Climbing, Style and the Speed Evolution.

Is it better to climb new routes, to do hard routes, to explore?

Or better to climb fast, to travel over the earth and up the tallest peaks in the world at previous unknown and unbelievable speeds?

In the past year, Nims Purja has polished off the 14 – 8,000 meter plus peaks in record time.

In many ways, it has been far beyond record time or even concievable time, as he beat the existing record of 7 years, 10 months and 6 days, by over 7 years. The record is now in days, with 189 being the number.

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We have lately been suffused with records:

  • Eliud Kipchoge doing the first sub-two hour marathon. Though now his Nike shoes are under review. If you look at this weekends New York marathon elite men’s start, it is hard to see past Nike’s bright pink and green colors of the runners feet – immediate adoptees of the technology.
  • Roxanne Vogel leaving California, summiting Everest, and back home again in two weeks.
  • Brigid Kosgei breaking the long standing womans’ marathon record in Chicago.
  • Alex Honnald, free soloing El Cap, and then with Tommy Caldwell, gallivanting back up El Cap in a sub two-hour time a year later.
  • There is even the obscure and little known but very speedy, Karl Egloff breaking Killian Jornet’s record and now having the fastest time up Denali  in 7 hours, 40 minutes.

Of course Eliud Kipchoge used those controversial shoes, and ran with pacers. And Nims followed the routes almost all of us use on the 8,000 meter peaks. And he used oxygen, as most of us also do.

Speed and style have always been important in exploration.  You only have to read the accounts of Amundsen and Scott to realize how a much a different approach and the style they did their adventure in makes. Killing your weak dogs and feeding them to the others was all just part of the plan to be first. Stylish, not so sure?

Messner and Habeler celebrated their own 10 hour ascent of the Eiger North Face with Clint Eastwood in Kleine Scheidegg to much acclaim. It was the regular route, in the regular season, there was nothing new about it except their knowledge of the route and their talent. Fast, was good. Fast was celebrated.

For climbers, fast often also feels good. You move quickly, you are up and down, you are totally in the moment of flow through the mountains. It is fun. And can be safer.

As much as we are playing in a very dangerous playground in the mountains, it is the time that can be critical, not the difficulty sometimes. Time is nowhere more important than in the Himalayas. You are often surrounded by danger, storms come and go, often the afternoons create their own little blizzards.

Yet is it fair or noble to have aids in your pursuit of speed?

Nirmal Purja and team
Nirmal Purja, center, and part of his team, Project Possible.

Oxygen has long been controversial amongst elite alpinists, though more and more it is both turned on at lower altitudes and used on more, if not all, of the 8,000 meter peaks.

The numbers summiting Everest without oxygen now is no more than a handful a year, if that. Could Nims have done all the peaks without oxygen – of course, it just would of taken longer and been more difficult.

But that isn’t what he set out to do. He has been both very open and explained his rationale. One could also argue the rescues he undertook, wouldn’t have been possible without the oxygen. Without oxygen you never, ever hang out in the death zone, you just can’t. You certainly wouldn’t be spending much time rescuing people.

Nims also followed the most common routes and sometimes used fixed ropes. Though on peaks like K2, he was out front fixing the ropes, in a season when most everyone else had  gone home.

Does this make it any less heroic? If he was saying he was trying to do something different or ever been less than direct about his style, yes. But he has never done that.

The advantages Nims has had are all self made. From joining the Ghurkas, to moving onto Special Forces, he is obviously a talented and dynamic individual. If he would of started with a spare billion dollars he’d be being criticized for that too.

Anyone who climbs a route fast, from a quick free solo, to a multi-day alpine route, to a big Himalayan peak understands this. First you must have real talent and be very good at what you do. Then and only then you can be fast. How you do it is simply a matter of choice.

Last but perhaps not least, you must be committed beyond sanity to your end goal.

Reinhold Messner and Nirmal Purja
Reinhold Messner and Nirmal Purja. “We talked and within 2 min of talking he said – Nims you will do it. Only those who believe in making the impossible can see this kind of vision – I guess ? It was an honour meeting the living legend of 8000ers and the man who believed in his vision from his heart.”

Messner, interestingly enough, with a purist of the pure approach, was congratulatory of Nims accomplishment. He recognizes it is not all the same game. And different games are allowed.

You can climb new.

You can climb hard.

You can climb fast.

And you can choose the style in which you do this.

They are not better or worse.

They are different ways to challenge ourselves, different ways to move through the mountains, different ways to enjoy and push our lives to new levels.

As climbing evolved, it hasn’t all been about speed. Traditionally there was exploring, doing something new, going where no man had gone before.

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Doing something new, Stephen Venables and I after his return from the summit after the first British Ascent of Everest without oxygen. A new route, a small team, an unclimbed route. One way to climb, certainly not the only way to climb. Photo: Ed Webster

Then, when many classic peaks were done, it was about climbing harder routes. The ridges, the faces, the blanks in between.

Then it was about speed.

Speed has always been important to Alpinists. You are in a dangerous place. The weather can change, the snow can change. The ice and snow can fall down on your head.

The less time you spend  on a mountain, the more likely you are to stay alive. Smart people don’t want to stand around on big mountains with big things hanging over their heads.

And time is also easy for people to comprehend.

Climbing difficulty is almost impossible to relate. Is a 5.12 move done solo on El Cap easier or harder than climbing Lhotse 10 hours after you just did Everest?

Who knows, not relevant. But time comparisons are easy to understand on similar objectives. Time is an absolute.

As we head off for another Antarctic season this year, the interest is not in who will be first, it is all about who will be fast. Yes, there are still crevasses, there will be Katabatic winds, the snow may be deep, the cold may be insufferable. But the challenge is really, after facing all that, ‘how fast can you be?’

Off on a South Pole Solo. Jenny Davis in 2018, and now back in 2019 for an attempt at the women’s fastest time to the South Pole. Photo: Hamish Frost

The Nose on El Cap, sub-two. The marathon, sub-two. The Himalayan 8,000rs, sub-190 days. The South Pole women’s solo record – sub 30 days?

How many days in the previous Himalayan record of 7 years, 10 months, 10 days? How much faster is that?

Fast in the mountains is safer. The truism from one of my first Everest climbing partners, Peter Athans, on our climb on the West Ridge Direct on Everest, was

‘Robert, there are two types of Himalayan climbers, the quick, and the dead.”

Is it better to climb new routes, to climb hard routes, to climb “by fair means.’

Or is it better to climb fast, to move quickly over the earth, to be up down and home while others are still trying to figure out what to put in their pack?

Climbing has alway been about pushing standards, human standards.

It is about what can be accomplished, in high and often dangerous places.

The great thing about climbing is there are really no rules. You can climb what you want, do what you want, in the style you want. As long as you are honest, and Nims is certainly that, you climb in the style you really want to.

Nims played the game of being fast, of being first in an incredible time, and he came out alive, and on top.

Breaking records, boundaries, and even pausing to rescue others along the way.

He did what he set out to do.

He did it how he said he was going to do it.

He did what most of us thought he could never do.

That would seem to deserve celebration.


From 26 October, 2019 – photos, videos and post from Nims ascents to the summits.

“Mission Achieved.” Nims summits Shishipangma today – completing all 14 – 8,000 meter peaks