Nirmal “Nims” Purja: The Man Who Climbed K2 in Winter Without Supplemental Oxygen
An elite solider and elite climber, Nims led the first winter ascent of K2 without supplemental oxygen.
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On January 16, 2021, Nirmal “Nims” Purja made history alongside nine fellow Nepali mountaineers, completing the first winter ascent of K2. Up until then, K2 was the last 8,000-meter peak yet to be summited in wintertime—an objective that was widely considered to be the greatest unclaimed feat in mountaineering. The climbers regrouped ten meters shy of the summit to wait. Then, in unison and while singing Nepal’s national anthem, the ten climbers made the final strides to the summit. Only one climber did so without supplemental oxygen: Nirmal Purja.
“I have always known what my mind and body are capable of,” Nims wrote in regard to his decision to climb without oxygen. “To lay it out straight, on my previous evolutions I had been carrying oxygen from 8000m and above, but I was personally satisfied with my work efficiency up to 8000m. It was my choice and I had my own reasons and ethos.”
On this expedition, Nims led a team of six Sherpa, who joined forces with another three man Sherpa team led by Mingma G, as well as Sona Sherpa who was the leader of yet another cohort of climbers. Nims was resolute and wholly dedicated to the goal of an all-Nepali team being the first to summit K2 in winter.
He wrote on FaceBook prior to their ascent: “I promise the hardest, the last, and the greatest mountaineering feat #k2winter will belong to the Nepali climbing community. All 13×8000 peaks have been climbed in winter by our international climbing community so it would be a great feat for the Nepali climbing community to make history. I will not leave the basecamp until the mission is accomplished.”
Read this: An interview with Nims Purja
In his relatively short climbing career, the 37-year-old has distinguished himself as a man of extraordinary tenacity, vision, and leadership. He has led 21 expeditions to 8,000-meter peaks—21 times these expeditions reached the summit, and 21 times all members of his team returned alive and with all of their appendages intact.
Nims was not born and raised at the foot of the Himalaya like many Nepali climbers, but rather in the country’s flatlands. Growing up, his aspirations were not to become a climber, but a soldier. In 2003 at age 18, he joined the Gurkhas—a sect of the British army—as his father and brothers had before him.
Six years after joining the military, Nims became the first ever Gurkha to pass selection for the UK Special Boat Service (SBS), a unit that specializes in undercover raids. The UK SBS is considered to be the most-elite unit in the British military. He served many tours and eventually became the extreme cold-weather warfare specialist in the mountain cell of SBS.
In 2012, during his tenure with SBS, Nims had his first real foray into mountaineering. While on leave, he joined an expedition to Everest Basecamp. The voyage piqued his interest in climbing, and he convinced his guide to teach him to climb. Together, they summited Lobuche East, a 6,119-meter peak. Nims was hooked on mountaineering from that moment on. He was keenly able to translate the grit and the hard skills he’d developed in his military career to his mountaineering career.
In 2016, Nims climbed Mount Everest for the first time. During his descent, he carried out a solo rescue of a fallen climber above 8,000-meters on the mountain—the death zone. In 2017, the second time Nims climbed Everest, he led a team of 13 Gurkhas to the summit. Immediately after their ascent, Nims summited Everest again, then Lhoste, then Makalu, all within a span of five days.
In 2019, after 16 years of service, Nims retired from the military to focus entirely on mountaineering. Upon leaving the SBS, he set an objective so lofty it seemed impossible: to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in seven months.
“Elite combat wasn’t enough,” Nims wrote. “I wanted more of a test. Something nobody thought was possible—to climb all fourteen ‘death zone’ mountains in seven months.”
The “death zone” refers to altitude above 8,000-meters, where there is so little oxygen in the atmosphere that it cannot sustain human life for extended periods of time. Only 40 people had ever summitted all fourteen peaks, and the previous record time for climbing each of those mountains was just under eight years.
Nims dubbed the mission Project Possible, and through meticulous planning and his character-defining determination, he completed the mission in six months and six days. He even conducted four rescue missions during Project Possible, three of them above 8,400-meters.
During Project Possible, Nims climbed with bottled oxygen to ensure that he was always as strong and as cogent as possible for the safety of himself and the rest of his team. However, before making the first winter ascent of K2, just eight short years after the commencement of his climbing career, Nims made the gametime decision to climb without oxygen.
“It was a tough call this time in order to make that decision whether to climb with or without supplementary oxygen (O2),” Nims wrote. “Due to the weather conditions and time frame, I hadn’t acclimatized adequately.”
He continues: “I took a calculated risk this time and I pressed on without supplementary O2. My self confidence, knowing my body’s strength, capability, and my experience from climbing the 14 x 8000ers enabled me to keep up with the rest of the team members and yet lead.”