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Nims Purja and the Kuwaiti Flag on Ama Dablam

One of the stranger happenings in the Himalaya of late. What do we make of it? Federico Bernardi weighs in.

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Just two weeks after announcing that he had completed his incredible “Project Possible”—climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000ers in 7 months— Nirmal “Nims” Purja returned to the world stage  with a spectacular “risky” mission: On November 13, on Ama Dablam(6,832 meters), an expedition led by Nims unfurled a 100-meter-long and 30-meter-wide giant Kuwaiti flag on the summit, visible over 10 kilometers away.

It was a stunt by a group of Kuwaiti climbers—almost all without any practical experience in the mountains—with the high-sounding name of KFLAG_HEROES Team and  sponsored by the oil company Q8 and others. The Kuwaiti team had enlisted the services of Nims’ company, Elite Himalayan Adventures, to complete the bizarre mission. Nims and a number of very strong sherpa made the Kuwaiti team’s “Guinness Record” possible. Only one of the Kuwaitis seems to have reached the summit: Yousef Alshatti, a 35-year-old local idol and “Spartan Race” athlete, former member of the Special Forces, and “brand ambassador” for the rich country overlooking the Persian Gulf.

So all of the dangerous work of carrying six 25-kilogram segments of the flag up to the summit (for a total weight of 150kg) and the exhibition of Kuwaiti patriotism was made possible by… the Nepalese!

Nims and Project Possible

Nirmal “Nims” Purja is 38 years old. He was born in Nepal and raised in the least mountainous part of the country in a very modest family.

He served for years as a soldier in an elite unit, the famous Gurkhas; then, as the first Gurkha in History – but also as a British citizen— he was promoted to the most elite unit of the British Army: the Special Boat Service (SBS).

In 2012, Nims began to get passionate about the mountains, climbing Lobuche East initially as part of military training exercise focused on high mountain warfare.

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In just a few years, he climbed several 8000ers, and in 2018 he made a sensational decision: he took early leave from the SBS, giving up a as much £500,000 in future pension earnings, and devoted himself to a mad enterprise he called “Project Possible,” in which he would try to climb all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks in just 7 months.

He succeeded at the end of October 2019, finishing in 6 months 6 days.

It was an exceptional and historic enterprise in every aspect, from the financial and logistical efforts—organizing helicopters, permits, transfer of material, setting up the base camps—to the incredible physical effort. Nims also supported two rescue missions for climbers in difficulty in death zone.

Praise and Criticism

During Project Possible, Nims always openly declared his reliance on supplementary oxygen, helicopters, fixed ropes and a large support team.

He also stated, however, in a somewhat ambiguous way, that his was not “an individual goal” but “a collective feat” for many Nepalese, to whom he gave work. Project Possible aimed to, among other things, promote tourism in Nepal and bring attention to environmental challenges. Nims declared that he would leave the mountains he climbed as pristine as before he set foot on them, removing his fixed gear and Camps at the end of each expedition.

He received both enthusiastic praise and harsh criticism.

Reinhold Messner, legendary first ascender of all 14,000 without oxygen, said: “Nirmal Purja faced a different challenge, which also serves to show that Nepalese alpinists can now take the leadership of ascents in the Himalayas. […] He has demonstrated a great capacity for economic management, leadership, logistics organization. And obviously, exceptional physical resistance. ”

Simone Moro, veteran mountaineer and master in winter climbing on the 8000ser, said, “I say that Nirmal is really good, and what he has done finally eliminates all those who consider themselves heroes for accumulating eight-thousand in a bag, with good weather, oxygen, fixed ropes, guides… […] Those who love a different mountaineering, instead of congratulating Nirmal Purja and rejoicing (put aside your pride and take off your hat! ), will start thinking about what could have been done differently, putting in the center the ‘how’ and the style.”

Sir Chris Bonington, the great English mountaineer, instead declared: “What he has done is quite extraordinary, but it isn’t mountaineering. Real mountaineering is exploratory –- finding new routes up to big peaks…I don’t see this as a major event.”

Steven Venables added : “The fact that he used supplementary oxygen detracts from the feat. I know he also used fixed ropes. It isn’t exactly alpinism, as I understand it … It will certainly make it into the Guinness Book of Records, but in the history of mountaineering, it will only be a footnote.”

Elite Himalayan Adventures or more K-Flag stunts?

With the Kuwaiti Flag stunt, Nims chose a spectacular but controversial mission. It was a display of pure nationalistic pride for obvious commercial ends. There is nothing wrong with wanting to capitalize  on his newfound fame, particularly to offset the massive costs of Project Possible. But what is striking is how hypocritical this particular project seems in light of Nims’ rhetoric during Project Possible.

Nims made a long Instagram post to counter the outpouring of criticism following the Kuwaiti flag stunt. He wrote, “Yes, I have helped our friends from Kuwait to take their National flags on the summit of Amadablam, to help them celebrate their National day that is coming up soon,” and “that the flag was removed after an hour.”  The problem is that Kuwait National Day is… February 25th!

The harshest criticism came directly from Nims’ followers on his official Facebook page. Alexander Hillary, New Zealand photographer and mountaineer and grandson of the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary, Everest’s first climber, who for the following decades contributed to the development, education and charitable works for the people of Nepal, wrote: “Unfortunately this isn’t entirely true Nims. I’m writing this message from Camp 1 on Ama Dablam and i’ve heard that your film crew were asking climbers to leave quickly so they weren’t in your heli shot. Not only that, you and the clients left Ama Basecamp before your exhausted Sherpa team that were carrying the 25kg flag pieces arrived back down. I’m appalled by the lack of respect that you have shown your countrymen and employees, not to mention the inappropriate placement of a foreign flag on Ama Dablam. Were you also aware that the day you pulled your stunt was the auspicious and holy day of Mani Rimdu? The Sherpa community wasn’t thrilled to have the flag draped in full view of the ceremony at Tengboche Monastery. Overall, I’m very unimpressed by your disrespectful behaviour. Shame on you.”

But some did come to Nims’ defense.  Timmy O’Neill, a well-known Yosemite climber who was also on Ama Dablam during the K-Flag feat, expressed confusion over the outrage. He wrote on Instagram: “We watched as a massive flag was unfurled from the summit[..]No unusual additional trash nor any extra wear & tear on fixed lines[..] I did encounter a couple of individuals carrying flagloads and of course the mountain itself, which was just as tall, indifferent and amazing.”

Personally, I don’t feel any anger— a word commonly  used by Nims’ critics. But I am disappointed and anxious as to what it portends for the future of the mountains: How many rich and eccentric clients from all over the world will ask for the services of Nims and his Agency for fancy, strange and odds records? Does it open a Pandora’s Box of more jarring displays of nationalistic pride on beautiful mountains?

Mainly though, I am confused. Project Possible was largely about promoting Nepali pride, tourism and development; the K-Flag stunt involved renting one of Nepal’s mountains out to the highest bidder.

But, then again, in another recent Instagram post, Nims announced a more interesting new Expedition: to open a new route on Cho Oyu—which is usually climbed from the Tibetan side—that can be used as for commercial expeditions and therefore benefit the local economy on the Nepali side of the mountain.

I for one hope Nims continues with expeditions like his upcoming Cho Oyu plans and other more ambitious fair-means goals.

Federico Bernardi runs the website Montagna Magica. He last wrote for about Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergey Nilov’s 19 day siege on the east wall of Jannu.

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