Editor's Note: On October 29th, Nirmal Purja Magar announced via Instagram that he had summited China's Shishapangma. This marked the fourteenth 8,000-meter peak he had climbed in seven months and the completion of an extraordinary project to speed climb the world's tallest mountains in rapid succession. This story was first published on May 5, 2019.
On May 24, Nirmal Purja Magar summited the world's fifth-tallest mountain, Makalu, in his native Nepal. At press time, his support team reported that he was still on his way back to his base camp. Superficially, the achievement might be considered a bit pedestrian by modern alpine standards—after all he climbed via the normal route using bottled oxygen and accompanied by a Sherpa guide. But the accomplishment truly comes into focus when one considers that only 48 hours beforehand he had stood on the summit of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain. And 12 hours before that, he had reached the top of Mount Everest.
In all, Nimsdai or Nims—as he prefers to be known—knocked off six of the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains this spring—Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu—in a little less than a month. It's a stunning effort—some would say insane—but for Nims, the feat marks the successful completion of the first phase of a vastly more ambitious project—bagging all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in a seven-month span.
Since alpine legend Reinhold Messner first completed the so-called “8,000-ers” in 1986 (after starting the project in 1970), the list has remained the gold standard on high-altitude résumés. In the intervening 33 years, approximately 40 mountaineers have followed in Messner's footsteps, and many others have died trying to join their number. Most took decades to complete their quest; the current fastest-known time (set by the legendary Pole, Jerzy Kukuczka) stands at seven years, 11 months, and 14 days.
Although the idea to complete them all in a single year has been bandied about before, no climber has actually undertaken the challenge with serious intent. Pulling it off would represent a paradigm shift in the relatively stagnant, commercialized world of high-altitude mountaineering. Now, it seems possible Nims could complete it by October. As remarkable an achievement as that would be, it would likely be met with some grousing by alpinism's old guard, as his grandstanding style and unabashed showmanship—some might add recklessness—are not admired by everyone in elite mountaineering circles.
When Messner, and those that followed him, established the 8,000-er club, they insisted that how they climbed the mountains mattered as much as getting to the top. They generally eschewed the use of bottled oxygen, having ropes fixed for them by others, and Sherpas guiding them or carrying extra gear and supplies for them. They also believed climbers should attempt routes on terrain that required technical climbing skills and where possible establish new routes. And when the deed was accomplished, it was considered bad form to blather indecorously about it to media.
Nims, however, unapologetically embraces modern conveniences, sending climbing Sherpas ahead with oxygen cylinders to meet him at high camps, and his Instagram feed feels like a Hollywood version of Himalayan climbing—an orgy of dramatic storms, rescues, and swooping helicopters. There is no shortage of pride, either. Consider the following call to arms, which he posted before starting up Everest:
"...I have given you 3 summits of the world’s most dangerous and rarely climbed mountains within 3 weeks with 2 unplanned rescue missions involved above the death zone… Now, I will give you the summit of everest, Lhotse and makalu within 3 days. I will be trying to break my own world records. How copy ?”
And yet, despite the bravado, Nims appears capable of pulling off the whole caper. He's followed through on his words so far with six significant summits, earned the respect of the working Sherpas with whom he shares the mountain, and cultivated an eager following of fans, particularly among Asian climbers, who are flocking to the Himalaya as never before.
“He doesn't mince words and speaks unapologetically straightforward—often with no filter,” says Canadian mountaineer Don Bowie, who enountered Nims while climbing Annapurna, the Nepal's first 8,000 meter summit of the year. “But he is quick to smile and disarmingly friendly," Bowie added, "and seems to emit this constant, infectious enthusiasm that energizes everyone around him. It's hard not to admire his rare kind of authenticity.”
An Epic Spring
Approximately 12 hours before leaving base camp for the summit of Everest, Nims welcomed me into his mess tent for a cup of coffee.
“How are you?” he asked in casual greeting. “I’m feeling good, brother,” he announced before I could answer.
At about five-foot seven, he’s shorter than you might expect based on his heroic social media profile, and he speaks English with a vague working-class accent that’s littered with “mates,” “brothers,” and “buds.” He seems relaxed, though a media team is hustling in the background, pecking away at laptops and fidgeting with cameras.
“The biggest thing for the project so far has been the rescues,” he said. “That was unplanned. Other than that, mate, it’s all good. Rescuing people from 8,450 meters is way harder than climbing a mountain.”
In fact, the trifecta of mountains that Nims had just summited at at the time of our meeting—Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, and Kanchenjunga—would be considered career highlights under almost any circumstances. And the circumstances surrounding Nims’s ascents were far from ideal. Take Annapurna, where climber Wui Kin Chin, a doctor from Malaysia, went missing the same day Nims summited:
“We got back down to base camp probably around 10 p.m. Of course, because we had summited we had a few friends waiting for us, and they gave us whiskey and we drank until, like, 3:30 in the morning. Then the heli comes at 6:00 a.m. and says the doctor was alive. So, I got my team together… We got dropped into Camp 3 via long line. From there, normally the timing to where he was was more than 16 hours. We did that in four hours.”
Chin was successfully evacuated to Kathmandu and then Singapore, where he died several days later.
From Annapurna, Nims helicoptered on to Dhaulagiri, which he found even more challenging due to the bad weather. “We summited Dhaulagiri at around 6:30 p.m., in some of the worst conditions ever. It was tough.” Nims and his team of four other Nepali climbers descended through the dark to meet a helicopter at base camp the next morning, which whisked them off to Kathmandu.
