The rise and fall of Nims Purja

Because he identified himself so strongly as a Nepali, the mountaineer’s scandal has hurt Nepal

Nims Purja

When Nirmal (Nims) Purja neared the summit of K2 during the first ever winter ascent of the world’s second tallest peak in Pakistan, he waited for the rest of his all-Nepali team to catch up. 

Then, with arms around each other’s shoulders, they sang Nepal’s national anthem, muffled through their oxygen masks and recorded it on a selfie stick as they walked together to the top with Nepal’s double triangle fluttering in the wind.

In the 2021 Netflix documentary hit 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, Nims starred as himself. He provided hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide a glimpse of the Nepali character: of grit, endurance, sacrifice, and a deep love for his mother and motherland.

Despite British nationality, Nims identified himself closely as a Nepali. And as a scandal erupted last month over allegations of his sexual misconduct in high places, it was Nepal’s international image that was also dented.

Nims Purja is an ex-British Gurkha Special forces commando who saw action in Afghanistan, and shot to global fame in 2019 after climbing all 14 of the world’s eight thousanders in six months and six days.

Now 40, Nims set up the mountaineering company Elite Exped with a VIP clientele that includes the likes of Qatar’s princess Sheikha Asma Al Thani. Nims was about setting the history straight by giving Nepali high altitude guides and porters their due in assisting Western mountaineers attain glory.

Nims Purja had literally and figuratively reached the peak of his climbing career when it all came crashing down. On 31 May, The New York Times published an exposé titled For Female Climbers, Dangers Go Beyond Avalanches and Storms, in which Finnish mountaineer Lotta Hintsa and American physician April Leonardo accused Nims of sexual harassment. 

Nims responded with a 24-hour Instagram story stating he ‘unequivocally denies any wrongdoing’, and accused the Times of leaving out his full statement and critical eyewitness accounts.

Nims Purja

The article did include testimonies by Nim’s guides who gave an alibi to the mountaineer, but it was countered by a statement and screenshots of text messages with timestamps by Leonardo and Hintsa, as Leonardo, in the article, replied with a statement but no physical evidence.

Hintsa was a prospective employee for Elite Exped and Leonardo was his client on K2. Leonardo told the Times, ‘I’m on this crazy climb. He’s my guide. I don’t want to do anything to put myself in jeopardy.’ Both women detail Nims taking advantage of his position during precarious climbs.

Many in the mountaineering community have condemned Nims and expressed support for the women. Some say the allegations are just the tip of the iceberg in a male-dominated field where toxic masculinity is often mistaken for athleticism, and celebrityhood provides immunity against misconduct.

“Hats off to the women who have come forward with their stories, and I hope they will encourage others to speak up too,” German mountaineer Billi Bierling who is director of the Himalayan Database told Nepali Times. “Let’s join hands to make sure that the beautiful environment of the mountains will become a safe place for women again.”

Nims has had other scrapes. He is accused of not paying proper compensation to three people killed in an oxygen cylinder explosion at a storage facility in Kathmandu in 2022. This year, he was hauled over for illegally flying a helicopter to Camp 2 on Everest. There have also been allegations, which Nims has refuted, that he uses his Nepali passport to avoid paying climbing royalties required for a British citizen.

Last month, he created a flutter after claiming that someone was trying to sabotage his expedition by slicing the fixed rope on the summit ridge of Everest. The allegation was refuted, and the government issued a stern press statement saying Nims would be investigated for ‘disseminating misinformation with the intention of getting popularity’.

Since The New York Times story came out, Nims Purja has lost most of his sponsors and there are questions about the future of his outfitting company. 

More scandals

Paul Shah Sandeep Lamichhane
Paul Shah (left) and Sandeep Lamichhane (right)

Nims Purja’s case has raised questions about other fit and famous Nepalis like cricketer Sandeep Lamichhane and actor Paul Shah, both of whom have been accused of raping underage women. The Times article coincided with the Patan High Court acquitting Lamichhane, 23, of rape due to ‘lack of evidence’ a month ahead of the T20 World Cup.

The Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) then promptly lifted its ban on Lamichhane but he tried and failed twice to get a US visa. He could not play in the earlier games of the tournament, but made it to the matches in  the West Indies this week. 

Nepali diaspora fans who flew to St Vincent and the Grenadines gleefully welcomed Lamichhane because most regard him as a key player in Team Nepal. The International Cricket Council (ICC) singled out Lamichhane ahead of the 2018 Cricket World Cup Qualifiers as a player to look out for, and he became the captain of the national team at only 21.

He was taken into judiciary custody in October 2022 for the alleged rape of a minor. He called the accusations defamatory. In January 2023, the Patan High Court let him out on bail on condition he would not leave the country. A month later, the Supreme Court lifted the ban and allowed Lamichanne to participate in the UAE Tri-Nation Series.

Meanwhile the identity of the girl was leaked, subjecting her and the family to online harassment and threats from fans. Many accused the girl of extortion while others were convinced it was consensual. 

In December 2023, the Kathmandu District court found Lamichhane guilty of rape, but not the rape of a minor. It felt that Gaushala-26 (code name) lied about her age. The court dismissed school reports showing she was 17, and took her birth certificate stating she was 18 at the time as authentic.

In May 2024, Lamichhane’s lawyers appealed at the Patan High Court which overturned the earlier verdict, clearing the way for him to play in the current World Cup.

Lamichanne now stands cleared of all charges. His participation in the team, and Nepal’s better than expected performance at the games has overshadowed the debate about his hasty acquittal. 

Many cheerleaders on social media platforms support Lamichhane and trolled those who say this is a clear case of justice taking a backseat in favour of national glory.

Another celebrity to be charged for molestation of a minor and who served time only to be mysteriously acquitted is actor Paul Shah. Much like Lamichanne's supporters, Shah’s fans trolled his accuser. Shah is now back shooting one film after another while co-stars sing praises of him.  

While MP Rajendra Bajgain called on banning Puja from the country, for tarnishing Nepal's image and making the Himalayas a safe place for women again, the development of Lamichhane and Shah's case show the bleak reality of the preservation of national image at the face of justice.