Nepal's star K2 climber does it his way
Acclaimed mountaineer Nirmal Purja is no stranger to dazzling ascents or forbidding expeditions, but the hardened Nepali has confirmed his place in history after leading the team that finally conquered K2 in winter.
Purja was the driving force behind the all-Nepali team that last weekend became the first to scale the world’s second-highest mountain in treacherous winter conditions.
All previous attempts at securing the elusive record on "the savage mountain" had failed.
The history-making team, Purja says, was united by their "common goal" of claiming what he has called the last and greatest mountaineering feat for their nation.
"For a bigger mission like this you need a purpose to make it happen," the 38-year-old told AFP in the remote Pakistani mountain city of Skardu.
"If there was an (individual) goal I don't think we would have been successful."
Despite garnering fame as expert climbing guides paid to undertake great burdens and even greater risks, Nepalis have rarely got the same accolades as their foreign clients.
- From soldier to climber -
Purja grew up far from the mountains in a village in the flatlands of southern Nepal.
Known by the nickname "Nims", he was an elite soldier long before he started climbing to the top of the world.
He left his homeland as a teenager to join the Gurkhas -- a brigade of Nepalis in the British army renowned for their fearlessness.
He later served in the British special forces as an extreme cold-weather warfare specialist.
But it didn't take long into his mountaineering career before he started setting lofty records.
In 2019, he climbed all the world’s peaks over 8,000 metres in just over six months -- stunning the mountain community.
But his use of sherpas, oxygen and fixed ropes, as well as helicopters to go from one base camp to another, was frowned upon by some who denounced it as a spectacle, far from the original spirit of explorers.
This time round, even critics acknowledged the achievement, including Polish star Adam Bielecki who was impressed after learning Purja had summited K2 without oxygen -- considered by some as a form of doping.
Purja was the only one on the team to do so.
He was also the only ethnic Magar in the triumphant 10-man expedition -- the others are all ethnic Sherpa, considered the backbone of the Himalayan climbing industry.
-Arduous journey -
The Nepali climbers started off in different teams, before uniting to make their country proud.
The other leader, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, praised Purja's doggedness.
"He is very determined, what he says, he does. That's a good thing about Nirmal," he told AFP.
When some of the climbers -- suffering in the minus 65 degrees Celsius (minus 85 Fahrenheit) conditions -- were close to giving up, Purja pushed them on.
"We went so fast, people thought we went by helicopter," he said of one section of the climb.
As they neared the top, the group reassembled, and sang the Nepali national anthem on the homestretch.
"This year, with the whole team, we made the last and the hardest mission, K2, possible," Purja said.
But already, he's thinking up the next adventures and spectacles to be planned.
"There are always (new) boundaries," he said.
"(That's) human, that's what we do."