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“The Politics of Mountains Annoyed the Hell Out of Me” Nims Purja on Sherpa Culture

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In October 2019, Nepali climber Nims Purja finished a seven-month project, Project Possible, to summit all fourteen 8000-meter peaks, breaking the previous record of seven years.

In his newly released memoir Beyond Possible, tied to the Netflix documentary “14 Peaks,” Purja reveals his motivations for the project, why he recruited a Nepali-only team, how his early life in Nepal and as a soldier in Britain’s elite Gurkha unit gave him a mountaineer’s skillset, and much more. Below, please find an excerpt from the chapter Respect is Earned.

Project Possible was my way of thrusting Sherpa culture into the limelight. For too long, the climbing industry had overlooked their heroic work. As far as I was concerned, they had been the driving force behind a lot of successful expeditions above 8,000 meters—and a support network of Sherpas that performed the heavy lifting propelled most against-all-odds expeditions. Who do you think sets the fixed ropes on Everest? And who carries the heavy equipment and supplies over huge distances while their paying clients move relatively freely?

Purja on Annapurna’s Dutch Rib. (Photo: Courtesy of Nims Purja)

They execute other, more specialized roles too. On Everest, for example, a unit of Sherpas called “ice doctors” place ladders and guide ropes over the hundreds of crevasses that scar the Khumbu Icefall. Typically, they were paid, but their small fees paled against the overall cost of an expedition. Without their work, most ascents would fail; relatively inexperienced climbers would die. The Sherpa guide had been making the impossible possible for years, though for the most part their work was rarely celebrated.

The politics of the mountain annoyed the hell out of me. When I’d first started climbing 8,000ers, I watched, impressed, as excellent climbers scaled the death zone peaks and their achievements were glorified by climbing websites and magazines. Then I looked for the names of the guys supporting that particular climber; after all, they were working so much harder than everybody else. But nobody ever mentioned them by name.

The disparity in respect pissed me off. Although a paid job, the work required of a Sherpa was incredibly dangerous. With Project Possible, I wanted to highlight the skills of Nepal’s climbers—but for that to work, I needed my team to have the same philosophies as me. I didn’t want sheep, or dedicated followers. I wanted a group of freethinkers.

A moment of calm on Annapurna. The mountain very nearly killed the Project Possible team during an avalanche (Photo: Courtesy of Nims Purja)

There was a hierarchy, though. From the outset, I made it clear that my job would be to run the team, to make decisions under pressure, and to use all the skills I’d learned on the mountain, in the military, and while operating as a cold-weather warfare specialist. In the special forces, each team was made up of expert warriors; my aim was to build a climbing group with an identical dynamic. Sure, I was team leader, but the other guys would operate as specialist climbers. Each of them possessed expert skills and all were capable of looking after themselves in moments of high drama.

With a superior level of unity, I wanted us to break trail through the deepest snow and into the hardest weather toward the 14 summits. I wanted us to become elite—to be regarded as the special forces of high-altitude mountaineering. And from there, I wanted that respect to shine upon the entire Sherpa community.

In many ways, I was running a high-altitude equivalent of the U.K. Special Forces Selection on Annapurna. Project Possible’s operators had to be strong, capable, and emotionally positive. The guys joining me had all proven they had potential to deliver, but our first climb would encompass all the most testing parts of selection rolled into one.

Beyond Possible is published in two editions, a Regular Edition and a Young Reader’s Edition and is for sale on amazon.com.