“It was a crazy idea, but it wasn’t a surprise to me – his brain doesn’t rest at all,” Suchi Purja says in “14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible” of her husband Nirmal “Nims” Purja, a Nepalese mountaineer whose plan to scale 14 mountains all greater than 8000 meters in height may not have fazed his wife but did sneak up on his fellow high-altitude climbers, who could only wonder even if Purja had the ambition to pull off such a feat, whether the elements would line up over the course of seven months to allow for it. Dubbed “Project Possible,” Purja’s earlier conquests of Dhaulagiri and Mount Everest had made him think the Himalayas could be climbed together in three phases and in the spring of 2019, he put together a trusted team of sherpas, climbers and cameramen to reach heights few ever have, though in taking great pains to document his travels, he allows others to see what he could both from the top of the mountain and the strength that comes from within oneself.
Handing over the remarkable footage to the filmmaker Torquil Jones and executive producers Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vaserhelyi, the co-directors behind “Meru” and “The Rescue,” Purja is afforded with a new perspective on his life as well with “14 Peaks,” which presents Project Possible as the culmination of overcoming the odds elsewhere, having been toughened up by his brothers and coming to care for his mother after his father suffered a debilitating heart attack. The snowy summit of Annapurna hardly seems daunting when Purja endured being left in the cold in other ways, eventually coming to seeing service to the British Army as a Gurkha become an opportunity to travel the world and while his unorthodox background made it seem as if he came out of nowhere when he rose to prominence professionally, with friends and fellow climbers such as Chin and Garrett Madison marveling at how quickly he made a name for himself, it instilled not only a confidence that is rare even among those who think nothing of letting their life rest on the strength of a slender rope, but a responsibility to leave no one behind, apt to leave his own climb to help another who has lost the trail.
Still, when Purja will initiate a kegger midway up a mountain, “14 Peaks” reflects his wily personality, lacing the film with narration where he’ll show the sense of humor that’s gotten him through hardship as much as his steely resolve as he’ll jokingly comparing himself to Usain Bolt and take himself far less seriously than his own accomplishments would warrant. That sense of fun was surely in the air when the film recently premiered at DOC NYC in advance of its debut on Netflix and both Purja and Jones took the time to talk about how perhaps the only thing more difficult than committing such extraordinary hikes to film is raising the financing to do it and how navigating weather windows and route conditions on mountains could speak to other obstacles that the mountaineer had already faced with great grace.
How did the two of you join forces on this?
Nirmal Purja: I think that’s probably for Torquil to answer because he went through all this footage. I just had recorded everything I could and it was for him, with his knowledge and his passion, he brought this story to life.
Torquil Jones: I was introduced to Nims via a virtual friend in 2019, and he was halfway through Project Possible. We hit it off straightaway and stayed in touch. Nims very kindly invited me to his house after he finished the project to look through some of the footage that he’d shot and then we started to talk about a film and how the film could possibly structured. The challenge was just trying to fit so much in. You have the 14 Peaks, but you also have Nims’ life story and then there were kind of these deeper motivations for Nims — the relationship with Nims’ mother and then representing the Nepali climbers and telling that story in an original way, because that story has been covered a lot in films before. Doing that through the lens of Nims’ story was something we were really keen to do, so the overriding challenge really was how to fit so much into such a short time frame.
I think we were very aligned from the beginning for what kind of story we wanted to tell and that really was a fast-paced documentary, but one that really had heart and had a real emotional depth. So I came onboard after he filmed the expedition and then it was a case of filming interviews and adding in an additional layer of sources and content to really tell the story of the “14 Peaks” in 90 minutes.
Nims, was it difficult to figure out how to prepare for a shoot like this?
Nirmal Purja: When I was going around in the UK for the fundraising, there were two guys who were the son of the Gurkhas [at] one of the presentations I did and they said, “Nims, we cannot give you the money, but we are like brothers and we don’t have the experience in mountain, but we can come and film you up to the base camp,” so Alit [Gurung] and Sagar [Gurung], those are the boys, they came with us and they filmed all of this stuff until the basecamp of phase one. Anything above base camp was mostly filmed by myself and David and after that, what happened was once we went into the second phase, which was Pakistan, I couldn’t take the guys because in 2011, the Taliban had killed 13 climbers in Nanga Parbat, so I couldn’t take that risk.
On the second phase we had enough money so we could employ Sandro [Gromen-Hayes] to film in the base camp of K2 and after that, we went to the Nepal phase and Sandro came and filmed the whole of K2. The rest of the other mountains were shot by our team, but the most challenging thing for me was I had no funding from the start, so I was doing the fundraising at the same point as I was leading the expedition, and there’s a lot of things happening like [the] rescue is happening, [my] mom’s health is going terrible, and there’s politics involved, so I still have to think about how we can capture those images. It was challenging in every aspect because filming at high altitude is not easy. You struggle to even take the gloves out of your pocket…
Torquil Jones: When I saw the footage for the first time was really the fact that even during these moments that were incredibly challenging, like the rescue missions or being in the middle of a storm, these were the moments where you’d turn the camera off and you’d put it in your bag and you’d try and just survive. But Nims and his team were filming during these moments, [right] up to the summit at altitudes above 8000 meters where it’s just so incredibly difficult to even function, let alone film, choose the right shots, choose the right lenses, choose the right focus points. I don’t think that’s ever been done to this level in another mountaineering film before.
Torquil, was it obvious to add an autobiographical layer to this when the climbs themselves are so compelling?
Torquil Jones: It’s something Nims and I spoke about very early, which was I think for this film to really break out and really connect with people on a global level, the film couldn’t just be a single narrative of the 14 mountains. It had to be a multilayered story, and the extraordinary thing for me is that Nims’ life story is as remarkable as Project Possible or even more so in many ways. To pass the selection for the Gurkhas is a huge thing and to then go from the Gurkhas to the UK Special Forces with the SBS is a history-making thing, and to then give all of that up and sacrifice a career and a pension and to remortgage a house to do an expedition that everyone around the world is saying is impossible, that storyline was equally as important to tell as the 14 Peaks.
It was also great that you really feel Nims’ personality come out in the narration – it’s great to hear his laugh occasionally. What was it like to record?
Torquil Jones: I went down to see Nims and we spent about three days doing audio interviews across three separate days to really get into the detail of each of the 14 summits, but then I think what really struck me and what I was keen to include in the film was all of those laughs and the moments of humor because that is a huge parts of Nims’ character. The worst thing to do for the film would be to dumb that down because sometimes that is what you think about in terms of appealing to the biggest audience, but having that authenticity in the film was really important.
Nims, when this requires you to look back on things, what was it like to reflect?
Nirmal Purja: I’m super happy in how this film has been made and it was cool because in a historical sense, everybody in the world will at least pick up something out of this. We had this incredible thought where when I did the rescue, before I went into the rescue mode, I said to the Alit and Sagar, “Everything I say on the radio has to be recorded,” and the mission happened and it was sudden, but it’s exactly like it’s in the movie – it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can show the world that nothing’s impossible and you can inspire the whole generation, so hopefully we have achieved that through the film.
Torquil Jones: Stories like this have always captured the world’s imagination because they’re about human endeavor, it’s about what the human can do, so having it in so many countries around the world on Netflix, having families and young people view the film, really discovering Nims’ life story and this message that nothing is impossible is really exciting.