Who is Nirmal Purja?

North Doodle. (All rights reserved)

In March 2019, we saw the results of a press push. Some guy no one knew was going to try to make history.

Nirmal Purja claimed he was going to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in record time. Not in years, but months. The record had been over seven years. Purja wanted to do it over a single season. I shared the news on social media and the reactions were in alignment with mine, but more succinct:

  • Bullshit on so many levels. Don’t give him the publicity he craves.
  • “Impossible… I think it’s cheap publicity nothing more.”
  • “This shouldn’t even be ‘news worthy’ until he actually does the deed. Anyone can say they’re going to summit all 8000ers in a single year, but I’d bet money he can’t do it.”

Yet as of the end of July 2019, he has already made history by completing 11 of his objectives with only Cho Oyu, Shishpangma, and Manaslu remaining.

So who is this guy?

First of all, the thing he is actually most famous for is the May 23rd photo of the conga line of climbers heading to the top of Everest. Yes, it was from Purja’s Instagram account. He had already embarked on his journey, which he calls “Project Possible 14/7.”

Purja is Nepalise and served from 2002 through 2018 in the British military through the Brigade of Gurkhas and later in Royal Navy’s Special Boat Teams. During that time he became a member of the Most Excellent Order of British Empire, as the MBE after his social media handles indicate. (MBE is not knighthood; there are higher orders which are knights.)

Based on Purja’s Project Possible, he is an excellent logistical planner, and has a strong will. It appears to have drawn some significant resources including his lead sponsor, Bremont, a luxury watch maker. He is also supported by four experienced Sherpas. Jeff Moag talks about his team on their K2 push — and it really was sheer will and muscle — that got them to the top this season, possibly making rather than breaking Purja’s Project Possible 14/7.

What Purja has done to date has already been historic. The previous speed record was by Kim Chang-ho of South Korea at seven years 10 months and 6 days. He finished in 2013. The previous record to that was by Jerzy Kukuczka in 1987 after seven years 11 months and 14 days. His approach is innovative in concept, though not fitness or technology. Climbers have reached base camps by helicopter before. Mountaineers have climbed multiple 8,000ers in a single trip, though usually within the same expeditionary trip. Doing them all has surprised many, including me.

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How Free Soloists Die According to Alex Honnold

The Valley of Light. (All rights reserved)

I just finished my written review of The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life by Mark Synnott and published by Dutton in March 2019. The “big” review won’t be published until sometime after May 8th. That’s okay. There is plenty of stuff to share that didn’t fit into the 800-word limit.

One thing I had to share from Synnott’s book was how Honnold views the risk of death from free soloing. (Synnott calls this Honnold’s “homegrown statistic.”) According to Honnold, Synnot writes, “no free soloist has ever fallen while pushing his limits.”

Synnott quotes Honnold: “It doesn’t seem to be the way that people die.”

Synnott considered these free soloists from The Impossible Climb:

However, there are two that died free soloing

While this subject was morbid and covered only about a page, the book is still more about life and facing fear and the choices we make.

Go pick up a copy, I definitely recommend it.

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How Do You Follow and Support a SAR Thousands of Miles Away?

Rope team. (All rights reserved)

Since Thursday, February 28th, there has been a search for Danielle Nardi and Tom Ballard on Nanga Parbat. They went missing while attempting a new route up the Mummery Ridge. To date, only a snow-filled tent in an avalanche path around Camp 3, where they were last reported, was found.

It’s hard to know what to do in these situations 7,000 miles away. So I do a lot of things…

I try to follow with interest, hoping their found, perhaps descending a whole other section of the mountain with an incredible story to tell.

I’m also the praying type, so I pray.

Actually, I have more things I try not to do:

I try not to make judgments. (“Oh, they’re gone.”) As long as there is a SAR underway, I try to stay positive. Because, what do I know. I’m not there. It’s on the other side of the earth.

They have friends and family. As Tommy Caldwell says in his book The Push, or Tim Emmet said on the Enormocast recently, only thoughts of how their demise while climbing (or wing-suiting, for Tim) would affect their family gave them serious pause and inched toward heartache. Family lives on and we live with them.

I try not to ignore it. Especially until it is resolved. These things are not trivial current events about a Chinese man-made archipelago or story of a concert on some island. It’s more akin to miner’s stuck in their mine. Except these guys were going for fun, and as professionals, let some of us 7,000-miles away live vicariously.

How do you follow these scenarios? Do they affect you?

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Winter Enchantment and What I Am Reading Now

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What’s on my bed stand March 3, 2019.

Hi, everyone, from a snow covered Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Natalie and I took the kids snowshoeing yesterday. We all looked at these scattered dimples on the snow that looked like little oval shadows scattered across the snow. Droplets of water from melting snow up in the tree branches crashed into those craters. The changing nature of snow from hour to hour is worth pausing for a moment.

Well, I’ve got three things on my bed stand these days:

The Push by Tommy Caldwell (2017) — I am nearing finishing Tommy’s autobiography. (He’s so young, I am sure that there will be a second one day.) The first half answered many questions about Tommy’s life that I followed through bits and pieces in print publications, mostly Climbing magazine, in the early 2000s. He talked about being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan (including the titled push), his marriage with Beth Rodden, and losing his finger. I didn’t realize how early he had been contemplating the route on the Dawn Wall. I’ll do a full review in a few weeks.

