This weekend we’re watching: A motivational documentary on climbing, humility and dream chasing
‘14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible’ follows five Nepali mountaineers’ absurdly ambitious expedition to climb the 14 tallest mountains on Earth in seven months.
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible
Over the past few years there has been a boom of interest in climbing – both mountaineering and bouldering. In 2020, sport climbing made its medal debut at the Summer Olympics, and since Free Solo got the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2018, mountaineering documentary has become a popular subgenre.
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible opens with a lone figure hiking through the achingly beautiful, terrifyingly vast landscape of white and grey – jutting rock, blinding snow and swirling clouds. The first words we hear are: “Don’t be afraid to dream big.”
In the film’s opening moments, director Torquil Jones is concisely showing off the draw factors that make climbing films so appealing: the mountains have a mystical quality that transports us; the prospect of danger and conquest is exciting, and the power and magnitude of the tremendous peaks are both humbling and inspiring in that such tiny, delicate creatures as humans are able to reach them.
Nepali-born Nirmal Purja, the subject of this documentary, focuses particularly on that last aspect. Having served as a Gurkha and gone on to become the first in history to be accepted into the United Kingdom Special Forces, Purja is a man of unique determination and extreme ambition.
He’s a gifted and fearless climber with a relentlessly positive attitude that could also easily be construed as recklessness. 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible is the story of how that unwavering self-belief saw him break six climbing world records in the space of a few months.
There are only 14 mountains in the world higher than 8,000m; they’re known within the climbing community as the Eight-thousanders. The first man to have climbed them all was Italian legend Reinhold Messner – it took him 16 years.
Since then, it has been done in seven years, but Purja, in what was considered by most experts to be a ludicrously unrealistic or even impossible quest, set out to summit all of them in seven months! He called this expedition “Mission Possible”.
As soon as Purja’s journey has begun, the mountains start throwing spanners liberally. Each peak is an immensely difficult climb which experienced climbers typically take months to prepare for.
It’s not just the terrifying physical dangers of the cold, wind, avalanches, oxygen rationing and altitude sickness – there are geopolitical concerns, like China’s protectiveness of its Tibetan mountains, and logistical concerns, like the traffic pile-ups of hundreds of people that occur on climbable days on Everest.
Entire films get made about climbers’ attempts at Everest, but Purja summiting the tallest mountain in the world is barely a five-minute footnote on his journey.
For a single climber to summit a mountain competitively in any capacity typically requires a team effort. Several times throughout the film, Purja points out the unethical lack of recognition given to Sherpas, who form the backbone of the mountaineering industry and without whom the most famous and acclaimed Western climbers would not have been able to succeed.
“The climbing community of Nepal have always been the pioneers of Eight-thousanders, but they’ve never got the respect they deserve.”
Over and above the knowledge Nepali people have about their own climate, an altitude specialist explains in the film that many of them, such as Purja, are physically adapted to high altitudes, able to use oxygen more economically. Consequently, Nepal produces a huge number of gifted climbers, and their relative scarcity in climbing history is likely to be due to racial biases.
“Nirmal is representing a new generation of underappreciated and under-recognised Nepali climbers,” says professional climber Jimmy Chin.
Purja describes his capable team of Nepali Sherpas as if gearing up in a heist film: Mingma David Sherpa, Geljen Sherpa, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa and Gesman Tamang.
They seem to do a lot of mucking about for a team attempting to make history. Early on, Purja summits one of the mountains in a single day while hungover, a feat which a perplexed Jimmy Chin aptly describes as completely absurd.
Pretty much everyone interviewed in the film spends most of their screen time talking up Purja’s cheerful, unorthodox approach to climbing, including a grizzled Reinhold Messner. So does Purja, describing himself as “the Usain Bolt of 8,000m”, but it’s clear from the outset that his intentions extend far beyond his ego.
It’s about the climber’s spirit – the will to reach ever greater heights, but not at the cost of kindness. Several times Purja puts his quest and indeed his life on the line to save stranded climbers close to death.
“This is about inspiring the human race,” he proclaims.
While the drama of each climb is carefully extracted and summarised, 14 enormous mountains is a lot to get through, so we don’t end up seeing very much of the climbing itself and the first half of the film feels highly segmented.
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible is slightly overproduced in its simmering adrenaline and positivity. There are near-death experiences animated with varying success, posed hero shots, a score that would slot easily into a Christopher Nolan film and a lot of grand statements and clichéd rhetoric. None of it is particularly damning, but nor is it necessary – Purja’s innate generosity, bravery and determination speak for themselves.
What the climber and his team were able to accomplish in the making of this film is truly inspirational to non-climbers and enthusiasts alike. DM/ML
14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible is available in South Africa on Netflix.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]
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