Nirmal Purja, the creator of Project Possible
Nirmal Purja, the creator of Project Possible (Photo: Courtesy Nirmal Purja)

Nirmal “Nims” Purja Is More Than a Viral Photographer

The man who took the most shocking Everest photo of the year is about to break one of mountaineering's stoutest records

Nirmal Purja, the creator of Project Possible

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You probably saw the photo of a traffic jam high on Mount Everest. The picture, shot on May 22 from below the summit ridge, quickly went viral, landing on the homepage of The New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. The man who took the photo, Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, calmly waited in the queue and helped manage the bottleneck on the fixed lines. His patience was impressive, as he had pressing afternoon plans. 

After summiting Everest at 5:30 A.M., Purja descended to the South Col and proceeded to the summit of 27,940-foot Lhotse, the world’s fourth tallest mountain. He then flew about a dozen miles to Makalu base camp and summited in one push, tagging all three peaks in a 48-hour window. 

With that final summit, the 34-year-old completed the first of three phases of what he calls Project Possible: an attempt to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in just seven months (the current record is just under eight years). During phase one he climbed Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in a single month. Purja is raising money to fund the rest of his project, but set off for the Karakoram anyway. On July 3 he reached the top of 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat, which marked the halfway point of his quest. Then he climbed Gasherbrum I on July 15 and Gasherbrum II on July 18. He summited K2 on July 24, after many teams packed up camp and headed home, citing dangerous snow conditions. Two days later he was on the summit of Broad Peak, ticking off his eleventh 8,000-meter peak in just over 90 days. This fall he’ll tackle Manaslu, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma.

Purja didn’t grow up in the high-altitude villages in the Everest region like many of the Nepalese and Sherpa climbers who work in the mountains. He’s from the town of Narayanghat, which sits at an elevation of less than 1,000 feet above sea level, and draws tourists looking to spot tigers, not bag peaks. Following in his father’s footsteps, Purja joined the Gurkhas, a band of Nepalese soldiers that have existed within the British Army since colonial times, when he turned 18. He served for six years before setting his sights on the special forces, where he served another decade. 

In 2012, sick of telling people that he’d never seen Mount Everest, he decided to trek to Everest Base Camp. On the second or third day of the trek the trail leads uphill from Namche Bazaar, the biggest town in the Khumbu Valley. As he crested the hill Purja saw the dramatic shark fin of Ama Dablam and asked his guide if they could go climb it. His guide said no—Ama Dablam is not a beginner’s mountain—but Purja convinced the guide to take him up the non-technical 20,000-foot Lobuche East. He quickly learned to walk in crampons on a patch of grass in a nearby village, and the two successfully summited. Just two years later, Purja attempted his first 8,000-meter peak, Dhaulagiri. “That’s where I discovered that I actually did good at high altitude,” he says. From then on Purja headed for the Himalaya during everyday holiday from the special forces. In 2017 Purja climbed Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu in the span of five days, setting a record that he broke this spring. 

In March of this year, he left the military (and a generous pension), emptied his savings account, remortgaged his house, and started Project Possible. “When I joined the special forces it was never for the money. It was for pure desire to serve in an elite unit,” Purja says. “It’s the same principal now. I’m following my heart.”

(Courtesy Nirmal Purja)

In addition to dealing with the crowds on Everest, Purja has had a lot more than just his own climbing to worry about this year. On April 23, he and his team reached the top of 26,545-foot Annapurna––a mountain that kills one in three climbers who attempt it. As they descended, they got word of a stranded climber alone at nearly 25,000 feet. Wui Kin Chin, a 49-year-old from Malaysia, was unable to move on his own and Chin’s Sherpa, Nima Tshering, had given him his own oxygen and descended to get help. Purja’s team, on only four hours of sleep, ascended to Chin and were able to get him to Camp 3 where he was later long-lined off the mountain via helicopter. Both Nima Tshering and Chin were hospitalized for their injuries. Purja was vocal on social media about his anger over how slowly Chin’s rescue company was to respond to the situation; Chin did not survive

On May 15, while descending off Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, Purja and his partners, Mingma David Sherpa and Gesman Tamang, came across a pair of climbers who’d run out of oxygen: Biplab Baidya, from India, and his guide, Dawa Sherpa. Purja’s partners gave the men their own oxygen supplies and started to help them down. As they descended they found another Indian climber, Kuntal Karar, also out of oxygen and alone. Purja gave him his oxygen, but Karar died soon after. They repeatedly called for help and extra oxygen, but none ever came. “You can imagine how hard it is to operate a rescue mission at 8450m without O2,” Purja later wrote on Instagram. “I was told 3 Sherpas were coming up with O2, this never happened. This seriously impacted my team and was a huge risk to life.” Purja’s partners both began to show signs of high altitude cerebral edema and had to descend. Baidya died shortly before reaching Camp 4. 

Though Purja’s been constantly confronted with the risks of climbing at high altitude this season, he’s still set on his goal. Back in April, Purja said he ran into people who laughed at him when he told them his plans. Like it was a joke, or a feat too big for him to accomplish. But big goals, like big mountains, are tackled one step at a time. Eleven down, three to go.