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Death zone. That’s what mountaineers call the final lap on high mountains, beyond an altitude of 8,000 metres, where the oxygen is so low cells start dying. On October 29, former British soldier Nirmal Purja set a world record by climbing the world’s 14 ‘death zone’ mountains in six months. In his first interview since the achievement, he shares his experience with Chandrima Banerjee:
Q: The previous record was a little short of eight years. You did it in just over six months. You also climbed Everest and Lhotse in one day.
A: ...And Makalu, in 48 hours. It was pretty cool, I guess. I also summitted all five 8000-ers (mountains higher than 8000m) of Pakistan in 23 days. But my focus was not the world record; I wanted to show what the human body is capable of.
Since Reinhold Messer, who did the 8000-ers for the first time in 1986 over a 16-year period, a lot has changed in terms of technology. How has that helped?
Technology has changed climbing. There is a lot of negativity around that, a lot of scepticism. But I don’t see it that way. There is a freedom to climbing mountains – there are no rules, you climb the way you want. The gear and equipment helps. But I was carrying my own equipment to summit, when porters could have helped. Only a few sections of rope were fixed. It’s still a challenge. And sometimes the equipment helps save lives. On Kanchenjunga, just 1000m from the summit, three climbers were stuck. We gave them our oxygen. When you come off oxygen at that altitude, it’s next-level stuff. But we could do it and actually help someone. I’ll also add that I didn’t have a special kit for these 14 climbs and used the one I had earlier. I didn’t have time to go shopping.
How did the funding work?
I had to sell my house to start things off. Some friends came in to help and then some crowdfunding. With six more years with the (British) Special Forces, I would have been eligible for pension. But I gave that up.
What was your experience with the British Special Forces and as a Marine? You gave that up to complete this.
I wanted to be a Gurkha (soldier) since I was a kid. My elder brother was one. I joined the Gurkhas (regiment) in 2003 and the Special Forces six years later. To train for the Special Forces, I used to wake up at 2am. I’d carry 65kg and do a 20-km run, come back and do the regular military training. In the evening, I’d run the 20-km track again with the 65kg load before going to the gym, where I’d do 60 miles on the cycle. I would get back at 10.30pm. I trained like that for six months.
And that prepared you in a way?
The mental preparation, yes. It made me tough. Being with the Special Forces changed me. If there was a job to be done, you had to do it. You were chosen, and then you had to live up to that. There was no going back. When it comes to physical preparation, to be honest, I didn’t have any. A three-month period in Nepal was supposed to be for training. But I was so busy with fundraising that I couldn’t train.
Your climbs spanned three countries – Nepal, China and Pakistan. Did you hit bureaucratic wall?
The final summit, Shishapangma, is in Tibet and was closed off. But I couldn’t give up. I had to wait for a month to get the permit from China. I was seeing five ministers a day: the deputy prime minister, the tourism minister, and so on. You have to be there to meet the ministers, no one can do it on your behalf. So it’s different when you don’t have organisational backing and are doing things on your own. I was climbing, doing my own fundraising, handling the administrative side of things and dealing with politics. I didn’t have the luxury most athletes have. It was tough. It was horrendously bad. But I loved it. Your Everest ‘traffic jam’ photo in May went viral. How long had you been in the queue to the summit when you took the photo? I was there for seven and half hours. Waiting, trying to manage some of the traffic (there were 320 mountaineers in line). I think the government of Nepal did make some changes after that. It had to be done, sooner or later, but the photo may have helped give things a push. It was an eye-opener.
So there’s a fallout to the race to the mountains?
What people don’t seem to realise is that when nature hits, everything goes out of control. Earlier, when people would talk about climate change, I would not feel particularly moved. But then I encountered the effects of climate change myself. In 2014, I was climbing Ama Dablam, one of the most beautiful peaks in the Himalayas, and I remember how we melted some of the snow for water. Last year, when we went up, there was no snow. We had to carry gallons of water from base camp to camp and that’s when it hit me – this is urgent.
"In 2014, when I climbed Ama Dablam (in pic), I remember melting snow for water. Last time, when we went up there was no snow"
You’ll have to wait for that one. I am not done. Things have just started out.
2019: a world record
Nepalese sets record, scales 14 highest peaks in 6 months
A Nepali mountaineer on Tuesday smashed the speed record for summiting the world’s 14 highest peaks, racing up all “8000ers” in just six months and six days, organisers said.
The previous record for the 14 mountains above 8,000 metres (around 26,250 feet) — completed by Nirmal Purja at 8.59am (1259 GMT) on Tuesday — was almost eight years.
“MISSION ACHIEVED! says @nimsdai from the summit of #Shishapangma,” read a post on Purja’s Facebook page, while a statement quoted the former British elite soldier as being “overwhelmed and incredibly proud” after his 189-day feat.
“It has been a gruelling but humbling six months, and I hope to have proven that anything is possible with some determination, self-belief and positivity,” the 36-year-old said.
Starting with Italy’s legendary Reinhold Messner in 1986, around 40 climbers have climbed the Earth’s 14 highest mountains, but none have come close to Purja’s speed.
The late Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka took seven years, 11 months and 14 days in 1987. South Korean Kim Chang-ho completed the challenge one month faster.
Purja, a former member of the Gurkhas — a brigade of Nepalis in British army — as well as the elite Special Boat Service, kicked off “Project Possible” in April. In the first part of his record attempt, Purja ticked off Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu in just one month.
He was not alone on Everest, reaching it on May 22 with 320 others and snapping a photo of a traffic jam of climbers on the world’s highest mountain that went viral.
A month later, Purja headed to Pakistan for the second part, where he first tackled Nanga Parbat at 8,125 metres.
Purja said he was almost sprinting up and down five of Pakistan’s highest peaks including Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and K2, the second highest in the world.
Twenty-three days later he was standing atop Broad Peak, his fifth and final mountain of the second phase.
Purja began his final push in September, reaching the tops of Cho Oyu and Manaslu within a week. AFP