interview," says Bierling, who lives in Kathmandu. "But to date I have not had the opportunity to speak to him personally." Bierling points out that Purja is a sought-after man: he has just traveled the world for his film tour, then he was in Antarctica, and he is currently preparing an expedition to Everest and Lhotse in Nepal, on which he takes clients. "I'm sure he just doesn't have the time." Or does he evade? "I could imagine that he would rather give an interview on CNN than sit down at a table with me," says Bierling.
Of course, the media are raving about him. Sky, CNN, ABC, CBS, BBC: He's been a guest everywhere. The excitement about Purja is also so great because a Nepalese is finally in the limelight. Since Tenzing Norgay, who was the first person to climb Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, no Nepalese mountaineer had achieved worldwide fame. Western climbers have always been good at giving their Sherpas—who haul loads, set fixed ropes, and perform rescues—just enough credit for their accomplishments. It's no longer a secret who the true heroes are on the mountain. This recognition is also expressed in the worldwide celebration of Nirmal Purja, although Purja is not a Sherpa and has long lived in Great Britain.
Mainly Nepalese - Praising Purja is for many an opportunity to settle the historical debt to the Sherpas. For example, for Reinhold Messner, who was full of praise for Purja from the start. "When I heard that a local man was going to try this project, a Ghurka, I believed in him and gave him money," he said. This is untypical goodwill from Messner, who otherwise does not shy away from criticism when other mountaineers are too loud-mouthed. He then grumbles about "announced alpinism" or "would like to". Messner's judgment essentially determines the narrative in the media. Giving his blessings to Nirmal Purja from the beginning had an effect.
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Credits: Cover image Stefan Voitl / Red Bull Content Pool