Nirmal Purja’s winter ascent of K2 makes him a mountaineering superstar

Nirmal “Nims” Purja, 37, stunned the mountaineering world in 2019 when he climbed the 14 of the world’s 8,000 meters [above 26,000 feet] peaks in just six months and six days. It was an almost unimaginable speed-climbing feat, one that may never be duplicated. Then, on January 16 of this year, Purja surpassed himself, leading the first successful winter ascent of K2, the world’s second highest peak and one of the deadliest, climbing to the top himself without additional oxygen. Five climbers (Ali Sadpara, John Snorri, Atanas Skatov, Juan Pablo Mohr, Sergi Mingote) perished on the mountain this winter. We caught up with Purja to discuss these deaths and her own success at K2. Here is part 1 of edited excerpts from our recent telephone conversation.

Jim Clash: When you knew the K2 summit was within reach, what did you do?

Nirmal Purja: My mission was to make all 10 team members stand on top at the same time. With a few steps to take, I told them to turn off their radios because it was our time. We started to hug each other and as we walked the last few steps we sang the [Nepalese] National anthem. It was something touching, brother. Of course, I was super happy, but that happiness did not come only from myself, but from the success of the team. Once we started taking pictures I got really cold after climbing without oxygen and left after 15 minutes. Normally I’ll stay on top for two hours, thanking all the sponsors and stuff, but it was too cold.

Shock: Of the two projects, K2 in winter or 14 summits of 8,000 meters in six months, which one has marked you the most?

Pourja: They both have their own dynamic. The project of 14 to 8,000 meters of peaks in six months was something no one could imagine possible. It’s hard to climb a single 8,000-meter peak, let alone 14 in such a short time. K-2 in winter is something people thought about for a long time, but never accomplished. For me more satisfaction came from the K2 winter as it was done in a different way and style, a message of teaming up rather than just climbing for myself.

Shock: There have been five fatalities this winter season on K2. How do you react when people you know die up there?

Pourja: When I first saw the news of the missing climbers, I wanted to believe they would come back, but deep down I knew they wouldn’t. It’s unfortunate – they were my friends and were among the top 50 climbers in the world. But it’s as extreme as high altitude mountaineering can be. I know they were able to do what they loved to do. It’s only a matter of time, to be honest, and one day might be my day. Who knows? Death is always a sobering reminder.

Shock: With all of your recent mountaineering successes, you must have met some interesting people.

Pourja: I wasn’t looking too much in my social media when I was on K2, but overall it’s really humbling to see all the appreciation. We met the President of Pakistan [Arif Alvi], and the army chief of staff [General Bajwa], one of the 70 most influential men in the world [Forbes, 2018]. Mountaineers, like Conrad [Anker] and Jimmy Chin, have always been a great support, but this time it’s people from other areas. [Formula 1 superstar] Lewis Hamilton started following me on Instagram [laughs]. I mean, how humiliating is that? Extreme high altitude mountaineering deserves its place among the most extreme sports in the world. To be able to help bring awareness to it, let alone K2 – most people don’t even know what K2 is [laughs] – is very satisfactory.