We recently had the opportunity to chat with Nirmal “Nims” Purja, a former UK Special Forcs member turned record-breaking mountaineer who has climbed 11 of the world’s highest mountain peaks, known as the “8000ers” in just over four months.
Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. Proclaimed as a record-breaking speed climber, your death-defying feats are incredible. What made you flip the switch, as they say, to go from serving in the military to climbing the world’s highest peaks?
It’s a pleasure. I have served 6 years with the Gurkhas and then another 10 years in the Special Boat Service. Above all, the main reason that I flipped the switch as you say is purely because I felt like I could do something bigger and better for the world. I felt that the timing was right for me, I am 34 years old and in the right shape both in terms of physically and mentally. Which is why I took the decision to do Project Possible 14/7.
Obviously, you seem to have a penchant for living life to the extreme. What is your ethos surrounding that mindset, and what path did you take for you to end up in the position that you’re in.
The path I have taken is very simple. I have never planned for second options; the second option is always in the bag, but never have needed to plan for it. Even as a child/ young teenager, I had only one aim in life and that was to join the Gurkhas. I didn’t want to be a doctor, pilot or any other professional. When I joined the Gurkhas, I then found about the tier 1 unit within the British military / UKSF (SBS /SAS). I then started dreaming about it.
My mindset while going for the United Kingdom’s Special Forces selection was either you pass it or you sign off the Military. When you create that kind of environment, you will always give 100 percent because that’s the only option you have. I think what has made me successful so far is my hardcore disciple, determination and the positive mindset. If you have combination of all these, you can overcome most of the problems and achieve your aim.
Surrounded by danger and in ever-changing precarious conditions, you seem to really be at home. Whether it be on top of Everest, Kanchenjuna, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna or Makalu, the pictures sent back down to earth always depict you as being totally calm and relaxed. What’s going through your mind during these treacherous climbs?
I think this is something that has been built inside me, from my ten-year career within the Special Forces. As we get put into very stressful environments and get tested to extreme levels. Despite being in such situations, you must overcome all barriers and perform 100 percent and at a standard of what UK SF demands. Therefore I give all the credit to my training and experiences from my unit SBS.
Aside from Everest, Kanchenjuna, Annapurna and Makalu, you also climbed Dhaulagiri and Lhotse, all in less than a month. Out of those six mountain peaks, combined with the rest of world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks over a seven-month period, which one would you say was the most difficult?
To be honest, none of these mountains were easy. I lead the fixing team on Annapurna; we opened the routes without sleeping for almost 3 days, that’s us working non-stop day and night.
If I put all the things in perspective and must compare, I would say Dhaulagiri was the hardest in terms of weather and snow conditions. Whereas Kanchenjunga was physically more demanding with the risk associated. As we finished Dhaulagiri, we were sleep deprived for four nights. We rocked up in Kanchenjunga around 11:00 am and at 13:00pm we went for the summit directly from the basecamp. As a normal standard procedure, climbers usually climb up to Camp 2 sleep there, then go up to Camp 3, Camp 4 and then summit.
During our descent from the summit, my team and I were involved in a rescue mission at 8450m, where the climber and his guide, both had run out of oxygen. We gave them our spare oxygen and started the rescue mission. Further descending 150m down, we found another climber, who was left behind by his guide and his team. I gave him my own oxygen and continued with the rescue mission. After descending a few more meters, our guide then had to give his oxygen away too. So by that time all my team had given away our own oxygen at the death zone. If you can imagine how hard it is to operate a rescue mission at 8450m without oxygen. Every 15-20 mins, I was on the radio asking for help with oxygen but no help came. This whole experience was not only physically demanding but also emotionally draining, as I felt helpless.
This brought flashbacks of the solo rescue I had carried out of a climber from balcony (Everest) 8400m in 2016. Since then I had promised myself that I will always climb 8000m mountains with oxygen, and even dropped my future goal to climb Everest without oxygen. It was clear to me that climbing big 8000m mountains is not about ego, if I can help someone and save someone’s life that would be a greater achievement for me.
