Kathmandu: In late October 2019, a then obscure soldier-turned-mountaineer who went by the name of Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja stunned the mountaineering world by climbing atop all of the planet Earth’s 14 highest mountain peaks in the shortest span of time—in a multiple records-shattering 190 days. The previous record for the same feat was seven years. What Purja, or Nimsdai as he is also known as, accomplished is the stuff of folklore, and now, a new Netflix documentary feature, titled “14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible,” attempts to chronicle those folklorish ascents.
“14 Peaks”, first of all, is a film about strong willpower and sacrifice. To get into mountaineering, Purja gave up his lucrative job in the British Army. Strangely, Nimsdai changed the course of his career more out of embarrassment than out of passion, as he has said in interviews elsewhere. As a native of Nepal, Nimsdai would get asked if he has ever seen Mount Everest everywhere he went during his service. Having been born in the plains of Chitwan, he had never actually seen it, and it would embarrass him to admit it. In what may have struck as a freak decision to many, Nimsdai set out to overcome that embarrassment and, in the process, he, aided by an enormously competent team, shocked the world.
The documentary manages to capture a lot of that drama and adventure, something that is strangely absent from almost all long-form visual renderings of the people who keep Nepal’s mountaineering industry running. Another similar attempt was portrayed in the film “Kancha Sherpa: Last of the First from the 1953 Conquest of Mt Everest,” which tells the story of a member of the first team to summit Mount Everest. The Netflix documentary, on the other hand, is a first of its kind in terms of reach, branding, and impact.
“14 peaks” is also an attempt to analyze a personality typology that characters like Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja symbolize. In one instance in the film, Purja, a former British Gurkha soldier who later joined the Special Boat Service, a special operations branch of the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom, recalls his boyhood and admits to have never been able to run away from a challenge. Purja’s unceasing desire to go head-on into conflict is what allows him to accomplish feats that most others would dismiss as impossible.
The documentary, while tracing Purja’s life and the people that were most influential to it, also profiles the team members who were an integral part of the expedition team. Mingma “David” Sherpa, Lakpa Dendi, Geljen Sherpa, and Tensi Kasang each bring their unique expertise to the top-tier group of relentless mountaineers. These people, and countless others, are untapped and deserving subjects of many more films, books, and mere celebrations.
The film also acknowledges that Nepali climbers haven’t gotten their deserved share of recognition. It aims to counter the depiction of the Sherpas as fearsome mountain warriors who are also naive, and thus get a raw deal in terms of monetary and celebrity compensation. Purja’s own words demonstrate this, as he passionately opposes the concealment of Nepali mountaineers’ identities by classifying them as Sherpas. These “Sherpas” have names, ancestors, careers, and specialties, and should be addressed and dealt with in the same way that any western climber would be.
Returning to Purja, the film is also about the two women who have had the most influence in his life: his wife and mother. In contrast to Purja’s overarching dreams, his mother, who was battling her own illness until the last moments of Purja’s expeditions, provides solace to Purja on a much more intimate level. His wife, Suchi Purja, is a source of constant support for a man who was said to bite more than he could chew throughout the duration of his project.
It is a shame that Nepalis don’t often get a chance to taste the delight, wonder, and sometimes sheer horror of stories that Purja, his team, and their ilk own. For the Nepali audience, the documentary provides an opportunity to intimately witness their native heroes’ death-defying feats. For Nepali filmmakers, the documentary is an eye opener as to what the cinematic medium has to offer when competent production marries a unique story.