Focus on Education March 2021 No.3

In January, Nepalese climber, Nirmal Purja accomplished one of the most coveted achievements in mountaineering – the first winter ascent of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. It is the only one of the 8000s, that is, the 14 mountains in the world over 8000m that has never been climbed in winter. There is good reason, for at 8611m, it is only marginally lower than Mt Everest, but is far more technical, and far more unpredictable in terms of extreme weather.

Near the summit, it is not uncommon for the air temperature to reach – 65⁰C, and winds of hurricane force. Above 8000m climbers enter the death zone, so called because there is so little oxygen in the air that the human body is in a state of continuous deterioration, and where you can only survive for a limited amount of time. There have been six previous attempts to climb K2 in winter, all of which failed, and many considered it an impossible challenge.

Unbelievably, Nirmal is not the most experienced mountaineer, having only started climbing at the age of 29. He grew up in western Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries. He often had no shoes and his family would sometimes walk to a neighbour’s house at the weekend so they could share their television.

His early dream was simple, to join the Gurkha Regiment of the British Army. Every year 28,000 Nepalese men apply for 200 places in this highly respected regiment. Nirmal succeeded in his goal, and after six years, he became the first Gurkha soldier in more than 200 years to pass selection for the elite, Special Boat Service, or SBS.

It was with the SBS that he took up mountaineering and in 2016 he climbed Mt Everest. He repeated his ascent in 2017, before attempting the record for the fastest ascent of all the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks. He called the endeavour ‘Project Possible.’

The record stood at seven years and 10 months. The height gain is equivalent to climbing vertically from sea level to the edge of space. No one believed this was possible and he was even mocked by many seasoned mountaineers. But on the 29th October 2019, he reached the final summit, in a remote region of Tibet, having climbed all the 8000s in an incredible 6 months and 1 week!

At first glance Nirmal’s astonishing achievement seems a solo effort, a phenomenal feat accomplished alone. But it is not, and it required a big team effort. In January, he entered the record books becoming the first person to summit K2 in winter. Upon reaching the summit alongside his fellow climbers, they sang the Nepalese national anthem, and in a statement said“What a journey I am humbled to say that as a team we have summited the magnificent K2 in extreme winter conditions – we have shown that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible.”

So, what are the qualities of a mountaineer and what can we learn from them and apply to our daily lives?

Humility is a quality that stands out in the Sherpa community, and was evident in some of the early mountaineers.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mt Everest on the 29th May 1953, held the Sherpa in high regard. Without the Sherpa, Hillary and Tenzing would not have reached the summit. But, Hillary, Tenzing, and expedition leader, John Hunt embodied humility.

 “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” (Hillary)

 “You cannot be a good mountaineer, however great your ability, unless you are cheerful, and have the spirit of comradeship. Teamwork is key to success, and selfishness only makes a man small.” (Tenzing)

The first British climbers to summit Everest were Doug Scott and Dougal Haston. In the 1975 expedition led by Sir Chris Bonnington, one of Britain’s most successful mountaineers, Scott and Haston followed the much more challenging and previously unclimbed south west face.

Forced to camp the night in a snow hole just below the summit at 8750m, a feat that no climber had ever previously survived, they demonstrated huge resilience when faced with adversity. Scott and Haston’s success, was founded on strong teamwork and the humble approach of the supporting Sherpa. With no mobile or satellite phones, the climbers were cut-off from the outside world. Success relied on the climbers working together, facing uncertainty together, but above all, caring for each other. The Sherpa also recognise that being co-operative rather than competitive is a preferable state for survival in a hostile mountain environment. For Scott, being the first to summit a mountain was not important. What mattered, was the how. He relished the journey, prioritising curiosity, personal responsibility and a willingness to embrace uncertainty.

 John Hunt was asked whether climbing Mt Everest was worth it, and he replied:

“Ultimately, the justification for climbing Everest, if any justification is needed, will lie in the seeking of their Everest’s by others stimulated by this event as we were inspired by others before us.”

As we continue to face the uncertainties in this pandemic, we can look out for each other. We can display humility, resilience, strong teamwork, and we can care for each other. We have the ability to seek out our own Everest’s and conquer them together as a community. A strong community that we are – each and every one of us being an important part of it.

Haec Olim Meminisse Iuvabit

Stay well and safe.

Be kind to yourself and each other.

Dr Bird