And which one was your favourite?
Annapurna was my most favourite, purely because I enjoyed the planning, decision-making and changing route. We climbed through the Dutch rib, which hasn’t been climbed since 1970. It was deep snow, people were questioning if I could summit or not. It was 22nd of April, towards the end of spring climbing season on Annapurna and the stress was building up. For me, I just loved the challenge! We managed to get it done and we also received the appreciation from fellow climbers saying, “ If you were not here Nims, we wouldn’t have summited”. It was a great overall experience.
A few weeks back you posted some pretty incredible images of the human traffic jam on the way to the top of Everest. The picture you posted had my head spinning, so I can only imagine what that frenzy must have been like to be involved in. It looked busy, chaotic and extremely dangerous. What was it like up there?
The purpose of taking that picture was because I wanted to break my own previous world record from Everest summit to Lhotse summit, which unfortunately I couldn’t do so due to being stuck in the human traffic for about 7.5 hours. The picture went viral, which I wasn’t aware of at the time of posting it. If I am honest, yes it was a bit chaotic and dangerous, but people had the choice to climb as in when. There were days where only 7 people were on the summit. The fix lines were established a bit late this year and everybody wanted to go for the two good weather windows, which was 22nd and 23rd of May, hence the queue. Of course, when there is such queues like this at the death zone, it raises major concern for safety because if there is any rescue incident, unforeseen weather turnaround, there is a high risk for fatalities.
While I was in the queue, I managed the traffic for almost an hour as it started to get chaotic as some people wanting to go up and some people wanting to come down at the same time. And again, it all comes back to the decision making ability, staying calm in even in extreme and stressful condition.
Throughout that ordeal, you seemed to remain composed, collected and really acted like a leader. How did you remain so calm during such an ordeal?
At the death zone, many climbers get phased out, they go in survival instinct and when you go into survival instinct you only think about yourself; you think about how to survive.
For myself I feel that I am lucky to have this unique physiology, which allows to me to perform well at high altitude, also backed up by my experience in Special Forces. I think combination of these two helps me to stay calm and try to think ahead. I don’t get phased out by problems like this even at the death zone. I think this is a decision-making ability, where you start seeing a problem well ahead and try to solve it ahead of time. I have done this before, and I think this is one of the reasons for my success.
What drew you to becoming an ambassador for Bremont?
I grew up with British Gurkha and Special Forces heritage, it’s an honour to represent what I believe is the ‘best of British’ in teaming up with this preeminent British watch company in their endeavour to reinvigorate the British watch industry. With its extensive history of testing its watches in the harshest of environments on earth, I looked forward to testing the Supermarine S300 White to the next level, where no man or woman has taken it before.
You definitely embody Bremont’s “Tested Beyond Endurance” motto. Can you tell us a bit your personal experience and connection with the S300 White?
Project Possible 14/7 is a time sensitive mission and having precise and reliable equipment on an expedition like this is hugely important. Project Possible 14/7 is a record-breaking mission and my S300 White is already a record-breaking watch.
Do you have any advice for amateur climbers looking to test themselves in places like Everest?
I had a very late start in climbing. My first climb was a trek to Everest base camp in 2012. Now days, people seem to be taking short cuts. One should at least climb one 6000m peak, see how your body reacts, then attempt/climb a 7000m. At every altitude your body reacts differently, and you need to have the experience if you want o climb Everest, which is nearly 9000m. The way I started out was by climbing, 6000m peak, 7000m peak and then 8000m peak, just to see how my body reacted to the altitude and from there I went and climbed Everest. If you follow these simple steps, you will have so much confidence in your ability and you can always know what the problem is and can react to it.
Thanks again Nims, it was great to chat with you. Looking forward to seeing you conquering more of the natural world and breaking records at the same time!