Everest climber whose traffic jam photo went viral speaks out on mountaineering mission

Photographer Nirmal Purja sees the picture he took of the crowd at Mount Everest as both a blessing and a curse.
Photographer Nirmal Purja sees the picture he took of the crowd at Mount Everest as both a blessing and a curse.PHOTOS: AFP, NIRMAL PURJA MBE: "PROJECT POSSIBLE - 14/7"/FACEBOOK

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The photograph of a traffic jam of climbers leading to the summit of Mount Everest in May went viral, evidence of the mountain's surging appeal among thrill-seekers and the overcrowding that has caused deaths and pollution.

The photographer - Mr Nirmal Purja, known as Nims - is a Nepalese mountaineer who has been on a journey to climb the world's tallest peaks in rapid succession, showcasing local climbers as central actors in the history of Himalayan feats.

He and his all-star Sherpa team call the mission Project Possible, with a goal of summiting all 14 of the world's peaks higher than 8,000 metres in seven months.

So far, since beginning in April, he has climbed 11 of them, sometimes reaching the top of mighty peaks like K2 and Broad Peak in the span of a weekend, something that took previous generations of mountaineers months, if not years, to accomplish.

The fastest all 14 have been climbed is eight years. So few believed Mr Nims, 36, when he announced Project Possible.

Yet it has already stirred pride in the Nepalese climbing community and made a dramatic statement about achieving independent mountaineering goals.

And then there is that photograph, which he sees as a blessing (it helped motivate regulatory changes on climbing Everest) and a curse (it has often been used without credit or compensation).

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Q: Your Everest traffic jam photograph - it's a striking and important image. Please discuss.


A: I just took that picture as evidence, and obviously it took a completely different toll. But I'm glad in a way that I took that picture because it's helping to change the rules and regulations with the Nepalese government policy.

Q: Do you think guide services or other climbers wish you hadn't taken it?

A: I think so. But to be honest, I really didn't think it could've taken this toll. People took from the photo the story in the way they wanted it.

Q: Did any media outlets have permission or rights to use the image?

A: Everybody used this picture, all of the biggest media in the world, so people with power are mis-utilising this picture, without even giving the credit. They could also give a bit of money for this project, this project I'm out begging for, sold my house for.

Q: Your team has several notable climbers like Mingma David Sherpa, Gesman Tamang, Geljen Sherpa, Saney Sherpa and Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, whom we see on your Instagram feed. What's the secret?

A: The reason we've been very successful is, of course, we've got an amazing team, we've got good leadership, we've got a really good positive mindset. But the other big component of this is being disciplined. Like discipline, discipline, discipline, 100 per cent discipline.

Q: Why did you leave the United Kingdom's special forces - specifically the UK Royal Navy's elite Special Boat Service - and give up on your full military pension to pursue the project?

A: Even though I had only six years left to get full pension, I gave my resignation. I never joined the special forces for money, and certainly what I'm doing right now wasn't for the money as well. So I have always followed my heart and this is exactly what I did.

Q: Have you turned around or backed off any summits so far?

A: All summits in one! That's your brother. I summited four mountains - Kangchenjunga, Makalu, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I - in one push. I didn't camp anywhere. Just went boom, summit, brother.

Q: Please describe your fitness and endurance at altitude in a way normal folks may relate to.

A: For me to run 100 metres at sea level, if it takes me 11 or 12 seconds, I exactly do that at the altitude in the same speed. That's how I am. I cannot beat anybody at sea level, but I can beat anybody up there.

Q: Can we talk about the history of the overlooked Nepalese climber? (In accounts of Himalayan successes, the contributions of Nepalese and other local climbers have often been minimised.)

A: Sherpa were always involved with the setting of the lines, but they never got the platform to tell any story, I think. And so these people have always remained in the shadow. But now obviously with the Internet, the whole platform and everything, people can hold a light these days. The truth will always come out. That's how people are starting to see this stuff.

Q: Would our conversation be different if you were from Austria or California and had just climbed 11 8,000-metre peaks?

A: Let's be honest, if somebody else had done these things, they would've been on the front page of everywhere else. I don't know what happened, but nothing came in.

Q: Considering how you spent the month of July, climbing all five 8,000-metre peaks of Pakistan on foot, I can understand the disappointment.

A: I genuinely feel like, when people climb K2, it's everywhere in the news, everybody covers it. And I think I did something bigger than that, and with four unplanned rescues and everything, and then nothing came of it. There was no justice to the story. Now I truly believe this is not only my project, it's everyone's. It's a project for my team, a project for the Nepalese climber. This is also for everyone who believes in doing impossibles.

Q: Your team is trying to practice self-reliance on your climbs, and you're also using all kinds of different tactics. Please explain.

A: We've climbed in 60- to 75-kilometre-an-hour wind conditions without ropes, and yes, we put in fixed lines when we can because of the safety. But it's all calculated risk and you have to be so flexible in doing this project, and that's why we've been so successful. We always climb with what we have. So from nothing to from everything, we have everything - if that makes sense. If we have nothing, we can climb pretty much solo. And then when we have everything, like where we're guiding, we put the fixed lines all the way to the summit, you know, because we're guiding clients, and we have time and we have that luxury.

Q: Your team is using supplemental oxygen, which some critics online have suggested diminishes your project somehow. Thoughts?

A: The only people who might say this are probably those mountaineers who think they're cool and I'm just blowing everything out of the park. Either you climb with oxygen or without. I'm doing it because I have my ethos. I'm doing it because I've learned my lesson. I'm doing it so that I can save somebody else's life if I encounter one of those needy people up high in the mountains.

Q: Last one: Are you concerned about the effects of prolonged exposure to high altitude?

A: No, brother, not really. I know my body so well. And I just love it when I'm out there. I'm just like, "Yeah, this is my place." I chill out, brother.