“Namaste,” says the voice on the other end of the line as the Skype call begins. The mellow timbre and softness catch me a bit off guard. I half expected Nirmal “Nims” Purja to have a stern, stentorian voice befitting his UK Special Forces background.
Where are you? “I’m in Kathmandu, my brother,” Nims says. He ends many phrases with this term of endearment, making you feel as though there’s no one else in the world he’d rather be talking to. Just under two weeks ago, on January 16, he was standing on top of K2 with nine of his Nepalese compatriots, having completed the coveted first winter ascent of K2; now he’s doing interviews by the dozen, trying to take it all in and keep up with everyone who wants a piece of him. But he’s still present.
We exchange small talk and then get down to the details. K2 in winter. Let’s hear it.
Why do you think you guys succeeded where no one else could before? “Because we are the best climbers in the world,” Nims tells me. “Many people say, ‘Oh you guys are lucky.’ But there are still more than 60 climbers out there on K2, or something like that. Nobody else did it. And many expeditions tried before us. You need the best to make something like this happen. And that’s a fact. Don’t take that as an arrogant statement… but that’s a reality.”
And he’s correct. He and his Nepalese teammates who summited with him—Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, Gelje Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa, Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Dawa Temba Sherpa, Pem Chhiri Sherpa, Kilu Pemba Sherpa, Dawa Tenjing Sherpa, and Sona Sherpa—are the best high-altitude climbers in the world. Full stop.
But along with Nims’ fierce adamance about his and his teammates’ skills and abilities, he has a humbleness and graciousness about him, and deep appreciation for the power of the mountains. Learning about his winter climb of K2, without supplementary oxygen—which he never used during the expedition—was riveting.
Read on for the full interview below!
Q&A with Nimsdai
What are the feelings now, nearly two weeks after summiting? Has it sunk in?
Yea, I think the biggest thing is how people reacted to this story. We had such a warm welcome in Pakistan. We met the president. The army chief. And also the people from Pakistan—they really appreciated us and it was such a warm welcome.
And when we got to Nepal, we met the Prime Minister, and so many others, at the airport. It was a historical moment.
But we are all happy. The whole team is happy.
We didn’t really expect this level of ceremony going on and all that. But I think everyone is proud, and everyone is happy.
Quick recap: What day did you arrive at the mountain? What day did you summit?
We left Skardu on January 21, and we arrived I think right after Christmas at base camp, on December 26. And then we summited January 16, 4:45 p.m.
It was very fast, buddy. Next level fast. And if the team was ready—I would’ve summited in 12 days. After the first round of acclimatization some of my team wasn’t ready, had some frost nip, so we rested longer.
What did you think your chances were of success going into the expedition?
100%. [Nims pauses. Silence for 10 seconds]
For me, I’ve done over 20 expeditions to 8,000 meter peaks, and on all of them, my track record is summiting. On all of them, I’ve brought back home everyone how they left, the same, no one hurt. So for me this is nothing different.
This was my 21st expediton. So I’m 21 for 21. I want to keep it that way.
Were conditions more extreme than you thought? Or was it what you expected?
I knew what to expect and all that. But in terms of experiencing all of it actually on the ground—it was hardcore.
What kind of a base camp set up did you guys have?
We had a communications tent, with all our cameras and stuff, too. We had a dining tent. So we had a good setup. But it wasn’t a big Mountain Hardwear tent or anything. Just a local tent.
How long did the final summit push take? From base camp to summit?
It took us four days. We went from Base Camp to Camp 2. From Camp 2 we stopped just below the Black Pyramid. Then the next day we went to Camp 3. So that’s three days there. Then it was quite a bit of work on the fourth day.
Can you give us a rundown of the summit day?
We woke up around midnight, and we started preparing equipment, boiling the water. We left around 2:00 in the morning. It was a bit windy and extremely cold.
We went for the summit from Camp 3 directly. It was so cold that some of the team was internally thinking of turning around. It was hard work, to be honest.
I had some frost nip from my acclimatizing rotations. And personally, since I was doing it without oxygen, I was wondering, Will I be able to keep up with my teemates and still lead? But we kept working hard together.
We summited quite late in the day, a quarter to 5.
The biggest thing was stopping 10 meters away from the summit: We hugged each other, and we walked to the summit singing. And that was the most emotional part of the whole journey. There were some tears. Everyone stood at the summit at the same time.
It was a powerful message and everyone felt it.
Then we got back to Camp 3 at like 11:00 pm.