Alpinist 65 — Issue 65 just arrived in my mailbox this week. It has an essay by the great David Roberts, art by Sujoy Das, and a feature profile and history of climbing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I only started, but Katie Ives leads off with a fascinating essay that includes a reflection on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Snow Queen. (It reminded me of my early take on the Lion the Witch and Wardrobe; I was drawn to the wintry wonderland of Narnia for the enchanted conditions more than the dramatic saga.) It is on news stands now.

Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul  by Howard Schultz with Joanne Gordan (2011) — I am reading this for myself for my work at Habitat. I don’t go to Starbucks much, especially when there are many great coffee shops in our community, but this book deals with an organization’s core values, and what it means to hold on to them, especially in a crisis. We’ve been revisiting our core values and it has even made me consider what the core values of this blog ought to be.

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The Climbing Legends of Lancaster County

Access Fund logo redo.

Yesterday I had an appointment with a photographer named Vinny from our local newspaper. We met at one of our Habitat houses. Halfway through walking through the house and taking photos, he says to me, “So are you a climber?” He heard I was a from hearsay.

Turns out Vinny climbed at Safe Harbor in the 90s. Safe Harbor is along the Susquehanna River and in the southwest corner of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I had heard of Safe Harbor but hadn’t realized that it was part of the county. It’s a mere thirty minutes from my house.

Vinny said he climbed what he thought was a 5.9 there once. Halfway up it puzzled him. It was hard! He makes the moves, reaches the top and comes down and cleans the route. Another climber complimented him on the 5.11. Vinny said it’s just 5.9. They opened guidebooks; Vinny’s guidebook had a few fewer routes than this guy, and Vinny indeed did climb his first 5.11.

Then he tells me that he saw Eric and Hugh climb there once in a while and that he met them both.

I asked who Eric and Hugh were and explained I am still new to the area and I how I grew up in Buffalo and lived in DC for 15 years. He meant Eric Hörst and Hugh Herr.

I loved Eric Hörst’s books, Training for Climbing and his guidebook to Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. I followed him on Twitter and Facebook for years now. When I moved to Lancaster, it turns out he is the area’s authority on local weather forecasts, based here at Millersville University.

Hugh Herr I just learned about through Chris Kalous and his Enormocast podcast. Shortly after I moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania I unpacked my new lawn mower just delivered, started pushing my lawn mower, and turned up the volume on the Enormocast to listen to episode 148. I actually listed to that episode with Herr twice. But I didn’t know that he was originally from Manheim Township here in Lancaster County.

It just proves the point that the degrees of separation in the climbing community are fewer than most other things in life. Anyway, I am looking forward to hearing some more stories from Vinny next time. We have another impending snow storm coming today so the kids will be home and I still have a bunch of work to hack out. Any concerns; that’s life! Well, and worries are overridden by knowing that there will be snow.

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How to Find the Climbing Books at Your Used Book Sale

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Lionel Terray in the 1952-USA edition of Annapurna.

I get the books my home climbing library needs from online shops like Chessler Books, proper bookstores like Top of the World Books, and used book sales. The used book sales might be a crap shoot, but the victories are consistently the most satisfying.

This month I found my favorite discovery yet: A first-USA edition, of the book-of-the-month club (BOMC) variety, of Annapurna by Maruice Herzog and published by E.P. Dutton in 1952. I love it because it was worthy of a BOMC version and it’s stunning compared to the current paperback edition I bought around 2000, not because it is worth a lot of money, which it’s not. I’m also proud of it because my persistence found it!

The used book sales are my favorite because, well, they’re special events and you have no idea what to expect. You’ll likely walk away empty handed most of the time, but once in a while you will find something worth, well, emailing me about!

By used book sales, I don’t mean used book stores. The used book sales I am talking about are usually once-annual events fundraising for a cause, like the public library. My favorite was the used book sale at Stone Ridge in Bethesda, Maryland, which ended after a 46-year run. It was a huge event and my hunt for climbing books included a search across 40 tables in three gymnasiums. I always came away with something worthwhile, even if it was a duplicate I would give away.

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Hardbound 1952 BOMC edition of Annapurna.

There are four rules I follow for my hunts. These rules are not comprehensive or limiting. They’re just what I do.

  1. Find Charitable Book Sales — I prefer these, not because they support causes, but because they’re annual affairs that collect a lot of books over a year to be sold during just a few blowout days.
  2. Shop on the First Day — The prices are usually the at their peak on the first day but selection will be as good as it gets.
  3. Search in Various Sections — I have not yet been to a used book sale where all the climbing or mountain-related books are in one section. So look everywhere. I start in Sports, and then Travel, followed by Nature, Science, History, and Coffee Table Books.
  4. Have a List — Make a list of books you’ll buy automatically, because you never know. But also keep a list of books you have, especially if you find an old American Alpine Journal. Do you know what issues you already own?

So that first-edition of Annapurna turned up for me because I had already searched through the histories, sports — where I found a paperback by Dee Molenaar, which I also bought — nature, travel, and coffee tables and stopped. My wife called her mother about a book she found and I noticed a science section in the corner I hadn’t noticed earlier. There, standing upright between a book about flowers and a conditioned paperback of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, was Annapurna, blue, hardbound, and elegant.

May you reap what you sow.

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