Adventure Reviews

‘Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks - My Life in the Death Zone’ review: No shortcuts to the top

“Climb every mountain, search high and low/…Follow every rainbow, till you find your dream.” It is unlikely that Nimsdai Purja would have grown up listening to this song from The Sound of Music during a childhood which was happy but without much money.

Yet the mountains beckoned and climbing peaks in record-breaking time became his life’s sole mission. He spent much of 2019 scaling 14 of the world’s highest peaks in Nepal, his homeland, and in Pakistan and Tibet. He chronicles his journey of six months and six days in Beyond Possible which should be read not only to learn the ropes that takes one to a summit, but also perhaps as a management lesson on how to overcome every obstacle that comes between a man and his mission.

Purja moved to England as a young, trainee Gurkha soldier to serve with the British Armed Forces, and went through a gruelling selection process. “In the face of my toughest challenge yet... I was malleable.” This attitude served him well throughout his climbs.

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Eye on ascent

Joining the military was an end to a means. For, he did not lose sight of his dream and focussed on opportunities available within the services and the “highly specialised climbing courses” although he acknowledges that his military commitments overshadowed any personal ambition. So he embarked on his endeavour to scale the world’s highest peaks on a shoestring budget and a squeezed leave. Solo.

On his way up Everest, he was diagnosed with a medical condition that would have made most give up. He admitted his mistakes, lack of experience and then resumed his ascent with a sherpa. He succeeded in his mission, even rescuing a mountaineer left there to die by her team mates.

“When it comes to the high peaks, Dhaulagiri had previously taught me that there is a thin line separating success from failure, as there is in battle, but I’d naively believed, that my military training, plus the lessons learned elsewhere in the mountains, would guide me through any knife-edge judgment call on Everest... I had been wrong. The divide existing between good and bad decisions during war was even narrower in mountaineering, because the extremes in life were so dramatic on 8000-metre peaks,” he writes.

He quit his job at 35, as leave for completing his mission which involved peaks in Pakistan and Tibet was not sanctioned by the high command. Bereft of a pensionable service and more importantly at that juncture without any funds to complete his mission, he gave it a name: Project Possible. His aim was to shave off seven years from the world record of climbing 14 peaks above 8,000 metres. He does live to tell the world his story and ends the book with eight valuable life-lessons that kept him going. If there is a quibble, it is a minor one — the free use of four-letter expletives throughout is irritating. It is okay to mouth them amidst such extremities, but when did it become the norm to print them too?

Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks — My Life in the Death Zone; Nimsdai Purja, Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette India, ₹699.

The reviewer is an independent Kolkata-based journalist.

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