For us, we had the team of the best climbers in the world, so we just punched through. The Bottleneck was all blue ice, and there was a big serac. But I just felt like, if it’s our day it’s our day. So we just kept climbing. There‘s nothing you can do with objective danger. In terms of subjective danger we knew our skill level, knew the risks we could avoid, and all that.
How was it leading the team with Mingma G? What were the team dynamics like, since you guys were from different expeditions?
Firstly, I only decided to go to K2 two months before the expedition.
Secondly, when I first went to the mountain with a team of 6, we were fully self-sufficient. Me and Mingma G, we met at Camp 3, when we were supporting his team fixing lines.
And we are brothers from Nepal, we have the same intentions, same goal. And that goals wasn’t for us. It was for Nepal. We were trying to show the world that we could make the impossible possible. So we decided to team up and said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’
Did anyone get frostbite?
Everyone had a bit of frost nip, but no one had serious frostbite.
Did you plan to climb the mountain without oxygen from the beginning?
I had the plan, but I wasn’t sure if it would work in the timeline. The highest I had acclimatized was Camp 2. And the history of climbing without O’s, you have to sleep at higher camps. But for me, having to climb with frost nip, having to climb without fully acclimatizing—it was a tricky decision to make, but knowing my body and my experience, I went for it.
Did you use oxygen at all on the mountain during the expedition before the summit push? While fixing ropes on earlier rotations on the mountain?
Nope, not at all.
How hard was it compared to any of the other 8,000ers you’ve climbed?
It’s winter, and for me, I’m also keeping up pace with the boys and all. So it’s hard. But to be honest, I never felt like I was going to die, or super extreme. It was hard work, but reasonable.
For those people who just know you as a superhuman now—how did you get your start climbing?
I didn’t put crampons on until I was 30 years old. I came into professional climbing only in March 2019. Before that I was special forces. But for me the reason why I came into this world was that, when I served in the special forces for 10 years, the things you do you— you think you’re invincible. But when I went into the mountains they made me feel very humble. And I love that part.
And the Nepalese community is the frontier of the 8,000ers, so I felt like someone had to step up to tell our story.
Has your military background helped you in the mountains?
Not really… It’s different. The United Kingdom special forces is completely different to the mountains. Your body has to allow you to do all this stuff, of course. But on an 8,000-meter peak you could be no one
Why do you think you guys succeeded where no one else could before?
Because we are the best climbers in the world. Many people say, ‘Oh you guys are lucky.’ But there are still more than 60 climbers out there on K2, or something like that. Nobody else did it. And many expeditions tried before us. You need the best to make something like this happen. And that’s a fact. Don’t take that as an arrogant statement… but that’s a reality.
We were setting our own fixed lines, too. So many people have been trying to put their name on this mountain. Every country was trying to do it. For a mission like this, every little thing matters. You need the elite in order to be successful.
One thing I think is worth saying: When we summited, we put the picture of the team online, and some people were eager to criticize and to put out a negative message. And then people wanted to take away what we did and say, “It’s not pure,” and “It’s with oxygen.” To all that negativity, I want to just say: You need to chill a bit.
Don’t be commenting from your couch around the world when you don’t know the full story. People were so eager to jump in and make it a sour story. There was a reason why I didn’t want to come out right away and say that I didn’t use oxygen I wanted it to be about the team and about Nepal. And people were rushing too much. Let people celebrate.
A lot of people come to Nepal. People love the Sherpa. We are very warm people. So it wasn’t nice, I think.
And if you think you can do better—don’t talk from your house. Come do it and show us a better way. My 5-year-old nephew can talk shit. It doesn’t matter. Do and then we will respect. The world will respect then.
Be positive about things! We have to be smarter and supportive and positive rather than all this negativity… But anyway, bro…
Who is the coolest person you’ve received congratulations from?
So many cool people, to be honest. We met the president of Pakistan, we met the prime minster of Nepal. The Prince of Wales.
What was your first proper meal you had back in a city?
Mate, Nepalese always eat dal bhat!
There are rumors that you might be going to Manaslu in the next couple of weeks? Any truth to this?
No. Not going. I promise! This is for someone else to do. I don’t have to do everything. My equipment is still in Pakistan anyway.
What are the next big challenges you’d like to tackle in the Karakoram and Himalaya?
Stay tuned. We’ll always surprise you.
Might we see you venture into more technical climbing?
K2 is technical. But no, I won’t be doing free solo of El Cap, you know? That’s for Alex Honnold. I’ll leave that to him.