“We spent one night in Kathmandu, and that wasn’t too restful at all because loads of my friends wanted to have beers,” Nims said with a wink. “And the next day we went to Kanchenjunga.”
For Kanchenjunga, Nims and one of his primary climbing partners, Mingma David Sherpa, decided to go for the summit in a single push from base camp, leaving at 1 p.m. and summiting after 11:00 a.m. the next day. Along the way, they picked up a second climbing Sherpa in support, Gesman Tamang. On the descent, the three came across a struggling Indian climber, Biplab Baidya and his guide Dawa Sherpa, both of whom had run out of bottled oxygen at 8,450 meters. They gave the two men two of their backup oxygen cylinders and began helping them down, only to come across a second Indian climber, Kuntal Karar, who had been also run out of oxygen and been abandoned. Nims gave him his own oxygen cylinder.
“We started to ask for help a million times, mate… We started asking for rescue, backup, and people kept saying they’re sending people. By seven o’clock it’s dark, and we don’t see any headlights,” he said.
Karar died soon after the oxygen Nims gave him ran out. The team continued helping Baidya descend, until, one by one, Nims’s two companions Mingma David and Gesman began to show signs of mild high altitude cerebral edema and were forced to descend.
Baidya ultimately died less than 200 meters from Camp 4, where dozens of people were bivvied that night. Speaking a week later, it’s obvious the events still frustrated Nims. “People call themselves high-altitude experts, solo climbers, all these things, mate, but nobody came for help… The saddest thing is they kept lying, saying they were sending three people. To not send out accurate information, it is a big thing.”
Despite the outcome, Nims sees events like what happened on Kanchenjunga as validation for his climbing style. “If I wasn't climbing with oxygen, I wouldn't have been able to give them oxygen,” he says.
By Strength and Guile
Nims is not yet well-known in mountaineering circles for good reason: Until this year, he was a full-time soldier in the employ of the British government as a member of the famed Gurkhas and later the elite Special Boat Service (SBS). In fact, it’s probably easier to understand him as a soldier, not a mountain climber, and after we had coffee in Everest base camp, he invited me to come back to his tent that evening for dinner to discuss his military career.
“I was born in Nepal, I grew up in the Gurkhas, and I became a man in the SBS,” he told me as he gamely poured me a beer, though he abstained as he was leaving to begin his back-to-back climbs of Everest and Lhotse about seven hours later.
Nims enlisted in the Gurkhas at age 18. A vestige of colonial days, the Gurkhas are a regiment of soldiers recruited in Nepal to fight and serve in the British Army. With a proud, 100-year history fighting around the globe and a pension and benefits guaranteed by the British government, the unit is a popular choice for ambitious young Nepali men, and selection is highly competitive. After six years serving in the Gurkhas, Nims passed through the even more grueling, six-month testing process for the SBS, an elite unit in the British Special Forces. It’s motto: By Strength and Guile.
“Like the Navy Seals?” I asked.
“No mate, like Seal Team Six,” Nims responded.
Yet uncharacteristically, he demurred when I pressed for details about his service. “I did a few operations with the Gurkhas, special forces—all over, but I cannot talk about it… not about the special forces, the work stuff,” he said. Asked what countries he’s served in, he replied: “We’ll just say I have been deployed in sensitive areas, that’s it.”
“The biggest thing I learned from being in the special forces is the decision-making process and also the willingness not to give up,” Nims continued. “You need to have a certain mindset. I call it a positive mindset.”
From Soldier to Climber
It was with such commitment that Nims made the biggest leap of his career—leaving the military to become a professional mountaineer.
“I had done 16 years in the British military, I had only six years (left) to get my full pension, which is worth about 500,000 pounds… but for me I never work for money,” he tells me. “Work wouldn’t let me do it, because it was too much of a risk. I sacrificed my pension and resigned my job for this.”
Nims dubbed his 8,000-er quest Project Possible, and after his initial sponsor fell through, he threw himself into fundraising in January. “I started writing emails to everyone who I know, and within 10 weeks I’d managed to raise 250K, but it was epic. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The money was just enough to get Nims through the six Nepal peaks—leaving the next phase, Pakistan, which is set to begin June 7, $300,000 short on funding. “I have got 10 days to make the decision,” Nims told me.
The money challenges facing Project Possible should come as no surprise. It typically takes an athlete years of relationship-building to get a sponsor to cough up six-figure support; Nims has only been in the game six months. And even if funding miraculously comes through, it’s no guarantee he’ll succeed on the five Pakistani 8,000-meter behemoths—including K2 and Nanga Parbat, the world's second- and ninth-tallest mountains—he must climb to have a real crack at finishing his quest.
But as he poured me another beer, it struck me that success or failure, Nims has already proven himself to be one thing for certain: an original character. He might not be Ueli Steck—the late, phlegmatic Swiss speed-climbing phenom—but if commercial outfitters are going to lead clients with iffy qualifications up 8,000-meter peaks, there might as well be a Nims, showing up at just the right time to help fix ropes through storms, drag a few sick people down the mountain, and then throw a good party in base camp before helicoptering off into the sunset.
Nims' positive mindset brokers no second thoughts: “I have remortgaged my house for this; I’ve given my job for this; I’ve taken every risk I could that was in my hands. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll say ‘Nims, you’ve given 100 percent of what you could. And that’s what one person can give in life…' I’ll just be happy with that, mate.”
Editor's Note: Writer Freddie Wilkinson is currently reporting from Nepal's Everest base camp and the surrounding region. Check back for more dispatches from the 2019 climbing season. The nonprofit National Geographic Society helped fund this story.