In 2019, Nirmal “Nimsdai” (or Nims) Purja set out to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in seven months, smashing the prior world record of seven years held by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987. In total, forty climbers have done it over the course of a lifetime. “I was told my plan was impossible,” Nims says. “So I decided to name it Project Possible.”
Directed by Torquil Jones, this 2021 Netflix documentary follows Nims and his team of Nepalese climbers on the journey, integrating interviews with top athletes and experts in the sport while injecting archival footage of prior historic climbs. As Nims says, the project is “about inspiring the human race…I want to represent the Nepalese climbing community.” Much of 14 Peaks is jammed into 101 minutes, which can be disorienting at times, but this is a story of perseverance with some unparalleled footage along the way that is worth watching.
14 Peaks uses flashbacks to create backstory and build character. Jones fleshes out our protagonist to build a connection: we care whether he lives or dies, succeeds or fails (even if we do know the outcome). And Nims is likeable, so the audience roots for him.
Annapurna, the first mountain, stands at 8,091 meters. For every three climbers who make it to the summit, one dies trying. Beautifully horrifying overhead shots of the mountain transition into Nims hiking with his Nepalese team. The panning in and out—from Nims and his fellow climbers and back to the mountain—highlights the archetypal conflict of man versus nature—and is revisited throughout the film. Annapurna is known for crumbling on top of climbers: avalanches are prevalent. To illustrate the conditions, especially the hip-deep fresh snow, Jones uses headcam footage from Nims and his team. No angle is missed.
Nims returns home to Nepal to see his mother, Jones emphasizing the importance of family, country, and culture. Nims “was a naughty boy” who struggled to sit still. “In early life,” Nims says, “I always used to compete against people. When I joined the Gurkhas [native Nepalese recruited by the British Army], the biggest thing I learned was that I had to compete against myself.”
On the second peak, Dhaulagiri (8,167 meters), the team is overtaken by a storm. They are forced to camp, wait for conditions to improve, and decide to make a push at night, hoping they’d summit the next morning. Instead, they summited at 6 p.m. the following day. It took 21 hours. There is no shortage of obstacles throughout this journey—on the mountains and at home.
Nims served six years with the Gurkhas before applying to the UK Special Forces. To train, he woke at two or three o’clock in the morning, ran 20 kilometers, worked all day, and then went to the gym before returning home at 11 p.m. We see him jumping out of planes and snowmobiling. “I learned quickly,” Nims says, “that whatever the situation is, you have to stay in control.”
Nims parties in Katmandu and is hungover prior to climbing Kachenjunga (8,586 meters), which he does in a single push from base camp. Jimmy Chin, American professional climber, photographer, and Academy Award-winning film director of Free Solo and executive director of this project, says “it’s completely absurd.” Above 8,000 meters is referred to as the death zone: climbers breathe one-third of the amount of oxygen than that at sea level. By using oxygen, climbers become dependent on it. If you run out, you can’t adapt. Nims and his team use oxygen above 8,000 meters.
Making his way down from the summit, Nims went without oxygen for more than 11 hours as he had attempted to help a stranded climber. Dramatizing Nims’ disorientation, 14 Peaks stages Nims standing shirtless against a black backdrop, zooming in on his face and then flashing to accelerated images of clouds cycling around the mountain. Suspenseful music plays. Nims has developed High Altitude Cerebral Enema (HACE). The film shows blurry images, Nims red faced, shifting into animation. “I saw a human figure standing tall,” Nims says. “A big monster with the hair of a yeti.”
Six months before Project Possible, Nims tells his brother, Kamal Purja, he wants to leave the army. Kamal is worried. Nims is a financial asset, and their mother is sick. “I love my brother so much,” Kamal says. “I don’t want my brother to die.” Kamal flips through a family photo album. “I didn’t talk to him for three months,” Kamal says.
On Everest, the world’s tallest mountain at 8,848 meters, the highway to the summit is overrun by hundreds of climbers. “People were fighting [about] who needs to have the priority over going up or going down.” Nims takes a photo of the line, which goes viral. Jones sifts through an array of newscaster coverage, including Nims’ photo in the New York Times, the storm on Facebook, and broadcasts in different languages. “Things just went absolutely crazy.”
Nims wanted to climb Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu—the world’s first, fourth and fifth highest mountains—within 48 hours, which had never been done. The camera zooms out from the peaks, showing all three, putting into perspective their proximity and sheer size. It is intimidating. The scene transitions to the mountain at night. “On the Summit,” Nims says, “your soul becomes part of the mountain. It makes you feel alive.” The spiritual elements of 14 Peaks are apparent, reinforced by Nims’ culture and upbringing. If there is a God in Nims’ life, it seems to be nature. Returning to Kathmandu having climbed six mountains, his mother cries, scared for him. “This is for Nepal,” Nims says, “and the Nepalese.”
Pakistan has some of the most remote and difficult mountains in the world. On the 8,126-meter Nanga Parbat, the team climbs in a heavy snow. Nims is converted back into animation. He limps down towards base camp but loses control and falls. He sees a rope. “I hold onto it for dear life,” Nims says. “I had fallen around 100 meters. Not today, Nims. Not today.” It is a battle with himself to stay alive. The fall shakes his confidence. “Sometimes you have to hide your weakness,” he says.
Arriving at K2 is as intimidating as any mountain in the world. Don Bowie, a high-altitude mountaineer, says, “I like watching the face of other climbers when they get their first glimpse of K2. You see this monumental pyramid of stone. You know the thought that is going through their head is, ‘this is a really bad idea.’” The 8,611-meter mountain has everyone at base camp uncertain and stressed due to bad weather and an avalanche. One climber says, “Nims, you’re a great boy and this is lovely propaganda, but you don’t change the mountain.” Nims throws a party. “As a leader, you have to present yourself with so much confidence,” says Nims.
As Nims begins his last leg of the challenge, mortality comes into focus. Reinhold Messner, often hailed as the greatest mountaineer in history, says softly, “Most of us are forgetting that from the beginning of our life, we are approaching death…Life is absurd. But you can fill it with ideas. With enthusiasm. You can fill your life with joy.” The audience sees a number of Nims’ missteps on the climb: “Any mistake,” says Nims, “and it could be death…And when it comes to that moment, you want to survive. You want to live.” Messner says, “In such a concentrated situation, climbing and meditation is the same. When the pain is really forcing you to go down, you keep going up. You are really on the edge of possibilities. The edge of life and death.” Nims summited the five highest mountains in Pakistan in 23 days. “I am the Usain Bolt of 8,000 meters,” Nims says. “No one can defeat me.”
Nothing goes as planned on the final phase. Nims must fight the Chinese to get a permit for Shishapangma. “I’m no one compared to the power of China. But I wasn’t going to be fazed by that,” he says. He meets with politicians and the former prime minister and turns to social media for help. No one had climbed the mountain since 2014. The Chinese give in.
While climbing, the team is hit by a brutal, windy snowstorm. 14 Peaks flashes to clips of the struggle thus far, and clips of family. Nims says: “If you can inspire one or two people in a good way, then you can inspire the world.” On October 29, 2019, he summits and radios his mom: “We did it.” In six months and six days, Nims completed Project Possible, and broke six mountaineering world records in the process. “Next,” Nims says, “we go even bigger…Just wait and see. And I mean it.”
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible is currently streaming on Netflix